What’s the ANSCR? Using Unusual Classification Systems for Media Collections

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Several years ago, the Sarah Lawrence College Library switched their video collection from an accession-based classification system to Library of Congress Classification system (LCC), which we use for our books. While it certainly made sense to switch to a subject-based system, and one that matched the rest of our collection, the result was less than ideal. Fiction films are located under PN, which is the LCC class for “literature.” They primarily fall under PN1997 (feature films, split into before 2001 and after) or PN1995.9 (major motion pictures), and then sorted by title.

As a result, we ended up with almost all of our DVDs lumped into a couple of call numbers, with very lengthy strings which are difficult to read or remember. Even worse, the call numbers sorted the DVDs into subjects, only genres. Documentaries fare better, as they do end up in subject-specific call numbers.

LCC call numbers were designed before the existence of library media collections. The music category only has three subdivisions – M for notated music (scores); ML for literature of music (books about music); and MT for musical instruction and study (studies and exercises, music theory, music-appreciation). None of these make sense for sound recordings, unless the sound recording happens to be ABOUT music or designed for instruction or study. It is impossible to have a notated score as a sound recording. Most academic libraries keep closed stacks for sound recordings and use an accession-based system of classification.

When I became a music librarian and observed how much my patrons at Sarah Lawrence rely on the ability to browse items by subject for work or their own enjoyment, I decided to switch our CDs from an accession-based classification to a browsable one. I referred to an excellent book by Mark McKnight, Music Classification Systems, which led me to a little-used system called ANSCR (pronounced “answer”), short for Alpha Numeric System for the Classification of Recordings. ANSCR, created in 1969, is meant for small, browsable sound recording collections – since Sarah Lawrence has less than 7,000 CDs, this seemed ideal for us.

A selection of operas in ANSCR classification

A selection of operas in ANSCR classification

In ANSCR, there are roughly 30 categories. These can be split into four broad areas – music, spoken, sounds, and children’s categories. Some of the larger categories have sub-categories, i.e. orchestral music is subdivided into general orchestral, ballet music, concertos, and symphonies. The rest of the call number utilizes composer/performer name (or country, if world music), and then album title. This means the patron can have an idea of what they are looking for, like Beethoven symphonies, and easily discern which area of the collection this might be in without needing a computer.

Initial challenges created by switching systems included needing additional money for staff time, a student worker, and labels. Plus, I had to create all the call numbers on my own, whereas with Dewey or LCC I could have simply copied the call number from other cataloging. More shelf space is needed for a browsable subject-based classification, and shifting will occasionally need to be done as collections change. In an accession-based system, the newest CDs are placed at the end of the collection, which many patrons liked as it meant they could easily find new acquisitions. This is not replicated with ANSCR, but the creation of a “New Acquisitions” shelf plus the Music Library Tumblr has helped fill the gap.

ANSCR itself has some flaws, such as recordings that contain multiple music genres – it’s not unusual for an album to have both a concerto and a symphony. Or what about the genres that don’t fit into any of the categories? This especially poses problems for 20th/21st century composers. Smaller, non-orchestral contemporary classical ensembles end up being lumped into “chamber music” when there’s nowhere else for them to go, so that section is rather large. Future projects could include subdividing the chamber music section, most likely into ensemble size (trios, quartets, quintets, and then higher).

Despite the flaws, using ANSCR has been beneficial to the patrons here. Even with the heavy workload in the beginning of this process, using an uncommon classification system not only helped to make my own workflows more efficient, but it also aided in the discovery and access of materials to my patrons. Items that were previously little-used now circulate with more frequency. Before, few people realized we had enough recordings for an accordion section, or a band music section. If you are thinking of switching a media collection to a new classification system, I’d suggest doing a little research first instead of defaulting to Dewey or LCC.

Further reading:

So you’re going to library school: A follow-up

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I was surprised (and pleased) to get so much feedback on my post about the future of libraries and the skills and mindset new librarians should be cultivating. I wrote that post as a way to prepare soon-to-be-degreed librarians for the profession, but a lot of commenters pointed out that current librarians might need to hear that message even more. And they’re right. I think my plea for engaged, creative librarians is motivated largely by my fears about how slow-moving the library world has been in the last decade or two.

When I meet library school students, and current librarians, who seem disinterested in learning about library technologies, or who are skeptical about the value of social networking, the semantic web, smart phones, and e-books, I fear for the future of our profession. We are already playing catch-up in so many areas, and we just can’t afford to continue to waffle in the face of technological change.

I wanted to follow up a bit with some more specifics about what kind of technologies new librarians should be familiar with, or at least know a little something about. These are the things that I think could have a massive positive impact for libraries, if (and when?) we figure out how to implement them.

