The Pettee Classification System
An Introduction to Pettee
Librarians are perhaps the most stereotyped profession of all. Single women with glasses and a bun who show you where the books on dinosaurs are, ssshh! you, and stamp your book. The stereotype often involves a Melvil Dewey joke as if his were the only classification system to be used to organise books.
Some theological libraries (and let’s be honest, some means a few) have eschewed Dewey’s decimal system in favour of Classification of the Library of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York – a classification system prepared by Julia Pettee which she began in the early 20th century and which in its original form, took thirty years to manifest.
Her system is not finished and never will be. Due to its organic nature and the work of a variety of mainly American and Australian devotees, the Pettee system continues to develop as a sometimes eclectic formation but one built on firm foundations.
Pettee determined that what was needed was not another general classification scheme or a classification for theology only but a hybrid scheme to look at the whole world of knowledge from the perspective of the theologian and the student of theology.
She wrote: “In my opinion, a special library is better served by a special classification than by a general classification system. A general classification views the whole field of knowledge, and each portion has equal value with every other portion. But a specialist views the field of knowledge from his own particular angle and selects from this field of knowledge the portions that are useful to him and develops these portions. So I wanted a single, integrated classification scheme adapted to the purposes of theologians.”
The scheme required flexibility so that it could accommodate new divisions of thought. As Pettee repeatedly pointed out, knowledge is not static, and consequently, “there is nothing static about a classification scheme. The way we sort our ideas is constantly changing.”
The work on her scheme took many years and she borrowed from many sources. Miss Pettee explains “The theological sections are quite original but in the sections outside theology for the most part I simply abstracted from the L. C. classification and incorporated these abstracts in my schedule. If you make an entirely new scheme, which I wouldn’t advise, … borrow all you can.”
Thanks to local efforts and enthusiasts, a group called the Pettee Collective has recently begun to meet to discuss new and ever-changing subject matter and how we deal with Pettee’s century old schedules. The space she left for us in her system allows us, in this century, to ponder and we will no doubt debate, what she would have made of technologies, medical innovations, gender issues, postcolonialism, ecotheology, and pandemics. She knew that change would come and she prepared well for it. It is a great honour to be part of her future which is our now.
Butler, Rebecca (2013) ‘The rise and fall of Union Classification’ in Theological Librarianship, Vol. 6, No. 1. January 2013. p 21-28
Call, Elizabeth (3 November 2014). "Organizing the Divine: Julia Pettee and the Union Classification System". Burke Library Blog. Retrieved 20 November, 2019
Pearson, Lennart (2011) Julia Pettee : Librarian : The life and work of Julia Pettee (1872-1967) Clinton, South Carolina, 2011 (Originally prepared for the ATLA Newsletter, 1970)
Pettee, Julia (1911) ‘A Classification for a Theological Library‘ in Library Journal, December 1911. Vol. 36, no. 12, p 611-24
Pettee, Julia (1955) ‘Panel on the Union Classification’ in ATLA Summary of Proceedings, (9) 1955, p 33-39
Pettee, Julia (1931) ‘The library of a theological seminary’ in Special Libraries, November 1931 p 402-406
Raeppel, Josephine E. (1953) ‘Living librarians – III’ in ALA Bulletin, October 1953. Vol. 47, No. 9, p. 417-419
Walker, Christopher H. and Copeland, Ann ‘The eye prophetic : Julia Pettee’ in Libraries & the cultural record, 2009. Vol. 4, no. 2. Women pioneers in the information sciences Part 1. 1900-1950, p 162-182
ANZTLA Additions to the Pettee Classification System
Comissioned in 2022 by the ANZTLA Pettee Collective, The ANZTLA Pettee Additions Database houses new and revised classification numbers created and authorised by the collective for use in addition to the Pettee Classification System.
View the database here: https://www.anztla.org/pettee-additions-database