Before the Call Number:   The Pressmark

Scholars working in libraries during the Regency would not have been able to locate the books they were seeking using a card catalog or a call number, since neither had been invented at that time. However, as the number of books increased, librarians did find methods by which to organize their collections and enable them to retrieve the books their patrons were seeking with relative ease. The key to that organization was the pressmark.

How Regency readers found their books . . .

When the recording of information first began, in very early times, there was so little of it that the records were easy to organize and track. But over time, clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, and wax tablets gave way to the codex, the form of book that we know today. Even collections of early books, which were all hand-lettered, were fairly easy to manage, since there were still not that many of them. That began to change when the invention of the moveable-type printing press enabled much faster and wider production of books than was possible when they were hand-written. The change came slowly, since paper was also hand-made and expensive. But by the mid-eighteenth century, parts of the paper-making process had been mechanized, thereby increasing the quantities of paper available.

More paper made it possible to print more books. Rising literacy rates increased the demand and profitability of book publishing. As the number of available books rose, some people came to the conclusion that there were too many books in the world and something needed to be done to stop it. Fortunately, these nay-sayers were in the minority, and the volume of books published continued to increase. Nevertheless, the number of books published prior to the advent of machine-made paper and fully mechanized printing presses was quite small when compared to the number of books published each year in modern times.

In the Middle Ages, when all books were hand-lettered, even the wealthiest book owners might have a library which consisted of no more than twenty or thirty books, and that would have been considered a very large collection. Once the moveable-type printing press began to be disseminated, the wealthiest book collectors might own as many as a hundred books. As the number of books a collector owned increased, most had some kind of cupboard built to house their books. These cupboards usually had shelves and often doors as well, to protect their valuable contents. As was typical with other pieces of furniture used at the time, these cupboards were known as presses, or more specifically, book presses. Because these large furniture pieces were very expensive, their owners maximized their use by storing their books by size, so as not to waste any space in their book presses.

When someone had only a hundred or so books in their library, it was still fairly easy to find a given book in the collection. But over the years, a number of book collectors chose to give their books to the libraries of colleges and universities. These gifts steadily increased the number of books held in these collections to the point that it was no longer a simple thing to find a specific book. Though these libraries had multiple book presses, such large pieces of furniture were still expensive and books were still stored in them by size in order to maximize how many books they could hold. But a way had to be found to enable scholars to find the specific volumes they needed quickly and efficiently. It was also necessary to provide a method by which all these books could be re-shelved when they were no longer needed for study.

The solution to this problem was the pressmark. A modern-day call number is a classification designation for the subject of the book. The pressmark was much more simple, it was the location coordinates for the place the book occupied on a given shelf in a given book press. Each library developed its own pressmark format. Most pressmarks consisted of a combination of Roman numerals, letters and numbers. For example, the pressmark VII K 10 would be assigned to a book in the seventh book press in a library, on the shelf in that press labelled K, and the tenth book on the shelf. As another example, the pressmark 3 D IV indicates the book to which it refers can be found in the third book press, the D shelf, the fourth book on that shelf. To make this system work, the pressmark was usually written on the book, typically inside the front cover, and each book press in a collection was numbered and the shelves in each press assigned a specific letter.

Call numbers and the card catalog we know today would not be invented until the twentieth century, but for centuries before, most libraries kept a list of the books in their collections. They soon got in the habit of noting their pressmark for each book next to its title on their book lists. In most university libraries, only very senior scholars were allowed browsing privileges among the book presses. In most cases, libraries had staff who would retrieve the books requested by their patrons for use in their reading rooms. The patron would give a member of the library staff the title of the book they needed. The staff member would look it up in the library’s book list, find its pressmark, go to that shelf in the correct press and get the book for the patron.

But by the middle of the seventeenth century, there were many wealthy people who owned libraries which consisted of several hundred books. Most of them stored their books by size in their own book presses and a quite a few of them also employed a private librarian who cared for and cataloged their collection. Most of these private librarians also implemented the pressmark method to enable them or their employers to quickly locate a specific book within their collection. Some of these private librarians made up their own pressmark system, but many of them used a system with which they were already familiar, most often that which had been used at the university library where they had studied. By the turn of the nineteenth century, quite a number of private libraries might include one thousand books or even more. The traditional system of shelving books based on size was still common practice and the pressmark method was still the most common means by which to enable book owners to easily locate the books they needed, even in such large collections. The practice was still in use during the Regency, and would continue to be used well into the nineteenth century.