Maybe I’m just influenced by my current research, but I think linked data could have a huge impact on how libraries manage bibliographic records and catalogs. Right now we’re all doing this ridiculous thing wherein we each buy a copy of some very expensive software, and we copy records into our own personal database, so that bibliographic metadata is duplicated over and over and over again in thousands of different places. I think this is silly, and frankly, leads to poorly managed metadata, and way too much overhead in terms of librarian labor. There is big potential for significant change in the way we manage our metadata, but we need people who understand the benefits and the costs, and who are willing to take a chance on something new. Want to know more? Check out W3C Library Linked Data Incubator Group, and the LODLAM blog. There are some really terrific articles on library linked data, if you have access to a database like LISTA. I highly recommend this article, “The Cataloger’s Revenge: Unleashing the Semantic Web,” by Virginia Schlling, for a good overview.

Another significant thing to start paying attention to are changes in scholarly publishing models, especially if you’re interested in academic librarianship. Due to recent changes to requirements for NSF grants, faculty have to start paying a lot more attention to data management, access, and preservation, and libraries are starting to play a huge role here. Researchers in all fields, even the humanities, are going to start generating more and more data, and we can help them manage it. A lot of people are interested in changing scholarly communication models, and libraries can be significant players, but we have to get involved in the conversation. And we have to be knowledgeable about research practices, digital archiving practices, and the technology that can be provide access to research produced by our universities.

It’s become pretty clear that ebooks are here to stay, and that reading is going to shifting more and more into the digital sphere. We have to be ready for that, and we should be working tirelessly to ensure that we aren’t excluded from the publishing and reading spheres. Learn about digitization initiatives like HathiTrust and the Google Books Project, stay up to date on current lending practices for ebooks, and be aware of challenges, both technological and legal, and potential solutions. You might love the smell of books, and hope that your print collections will continue to draw patrons, but you can’t pretend ebooks don’t exist. If you don’t already have some kind of ebook reader, you should. Kindle apps are free! At the very least, you should have some real experience with digital reading practices, because more and more of your patrons will.

There are some very exciting changes on the horizon for libraries, but we have long had a tendency to bury our heads in the sand and continue doing things the same way, because it’s what we know, because we’re intimidated by the scope of change needed and we don’t think we have the money or time to do what has to be done. But the longer we wait, the harder those changes are going to be.

I’m going to step off my soap box now. I’m heartened to hear from so many young librarians (and I’m not talking about age here) who are enthusiastic about the challenges ahead. Good luck to all of you in your job searches and in your sure-to-be-exciting careers in library land. Hopefully I’ll meet some of you at future conferences and library events: Library land is a small place, after all.

WWSBD – What Would Sandy Berman Do?


Librarians carry a social responsibility. In a profession dedicated to providing access to knowledge, storage of materials and the dissemination of information, there must be an outspoken member advocating for change when the accepted system does more harm than good. For the past 35 years, Sanford “Sandy” Berman has been a significant and progressive figure fighting for library users’ right to information. His life and work is an example that a cataloger can do much more than create a bibliographic record. By adhering to his principles, he repeatedly challenged the standards and systems of library science to uncovered deep-rooted problems, inconsistencies, prejudices, and aggressively sought to correct them.

Berman’s 1971 seminal book, Prejudices and Antipathies: A Tract on the LC Subject Head Concerning People challenged the blatant racism, sexism, homophobia and Euro-Christian bias found in the LCSH. He understood that “the work of libraries is directly involved with every aspect of peoples’ lives and cannot be isolated with the library wall” (Dodge and Desirey, 1995, p.45). As a result, he worked tirelessly to advocate the importance of neutral representation of social, political and economic issues within collections and catalogs. As I have argued for in the past on the Desk Set blog, a library’s collection cannot be accessed without a usable catalog. Berman fought to create a catalog that represented its users in their language and in doing so unlocking the doors to the stacks, demystifying collection and putting texts back in the hands of the people.

We celebrate Pride in June to commemorate the Stonewall riots, and in honor of this occasion the Que(e)ry team would like to point out just a few of the queer subject headings Sandy has introduced into the LSCH. Because without his voice, ours might have been lost and our history left out of reach on the shelves!

