Charles Ammi Cutter

From New World Encyclopedia

Charles Ammi Cutter (March 14, 1837 – September 6, 1903) is a key figure in the development of library science. Cutter's most significant contribution to the field was the development of the Cutter Expansive Classification system. The system was flexible, yet sufficiently specific, to classify collections regardless of the size of the library. This system influenced the development of the Library of Congress. As part of his work on this system, he developed a system of alphabetic tables used to abbreviate authors' names and generate unique call numbers. This system of numbers ("Cutter numbers") is still used today in libraries.

Cutter was the editor of Library Journal from 1891-1893. One of the most famous articles he wrote was “The Buffalo Public Library in 1983.” In it, he wrote what he thought a library would be like one hundred years in the future. He foresaw many developments including library automation, which has been implemented today. Although he passed away before completing his classification system, Cutter is widely recognized by library and library science communities today.


Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Cutter was appointed assistant librarian of Harvard Divinity School while still a student there. After graduation, Cutter worked as a librarian at Harvard College, where he developed a new form of index catalog which used cards, instead of published volumes, and included an author index and a "classed catalog," or a rudimentary form of subject index.

While working at Harvard’s library, Harvard acquired the collection of Professor Lucke of the University of Gottingen. His collection doubled the size of Harvard’s library. The Library had Charles Cutter and Charles Noyes rewrite the entire catalog to incorporate the new books. Cutter was heavily influenced by the head of cataloging at Harvard, Dr. Ezra Abbot.

In 1868 Cutter accepted a position at the Boston Athenæum library. One of their main goals was to publish a complete dictionary catalog for their collection. The previous librarian and assistants had been working on this when he left. Unfortunately, much of the work was sub par and needed to be redone according to Cutter. This did not sit well with the trustees who wanted to get a catalog published as soon as possible. However, the catalog was published. Cutter was the librarian at the Boston Athenaeum for 25 years.

In 1876, Cutter was hired by the Bureau of Education to help write a report about the state of libraries for the Centennial. Part two of this report was his "Rules for a Dictionary Catalog." He was also the editor of Library Journal from 1891-1893. Of the many articles he wrote during this time, one of the most famous was an article called “The Buffalo Public Library in 1983.” In it, he wrote what he thought a library would be like one hundred years in the future. He spent a lot of time discussing practicalities, such as how the library arranged adequate lighting and controlled moisture in the air to preserve the books. He also talks about a primitive version of interlibrary loan. After he had been at the Athenaeum for a while, a new group of trustees started to emerge. They were not as favorable to Cutter and his reforms, so the relationship soured.

In 1893, Cutter submitted a letter to the trustees that he would not seek to renew his contract at the end of the year. Fortunately for him, there was an opportunity in Northampton, Massachusetts. Judge Charles E. Forbes left a considerable amount of money to the town to start a library, which presented a chance to institute Cutter's ideas from the ground up. He developed a cataloging system called the expansive classification system. Unfortunately, he died in 1903 before he could finish.

It was to have seven levels of classification, each with increasing specificity. Thus small libraries who did not like having to deal with unnecessarily long classification numbers could use lower levels and still be specific enough for their purpose. Larger libraries could use the more specific tables since they needed to be more specific to keep subjects separate. At Forbes, Cutter set up the art and music department and encouraged children of nearby schools to exhibit their art. He also established branch libraries and instituted a traveling library system much like the bookmobile.

Charles Cutter died on September 6, 1903 in Walpole, New Hampshire.

Cutter Expansive Classification

The Cutter Expansive Classification system is a library classification system devised by Charles Ammi Cutter. It uses all letters to designate the top categories of books. This is in contrast to the Dewey Decimal Classification, which uses only numbers, and the Library of Congress classification, which uses a mixture of letters and numbers. The system was the basis for the top categories of the Library of Congress classification.

The Cutter classification, although initially adopted by comparatively few libraries, mostly in New England, has been called one of the most logical and scholarly of American classifications. Its outline served as a basis for the Library of Congress classification, which also took over some of its features. It did not catch on as did Dewey's system because Cutter died before it was completely finished, making no provision for the kind of development necessary as the bounds of knowledge expanded and scholarly emphases changed throughout the twentieth century.

Outline of the Cutter classification

Like the Library of Congress (LC) classification system, texts are organized by subject. Users of Cutter, however, will find the subject headings more general than those of the LC system.

  • A General works (encyclopedias, periodicals, society publications)
  • B–D Philosophy, Psychology, Religion
  • E, F, G Biography, History, Geography and travels
  • H–J, K Social sciences, Law
  • L–T Science and technology
  • U–VS Military, Sports, Recreation
  • VT, VV, W Theatre, Music, Fine arts
  • X Philology (expanded by language)
  • Y Literature (expanded by language, and in English form—e.g., YY is English and American literature, YYP is poetry in English)
  • Z Book arts, Bibliography

Cutter call numbers

Most call numbers in the Cutter classification follow similar conventions. The first line represents the subject, the second the author (and perhaps title), the third and fourth dates of editions, indications of translations, and critical works on particular books or authors. All numbers in the Cutter system are (or should be) shelved as if in decimal order.