However, the pressmark method of locating books was not restricted to university and large private libraries. Most circulating or lending libraries used it as well. Despite a number of Regency novels I have read in which the hero and heroine encounter one another in the stacks of a lending library, such an encounter was unlikely in the majority of Regency lending libraries. Most lending libraries had a reading room to which their members had access. Typically, only the daily newspapers and the most popular magazines were available in the reading room. Some of the better lending libraries had a few well-finished book presses in their reading rooms, on which patrons might find a few of the most popular novels and other books which were available for lending. But most lending libraries had multiple copies of the most popular books on hand and those were stored in very roughly made book shelves, set very close together, in closed stacks to which the public was not given access. If a patron wanted to borrow a book, they would give the title to one of the lending library’s clerks. The clerk would consult the book list, find the pressmark for a copy of the book which was available, then go into the closed stacks to locate the book and bring it out to their patron.

By the early nineteenth century, some private and university libraries, though still shelving their books by size, were also doing so by subject. For example, in a university library, all the books on Greek literature and history might be shelved in one set of book presses while all the books on Roman history and literature might all be shelved in another set of book presses. The private library in a grand house on a large estate might have all the books on agriculture, animal husbandry and land management shelved together, while books on history, literature or travel would each be shelved within a group of books on the same topic. Even with this more organized plan of shelving books, most substantial libraries still used a pressmark system to facilitate finding specific books.

Despite the fact that book cases were less frequently referred to as book presses by the Regency, the pressmark retained its name. About the middle of the nineteenth century, pressmarks were also sometimes called shelf-marks, but that term was not yet in use during the Regency. The lists of books which the majority of librarians made of the books in their charge were most often called books lists or books catalogs. Those lists were usually in alphabetical order by title, and/or author. Some very thorough librarians may have also created an additional list of their books by the subjects covered in each book case or group of book cases, for cross-reference. However, the use of shelf lists, that is a complete list of every book in a collection by its placement in a specific book case, on a specific shelf, was not implemented until the early twentieth century. During the Regency, when someone wanted to retrieve a book from a large library, they would consult the book list or catalog for that library, in which they would find the pressmark for each book noted. They could then easily go to the appropriate book case, where they would find the book on the specific shelf, in the order enumerated by the pressmark.

Most university and college libraries had book presses or book cases which were clearly labeled with their number, in sequence with all of the other book presses or cases in the library. These numbers were often carved into the upper edge of the case. Some were applied in relief and gilded to make them easier to read from a distance, while others were carved into the wood and then inlaid with brass to ensure both legibility and longevity. At least one academic library was known to have placed busts of noted Greeks on the tops of the book presses which held their books on Greek topics, and busts of noted Romans on the book cases which held their Roman collections. Some scholarly gentlemen did much the same in their own private libraries. In some cases, the name of the person depicted by the bust was added to the pressmarks for that library.

Dear Regency Authors, could you find a use for a pressmark in one of your upcoming stories? For example, instead of the standard accidental encounter between the hero and heroine while one of them is blindly browsing the library shelves of the house in which they are staying, perhaps the heroine, an intelligent and well-educated young woman, is seeking the book list for the library in order to quickly identify its contents and find the pressmark(s) for the book(s) which might interest her. But she is looking in the drawers of the desk in the library and the hero thinks she is rifling through his private papers. Or, mayhap a pressmark is the key to the location of a book which hides a document which proves the heroine’s birthright, or the hero’s ownership of a significant tract of land. But the pressmark is found written in an old letter or journal, perhaps with no clue as to the library to which it refers. Or, it is discovered that the books in the library in which the book was originally located have been sold to another book collector, the villain, perhaps? How is the mystery to be solved and the document found? Then again, could it be that a group of gentlemen, all serving as agents for the Crown, use pressmarks as a means by which to send secret messages to one another? The gentleman sending the message provides a pressmark to a specific book in the library of the town house or country manor where the intended recipient will attend a social event. The fellow with the pressmark will slip away into the library while the event is ongoing and retrieve the message from the specified book. How else might a pressmark or three serve the plot of a Regency story?


