Thursday, March 14, 2013

Battezzati's Cartollini

Beginning with the first edition of the Dewey Decimal System and Relativ Index, Melvil Dewey includes this intriguing acknowledgment:
Perhaps the most fruitful source of ideas was the Nuovo sistema di Catalogo Bibliografico Generale of Natale Battezzati, of Milan. Certainly he [Dewey] is indebted to this system adopted by the Italian publishers in 1871, though he has copied nothing from it.
It so happens that I did some research on this in the national library in Milan in the mid-1970's and never published what I learned. This blog post makes use of notes and photocopies from that time.

There are a number of puzzling things about Dewey's mention of Battezzati's system. One is that it had little or nothing to do with classification. It was, however, an ingenious card system. The story, in brief, goes like this:

Natale Battezzati was a printer/publisher in Milan from the mid-1800's onward. The publishers had a bi-monthly publication that carried information on new books in print. The publication was used by booksellers and customers to find books of interest. However, unless a bookseller had a perfect memory, looking for a specific book or a book on a specific topic meant combing through numerous back issues of the Bibliografia italiana. Battezzati, a member of the Associazione libreria italiana (the Italian Bookseller's Association) came up with the idea of using reprints of the title pages of books on card stock that could be kept and interfiled as a kind of "books in print" card catalog within each bookstore.

The genius of the card system was that each card had printed on each of three sides:
  1. the name of the publisher 
  2. the name of the author
  3. a subject classification based on Brunet
The cards could also have overprinted a table of contents or a summary of the contents. Each publication was also to be given, in the upper right corner, a number that could be used by the bookstores in ordering.

Thus, the bookseller would receive three copies of the card for each new book, and could create three card files. Battezzati's purpose was to increase sales by making it easier for a bookseller to satisfy the needs of the customer.

So much of this seems familiar to us today: a single "unit" card with multiple headings, a unique numbering system for books ... it's no wonder that Dewey was impressed, but it's still unclear why a reference to the system would be included in all fourteen editions of DDC that Dewey personally oversaw.

Of even greater mystery is a statement by Battezzati in one number of the association's journal that Dewey, sent by his government to the World Exposition in Vienna in 1873, saw the cards demonstrated there. This is probably a mis-interpretation by Battezzati of a letter sent to him by Dewey, since it is highly unlikely that Dewey, at the time a 22-year-old college student, would have been sent to represent the United States at such an event in Europe. It is more likely that Dewey saw the cards in the articles in the Bibliografia italiana, which was held by a few major libraries on the East coast (Dewey was attending Amherst College in 1873), such as the Boston Atheneum. There were other misunderstandings on Battezzati's part, since he referred to Dewey as the secretary of the "Associazione dei Libraj d'America" -- that is, the Association of American Booksellers. 

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