Cracking the code….or a brief guide to open-shelf music classmarks

Signalling in Morse code. Public domain.

Classmarks, or as they’re more usually called outside the UL pressmarks or shelf marks, can be a real puzzle. What do they mean? And how do they relate to what you’re trying to find?

Most music classmarks (excluding journals) in the University Library including all open shelf material starts with the letter M, eg M310.a.95.1, so are generally easy to spot amongst other classmarks. UL classmarks can generally be divided into 4 distinct sections separated by full-stops. The first chunk is the class of the book, M310, for instance, is orchestral music, while M557 is for biographies of American musicians.

The letter that follows shows the size of the volume. The biggest size on the open shelves is size a (up to 37 cm), and the smallest is size d (17-21 cm). Even smaller and larger volumes can be found on closed access with tiny size e (16 cm or smaller), and humungous size aa (over 61 cm).

The next section indicates the age of the book. Until recently most classmarks were divided by half century, so “95” in the above volume means that the book was published between 1950-1999. In the twenty-first century it was decided to amend this, so books are now subdivided by decade, hence “200” would mean published between 2000-2009, while our newest books “201” run from 2010-2019.

One of our largest and smallest volumes – Xenakis’ Synaphai for piano and orchestra (MR305.aa.95.1), and an early nineteenth century Almanach chantant (MR290.e.90.9) ; photographed by Sarah Chapman
Copyright Cambridge University Library

The final part of the classmark is the running number and is generally unique to each volume, although there are a few exceptions to this. A set of non-borrowable reference books, for example, will all have the same running number – each volume of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians  in the Anderson Room is placed at MRR.1.60.

The first part of the classmark also gives a clear indication whether the book contains music or is a book about music, so any number below 400, eg M390, is a score or part, but anything above 400, eg M405, is literature about music.

The other important chunk of the classmark to check out, if you’re wondering whether or not a book is borrowable, is the date indicator. Finding space for new acquisitions on South Front is a constant juggling act. Twentieth century music publications are still available on the open shelves, but literature from 1900-1949 is on closed access, most of this however is still borrowable – so a classmark such as M501.c.90.5 can be ordered and borrowed from the Anderson Room, an earlier classmark however such as M501.c.85.5 can be ordered but not borrowed.

A selection of biographies of American musicians ; photographed by Sarah Chapman.

Books that are part of a much larger series don’t follow this pattern of classmarks in quite the same way – the first section and the size remain as usual, but instead of a date component they have a series number. More recent series will always have a”0″ in front of them, for example M501.c.01.1. However some earlier series just had a straight number with no “0” in front. This can often cause confusion, M289.c.75.1 looks as though it should have been published in the eighteenth century, but is actually a modern book that’s part of an ongoing series.

If in doubt ask a librarian. For more information on music classmarks in the UL see our guide to music classmarks.

Most of the closed music classes and the Pendlebury Library‘s collections follow a similar pattern, but that’s for another post……



About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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One Response to Cracking the code….or a brief guide to open-shelf music classmarks

  1. Pingback: Cracking the code – the return | MusiCB3 Blog

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