Anal fisting [proposed] [sh2010010089] — Christian gays [sh 96011052] — Dildos [sh2007007162] — Gay artists [sh 92001225] — Gay authors [sh2003005955] — Gay clergy [sh 89001752] — Gay couples [sh 85061777] — Gay men [sh 85061798] — Gay men in literature [sh 95004286] — Gay rights [sh 94009215] — Gay teachers [sh 93005151] — Gay teenagers [sh 87006903] — Gays [sh 85061795] — Heterosexuality [sh 93008585] — Homophobia [sh 88006552] — Intersex children [sh2007005476] — Intersex people [sh2007003860] — Intersexuality [sh 85060401] — Jewish gays [sh 89003905] — Lesbian mothers [sh 85076155] — Men’s underwear [sh2007000724] — Queer theory [sh2006001835] — Second-wave feminism [sh2008001560] — Sex toys [sh2006001007] — Sexual fantasies [sh 85120734] — Sexual freedom [sh2006004255] — Strap-on-sex [sh2007007163] — Third-wave feminism [sh2008001561] — Transgender people [sh2007003708] — Transgenderism [sh2007003716] — Two-spirit people [sh 95004103] — Zines [sh2005003810]

Que(e)ry is this Friday! Remember, you don’t have to be a queer librarian…you just have to dance with one!!!

and tell us some of your favorite queer subjects headings this week!


Berman, S. (1971). In Prejudices and antipathies: A tract on the LC subject heads concerning people. Metuchen, N.J: Scarecrow Press.

Dodge, C., DeSirey, J., & Berman, S. (1995). Everything you always wanted to know about Sandy Berman but were afraid to ask. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland.

Librarian in the spolight: Molly Tighe

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By Julia Weist, julia@deaccession.org

Welcome to the first of a new recurring column, Librarian in the Spotlight, where twice a month we’ll feature an interview with a librarian or archivist doing interesting or inspiring work!

We begin with Molly Tighe, an Andy Warhol Time Capsules Project Cataloguer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Molly received her MILS, with an Archives and Records Management specialization, from the University of Pittsburgh. Before working as an archivist at Carnegie Mellon University Archives and the Heinz History Center, Molly studied English and History and worked in the floral and construction industries.

How long have you been at the Warhol Museum?

I’ve been here since February 2008, so two years and three months.

What’s a day on the job typically like for you?

A typical day on the job at the Time Capsules Cataloguing Project can involve handling, cataloguing, and describing almost any type of material imaginable. TCs regularly contain paper-based items, like letters, clippings, or books, as well as photographs, audio recordings, and film. TCs also reveal unusual materials and oddities like silverware and napkins stolen from hotels and airlines, foodstuffs like cookies or chocolates, and objects sent by fans in the hope of gaining Andy’s attention (one fan sent a plaster cast of her teeth with an actual tooth embedded). We really never know what we’ll find!

Each box is processed by one of the TC Project Cataloguers; there are two other cataloguers that work on the project with me and we each work on boxes individually. Processing basically consists of opening a TC, sorting the material into series, applying accession numbers, describing each individual object, re-housing materials, and producing a finding aid for each TC. Each TC can contain anywhere from 3 or 4 to over 1200 individual items and student assistants from the University of Pittsburgh’s MLIS program assist in the application of accession numbers and item level description. Eventually, each item will be digitized and item-level access will be available through these surrogates.

Since Warhol planned on selling these TCs as artworks, working with these materials is much like working with an art collection. All items are handled while wearing white cotton cloves and all cataloguers and interns complete training (and an annual refresher) in art handling. Since the TC items are used in exhibitions which sometimes travel, museum registrars must be able to track each individual item by its accession number. In practice, this means that each individual sheet of an 400 sheet, unbound manuscript, for example, must be given a unique number that identifies it both within a TC and in relation to the other manuscript sheets. Finally, since the TCs are artwork, everything is retained indiscriminately; whether gum wrapper or junk mail, Warhol drawing or Ray Johnson mailart, used tissues or decaying chocolate, all TC items receive delicate treatment, quality storage, and thorough description.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever found in a time capsule?

There are so many unusual things in the TCs. I’ve catalogued not only tons of porn, but also a vibrating cock ring! I got a real kick out of a 70s kitchen gadget that can press hard boiled eggs into a cube shape.

But besides the weird stuff, I really like finding items that contribute research into the provenance of Warhol’s work. I’ve found photographs of paintings that weren’t known to exist, receipts that change the creation date of some of his most famous paintings, and thank you notes from patrons whose portraits have never been seen.

One of my absolute favorite findings is a transcript of a conversation between Truman Capote and Robert Livingston that eventually became the first installment of Capote’s column in Interview magazine, “Conversations with Capote. The transcript bore Capote’s handwritten editorial changes and, of course, his edits greatly improved the dialogue. It was a real treat to have evidence of the creative process this literary genius.

