I’m sure you are aware that books in a library are arranged in a very specific way, but from my observation post at the Reference Desk, it seems to be a fairly common occurrence that someone will come in the library, look around in a rather confused manner, and then start wandering through the stacks row by row thinking they will be able to somehow spot the book they need out of the thousands and thousands of books here. There is a better way, and it’s not that hard. It’s those numbers on the books, the ones you probably think look weird, intimidating, and incomprehensible. However, take my word for it that with very little effort in understanding those numbers, you can save tremendous amounts of time and open up a world of information for yourself.
Libraries have been around for a long, long time, but a standardized system of library organization is a rather recent development. It used to be that all libraries were different. Some were organized by title, some by author, some by size of book, some by order in which books were received, etc. It was a nightmare of different systems, and in order to use a library, you had to spend a lot of time learning its organization system before you could find anything, and when you went to a different library, you had to start over.
To rectify this situation, along came one of my personal heroes, Melvil Dewey. As a student attending Amherst College, he worked in the college library and started developing an idea for what would become the Dewey Decimal system. When he graduated in 1874, the college hired him to reorganize the library and he got to put his theoretical system into practice. He went on to work in several other large academic libraries and began putting his dream of universal information organization into practice. His vision went beyond academia, however. He was instrumental in the idea of starting public libraries in every city, town, and village across the country. He saw libraries as a great democratizing force, allowing everyone to become educated and informed whether they could afford college or not. He fundamentally changed the nature of libraries forever and greatly impacted education in general. By the way, he created and taught the first Library Science course, but was greatly criticized for allowing women to take the class.
Having been influenced by Dewey, Herbert Putnam created the Library of Congress Classification system in 1897. It was to be used to reorganize the Library of Congress and replace the shelf location system originally developed by Thomas Jefferson.
Both systems are in use here at the University of Montana. The Mansfield Library uses the Dewey Decimal system. The Law Library uses the Library of Congress system. Though slightly different, they have the same basic concept and are similar enough that if you know one, you can easily learn the other. Since most material you need will be in the Law Library, it would make sense to learn Library of Congress first, but there is also a wealth of material at Mansfield Library that will be relevant to your studies at some point, so you should become familiar with it too. You can easily learn the basic system of either in about half an hour, but that half hour will be of tremendous benefit and allow you to access all the information you ever need. If you know both systems, you can walk into any library in the country and find whatever you want very quickly.
Most people consider the creation of the internet as the information revolution, but the creation of those weird little numbers was an information revolution that changed forever accessibility of information and they are as useful and relevant in the age of Google as they ever were. Hats off to Melvil Dewey! He did a great thing for you!