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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15 Responses to Before the Call Number:   The Pressmark

  1. Funnily enough I have written a short story about a heroine who applies for a job cataloguing a distant relative’s library using her own system, relying on having one of the few extant gender-ambiguous names, Jocelyn. Naturally she ends up marrying her employer after demonstrating her superior cataloguing system. I wasn’t very specific but I may go back and do a bit of rewriting to mention pressmarks. the story is here

  2. Brilliant, I enjoy your posts about a seemingly unimportant detail immensely. They are always so inspiring – as proven by your own plot bunnies. I love all of them!
    Here’s my try:
    In a lending library, a patron (Sir B.) wants to borrow a book and asks the library’s clerk to bring the book to him. The clerk –rather shy and additionally made nervous by the Sir B.’s rank and haughty behaviour, finds the pressmark, but writes it down with an error in the number. He brings the wrong book. Sir B. is not having a good day, and the failure of the clerk brings out his temper. He is threatening the clerk with all kind of consequences of his incompetence. The library manager appears to find out what is going on. The poor clerk is in trouble.
    At this moment, a lady (Lady C.), who has watched the scene, steps in. She thanks the clerk for bringing out the book she had asked for so quickly. Lady C. then scolds Sir B. for causing such a stir for nothing.
    Sir B. may have many faults, but he admires strength and wit in a woman. He bows to Lady C. and begs her pardon for the misunderstanding. The lady accepts and gracefully dismisses the library manager. With the manager out of earshot, she hands the book back to the clerk, explaining to Sir B. that she had to intervene because she couldn’t approve how he got the poor clerk in trouble for a minor mistake. Sir B. is part furious, part fascinated. While the clerk hurries off to get the right book, Sir B. says he will forgive Lady C.’ interference – on one condition: She has to drive out with him to Hyde Park the next day…
    So this is how tow headstrong characters of a story have met. Now one simply has to figure out a plot leading to a happy end and the taming of the haughty Sir B. by the power of love. I suggest the story line should include many book related topics.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Oh, YUM!!!!!!! I really like that plot bunny!!! Especially a kind lady coming to the rescue of one who is vulnerable to the poor treatment of the upper classes! But it is clear that Sir B. is a good guy underneath, since he does have the good grace to apologize. Even if he does pressure her to drive with him. 😉

      Perhaps Lady C. is a secret scholar, studying some very “masculine” topic. Could it be the same topic in which Sir B is interested, though he, too, hides it from his family and all but a few of his friends? Might Lady C have discovered the critical key to his research, which is only revealed to him once they have come to know and trust one another? So many options!!!

      Thanks for sharing!!!!


    • Anna, I love it! it calls for the sort of witty quote-capping that makes Venetia by Georgette Heyer such fun…. Is Sir B. so arrogant merely because his family disapproves of his scholarship, and it’s a front for his vulnerablity over his interests? or is it just habit because of his upbringing? can he be gently teased into being more human?

  3. K.A. Stark says:

    I just love these posts. I love each and every posting by Regency Redingote! The plot bunnies have me saying “YES YES! That sounds like something I would love to read!” I really enjoy learning about the every day living of the masses as well as the nobility in the Regency and Georgian Era. Amazing. I have a few questions though, and would like to know where to ask so I don’t side track the conversations here. ?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      You are welcome to post your questions in comments to any post, if your questions pertain to a specific post. If you have general questions, you can email me. You will find my email address near the bottom of the right navigation column. I will do my best to answer your questions, if they fall within my area of expertise.



  4. helenajust says:

    What strikes me about these systems is that one would usually have to know a title or author to be able to request a book at the circulating library (and, indeed, in a university library). Browsing would not be possible, so one would rely heavily on word of mouth, or newspaper reviews, to discover books. I hope the circulating libraries would have a good display of new books, and books which they felt their subscribers would like if all the popular books had been borrowed.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I suspect that this system was one of the main reasons that most book publishers included long lists of their most recent books in the backs of nearly all of the books they published. Most also did some newspaper and magazine advertising, typically linking a new book to one that had already done well, such as when Sense & Sensibility was advertised as having been written by the author of Pride and Prejudice. In addition, smart clerks at the lending libraries would pay attention to the types of books their patrons liked so that they could recommend new books to them. For example, if a young lady patron typically read novels from the Minerva Press, the clerk would make it a point to know other titles from that source which were similar to those his patron had read in the past. Or, knowing he had nothing along those lines, might make an effort to bring other, similar books to her attention. The more books a patron borrowed, the more return business (=income) for the lending library, so the clerks had a vested interest in pleasing their patrons. Books displayed in areas open to the public were at risk of theft, so few lending libraries put more than a few books out on open shelves. And word of mouth was extremely powerful at this time. Everyone wanted to read whatever novel was currently considered fashionable, or notorious.

      In terms of research at university libraries, most students would be provided with a bibliography of the standard classics they would be expected to read. Many also studied with one or more professors, who would certainly provide lists of recommended books to their students. Based on what I know of university life at that time, the challenge was getting students to read anything. Few were begging to be let into the library stacks to browse. 😉



      • helenajust says:

        Yes, I’d forgotten those long lists of other titles in the backs of books! It must have been interesting being a clerk at a lending library, rather like being a librarian used to be like until recently. Thank you for your detailed response!

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