Molly with Time Capsules at the Warhol Museum

You work in an info science niche that seems somewhat more impervious to rapid technological change than many other areas of librarianship, such as public or school media.  Still, where do you see our (or your) profession in 10 years or 25 years?

I think museums and archives professionals are just as challenged by the increased user expectation for digitized, full-text, and remote access to collections as are those in other areas of librarianship.  Like our counterparts in public and academic libraries, we are striving to overcome the technological, budgetary, and logistical hurdles to providing access in this manner.  An interesting recent development has been that both museums and archives are increasing releasing summary, or incomplete, collection records into the public forum, instead of publishing only the most thoroughly vetted collection record versions.  Initiatives like those at The Brooklyn Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum also open the door to the collection of user generated content to fill gaps in collection records.

Ultimately, information science professionals, whether they work in a museum, archives, or a library, recognize that the digital files that our users expect require thoughtful planning and constant management to ensure longevity and future renderablity.

Do you have any librarian or archivist heroes?

I really admire Deborah Wyeth, not only for her work on the SAA’s Museum Archives, but also for her discussions of copyright and digitization on the Brooklyn Museum’s blog. Her work is inspiring and her blog discussions are a helpful guide for the museum archive community.

I also highly respect Helen Tibbo at the University of North Carolina for all her work promoting awareness of digital preservation and the continuing management needs of electronic information. With the increasing drive towards making records available electronically, her work emphasizes that stewardship of electronic resources requires planning and management from the point of capture and continuing throughout the digital lifecycle.

Thanks, Molly!

Do you know a unique librarian or archivist?  Nominations are welcome for future Librarian in the Spotlight features!

Information as Difference and Making a Difference


Museums, archives and libraries all contain collections of assets determined to be valuable or useful at a level of degree the institution decides is acceptable for retention, circulation, or preservation. Their holdings reflect years of acquisitions made for the benefit of their unique user groups. In return, the intellectual results from these collections have inspired an ever expanding body of knowledge produced by their patrons. The cycle is relatively simple: collection > access > creation. But, what fuels this cycle? What keeps the perpetual expansion of knowledge in movement? This is not at all easy to answer; however a single element could be at the nucleus: information.

In his paper “Information-as-Thing,” Michael Buckland drew upon the work of early 20th century European Documentalists. Wherein he described their thinking that “objects are not ordinarily documents but become so if they are processed for informational purposes (Buckland, 1991, p. 355).” From the Documentalists point of view, documents are seen “as a generic term to denote informative things” and “include natural objects, artifacts, objects bearing traces of human activities, objects such as models designed to represent ideas, and works of art, as well as texts (Buckland, 1991, p. 355).” He reports the example of an antelope that “would not be a document, but a captured specimen of a newly discovered species that was being studied, described, and exhibited in a zoo would not only have become a document (Buckland, 1991, p. 355).” According to Suzanne Briet, a cataloged antelope is the primary document and all derivative documents are secondary. The example of the antelope brings to light a fundamental principle about information- that any thing (whether a text, a mineral, or a living entity) is not informative information until it is intentionally made useful for “informational purposes” and has made an informative difference.

Taking his cues from cybernetics and Enlightenment philosophy, Gregory Bateson wrote, “what we mean by information—the elementary unit of information—is a difference which makes a difference (Bateson, 1972, p. 459).” With this simple statement, he removes the concept from the thing (or antelope), and perfectly isolates a core principle: that information is a difference.

Information as “a difference which makes a difference” simply explains that characteristic(s) of something expose its respondent to elements which effect the respondent somehow. Through this detection, inevitable relationships form between differences. These relationships are the foundations for systems. As relationships form and are defined within a system, a structure emerges. “Every effective difference denotes a demarcation, a line of classification, and all classification is hierarchic (Bateson, 1972, p. 463).” The demarcation for an “effective difference denotes” its  relationship- a line drawn within the classification. Relationships are the binding connections between differences.

Through a myriad of disparate cataloging standards, the digital data held within libraries, archives and museums is unfortunately rendered inoperable resulting in isolated collections stored within institutional networks. This problem is well documented. What these institutions all have in common however, is the foundation of collection systems built through basic descriptive differences and their relationships. A semantic ontological solution could bridge the inoperable divide that locks cultural heritage collections in their digital silos.

What I have suggested over past few weeks in my posts, is that catalogers are the key to access. After all, without our records, there wouldn’t be a catalog. We understand the delicate differences and relational structures that bind and define our collections. As technology advances, we cannot forget the importance of our role. We must continually develop new methods for achieving better organization and access for the ease of our users…because without users, what use would collections have?

-A. Billey


March Metadata Madness!


