Yes, that gibberish of letters and numbers on library books actually means something.

Trust me, it’s not as complicated as it looks.

In my observations on different floors of the library, I’ve noticed a pattern regarding the people who actually look at books. In about an hour of sitting and making rounds on each of the floors (3, 4, 5, 6, and 7) I saw two people look at books on the 3rd floor, five people looking at books on the 4th floor, no one on the 5th floor, one person on the 6th floor, and no one on the 7th floor. I found it interesting that more people were looking at books on the 4th floor compared to the other floors — let me explain.

If you’ve ever walked through UMBC’s library, you might notice that each book has a small label with letters and numbers on the spine or cover. These seemingly random letters and numbers are how the books are organized in the library. This organizational method is called the “Library of Congress Classification System” — and it’s not random at all.

I’m going to provide a very brief understanding of how to read call numbers and what they actually mean. If you’d like to read more, you can do so here.

Most people know — or assume — that our library books are organized in alphabetical and numerical order. For example, say I’m looking for the book with the call number “QD31.3 .B455 2012”. As soon as I see the letter “Q” I know this book is on the 3rd floor of the library because according to the signs by the elevators, that’s where call numbers starting with Q are located. From this information, I simply walk through the stacks reciting the alphabet (yes, the song is always stuck in my head), locate the section that says “QD” and look for the appropriate number range that includes “31.3”. From there, I walk down the correct aisle and look for the identical call number — which is further organized alphabetically and numerically. This is how most people find books at the library.

How to read a call number

What some people might not know is that each letter and number not only provides the book’s location, but also correlates to a specific subject.

Each call number starts with a letter (or more) which is then followed by a number. The first letter refers to a topic, the second letter and number refers to a subdivision of that topic, and the letters and numbers following that specify the authors name and/or publication date. Basically, the number starts by referring to a broad topic and then narrows it down.

For example, a book that begins with the letter “Q” in its call number refers to the broad topic of “science”. If you read the call number “QD31.3 .B455 2012”, you already know that “Q” refers to science. If you keep reading, the “QD” narrows science down to chemistry and the number “31.3” refers to general chemistry. Finally, the “.B455” refers to the author and the “2012” is the year the book was punished.

Understanding a call number

You don’t really need to understand the call number to find a book — again all you need to know is the alphabet and how to count. But this information aided me in theorizing why more people looked at books on the 4th floor rather than the other floors. You see, the 4th floor is comprised of books with call numbers that start with the letterP” and this letter specifies books related to “Language and Literature”.

So basically, on the 4th floor you’d find anything from Shakespeare to How to Learn Spanish to the Harry Potter series.

In comparison, the other floors have books on subjects or topics such as psychology, philosophy, religion, history, math, science, the arts, music, social science, geography, education, law, and political science — basically subject areas you’d take a class on or use for references in a research paper.

I wonder if students were more interested in the books on the 4th floor because that’s where most novels are located, whereas the other floors contain books with information that is — arguably — easily found online?

What this research interested me in the most was what types of books people are looking at on the 4th floor — are they novels to read for fun or are they required readings for class? Seeing as a large majority of UMBC is comprised of STEM majors, I wonder whether STEM majors need the science and math books on the 3rd floor for additional reading at all? As a general rule, the library doesn’t keep textbooks required for most classes; however, if you have to analyze Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for English class, you can save yourself a few dollars and find a copy at the library on — you guessed it — the 4th floor.