Size of volumes is indicated by points (.), pluses (+), or slashes (/ or //).

For some subjects a numerical geographical subdivision follows the classification letters on the first line. The number 83 stands for the United States—hence, F83 is U.S. history, G83 U.S. travel, JU83 U.S. politics, WP83 U.S. painting. Geographical numbers are often further expanded decimally to represent more specific areas, sometimes followed by a capital letter indicating a particular city.

The second line usually represents the author's name by a capital letter plus one or more numbers arranged decimally. This may be followed by the first letter or letters of the title in lower-case, and/or sometimes the letters a,b,c indicating other printings of the same title. When appropriate, the second line may begin with a 'form' number—e.g., 1 stands for history and criticism of a subject, 2 for a bibliography, 5 for a dictionary, 6 for an atlas or maps, 7 for a periodical, 8 for a society or university publication, 9 for a collection of works by different authors.

On the third line a capital Y indicates a work about the author or book represented by the first two lines, and a capital E (for English—other letters are used for other languages) indicates a translation into English. If both criticism and translation apply to a single title, the number expands into four lines.

Cutter Numbers

One of the features adopted by other systems, including Library of Congress, is the Cutter number. It is an alphanumeric device to code text so that it can be arranged in alphabetical order using the least amount of characters. It contains one or two initial letters and Arabic numbers, treated as a decimal. To construct a Cutter number, a cataloger consults a Cutter table as required by the classification rules. Although Cutter numbers are mostly used for coding the names of authors, the system can be used for titles, subjects, geographic areas, and more.


Library communities today remember Charles Ammi Cutter for his classification systems, such as the Cutter Expansive Classification and the Cutter Numbers. Cutter, was also one of the most innovative librarians who pioneered the field of library science. He speculated what the library would be like in one hundred years and envisioned the library not as a warehouse of books and journals, but as a vibrant, inspirational, and interactive environment for research and learning. In 1883, he states in his most famous article, “The Buffalo Public Library in 1983”:

But I have shown you enough for you to see that our library is not a mere cemetery of dead books, but a living power, which supplies amusement for dull times, recreation for the tired, information for the curious, inspires the love of research in youth, and furnishes the materials for it in mature age, enables and induces the scholar not to let his study end with his school days.[1]

Cutter also clearly understood the value of the public library as a free, equal learning space. In the same article, he writes, “There is not an institution in the country more democratic, not one which distributes its benefits more impartially to rich and poor, and not one, I believe, in which there is less taint of corruption and less self-seeking in those who administer it.”[2] Library communities today continue to transform the concept of the library from a warehouse of books to a user-friendly democratic institution.


  1. The Buffalo Public Library in 1983, Wikisource. The text appears here as printed in the Papers and Proceedings of the Sixth General Meeting of the American Library Association, Held at Buffalo, August 14 to 17, 1883. (Boston: Press of Rockwell and Churchill, 1883), 49–55. It was also published in Library Journal (1883): 211–217. Retrieved December 21, 2008.
  2. >The Buffalo Public Library in 1983, Wikisource.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

Books and journals

  • Chan, Lois Mai, Phyllis A. Richmond, and Elaine Svenonius. Theory of Subject Analysis: A Sourcebook. Littleton, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1985. ISBN 9780872874893
  • Cutter, Charles A., and Francis L. Miksa. Charles Ammi Cutter, Library Systematizer. (The Heritage of librarianship series, no. 3.) Littleton, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1977. ISBN 9780872871120
  • Cutter, Charles A., and Kate Emery Jones.Explanation of the Cutter-Sanborn Author Marks (Three Figure Tables). Boston, MA: Library Bureau, 1904.
  • Cutter, Charles A., Paul K. Swanson, and Esther M. Swift. C.A. Cutter's Three-Figure Author Table. Chicopee, MA: Distributed by H.R. Huntting Co, 1969.
  • Cutter, Charles A., W. P. Cutter, Worthington Chauncey Ford, Philip Lee Phillips, and Oscar George Theodore Sonneck. Rules for a Dictionary Catalog..Washington: Govt. Print. Off, 1904.
  • Cutter, W. P. Charles Ammi Cutter. American library pioneers, Arthur E. Bostwick, editor. III. Chicago: American library association, 1931.
  • Miksa, Francis L. Charles Ammi Cutter: Nineteenth-Century Systematizer of Libraries. Thesis—University of Chicago, 1974.
  • Miksa, Francis L. The Subject in the Dictionary Catalog from Cutter to the Present. Chicago: American Library Association, 1983. ISBN 9780838903674
  • State Historical Society of Wisconsin, and Charles A. Cutter. Cutter Classification As Expanded and Used in the Wisconsin State Historical Library. 1931.
  • United States, and Charles A. Cutter. Public Libraries in the United States of America: Their History, Condition & Management. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1971.

Online sources

  • The Buffalo Public Library in 1983, Wikisource, published in Papers and Proceedings of the Sixth General Meeting of the American Library Association, Buffalo, August 14 to 17, 1883. Boston: Press of Rockwell and Churchill, 1883. pp. 49–55. Retrieved December 14, 2008.

External links

All links retrieved December 3, 2023.


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