Hello catalogers, content strategists, information architects, knowledge organizers, metadata librarians, metadata specialists and all those who love and appreciate our kind of librarianship. December was a busy month and I didn’t post nearly as much as I should have, so the kind folks at Desk Set have invited me back for some March Metadata Madness! Over the coming weeks I will be discussing emerging standards, professional development, and perhaps a special interest or two. I invite you to send questions concerning cataloging, metadata, and all things technical services. But for now, let’s get back to basics.

Whether you call it cataloging or metadata, in principle it’s the same thing. We are generating and recording (whether automatically or manually) some kind of information about an asset, information package, item, whatever you want to call it…some thing in a collection. How the information is captured is all that separates metadata from traditional cataloging, and even that is a thin line. Both rely on structure standards, content standards, and value standards to create their syndetic structures- they just use different standards…and that’s ok.

Rick Block once described, “standards are like toothbrushes, everyone agrees they’re a good thing but nobody wants to use anyone else’s.” Is that such a bad thing? I used to think it it was. I once thought that to provide access to all the collections in the world, we would have to agree on a single standard and single method for interoperability. Well, that just isn’t practical. Experience has shown us that no one standard can capture the unique information required for all kinds of collections.

So then what is most important is continual creation of quality records based on the accepted standards of the time, and the needs of your collection as well as users. To fuel this development we need continual experimentation with new technologies that will enable us work toward descriptive independence and system interoperability. At the latest ASIS&T conference this past November in Vancouver the keynote speaker, Tim Bray, encouraged information professionals to experiment with emerging (open source) technologies to create innovative information systems for their users. He told us to “just do it” – that “…things have changed…you don’t need to know IT to create something useful anymore, you need to know your subject and users.” This is a very reassuring idea to subject specialists, I’m sure.

Bray also said, “The culture of online is epistolary…we are in a golden age of writing…a golden age of archiving and libraries.” If this is true, and I believe it is, what an exciting time to be a librarian! As digital data proliferates, it is our job to provide access to it – through any means necessary. No longer can we be boxed into 15 elements, MARC tags, or meta tags. What I’m describing here hasn’t been developed yet, and what excites me is that it will be our job as catalogers to develop these technologies of organization and access.

-A. Billey


romancing the catalog


Apologies for the delay of my debut blog post here on The Desk Set. I can assure you it’s with very good reason, but I’ll get into that more later. For my first post, I wanted to return to some of the most basic principles of library science- why we do what we do. When I tell people that I’m a librarian, they usually ask if I can recommend a good book. Then I have to explain that I’m not that kind of librarian- I’m a cataloger. That I couldn’t tell you the what the current New York Times best seller, but I could totally reorganize their closet…by color, size or genre.


Many people don’t understand why I choose to be a cataloger. They assume our work is mind-numbing, meticulous, detailed, and monotonous…and yes it can be, but it’s also challenging, creative, relaxing, and powerful.

Charles Ammi Cutter once described in his “Rules,” that library catalogs should function as agents of location, collocation, and recommendation. This means that from the data entered into a catalog, anyone should be able to find the item they are looking for, similar items should be grouped together, and finally it should suggest items if exact information is unknown. To accomplish this, the data input must be carefully and consistently applied through a syndetic structure of descriptive information, access points, and relationships for every asset in the collection.The role of the cataloger in the beautiful library machine is perhaps the most important cog. We define how things are described and provide access to those things through the structures we create. Radical cataloger, Sanford Berman knows this better than anyone B-)


At first catalogs were kept as lists, then books, until finally the 3X5 card. Now in our digital age, the card catalog has become something of near, if not total fetish. There was something comforting in the knowledge that all of a library’s holdings were just a drawer and finger flip away. The system was physical, linear, and simple. Title, name, subject. Paul Otlet sought to catalog all of human knowledge through millions of catalog cards in the 1920s, but even he dreamed of an electronic network of information. Now here we are decades later with our interconnected internet…trapped in maze of digital silos and a muddle of metadata. The possibilities are immeasurable, but we have to rise to this monumental opportunity. We’re not just catalogers anymore…we’re metadata librarians, information architects, content strategists, digital asset managers, digital curators…we design and decide how information is structured and accessed.


Despite all the digital discourse, there isn’t a more satisfying feeling than typing a catalog card. The smell of typewriter grease and ink, the sound of slamming keys, punching the rod hole, and fixing the card into place in its drawer. I always wanted to learn library hand, maybe someday I will.

Over the coming weeks, I will discuss issues of digital preservation, metadata standards, and the joy of cataloging. Please email me with any questions or comments you have. Hope you all had fun at the BiblioBall!

-A.M. Billey