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The Bliss bibliographic classification (BC) is a library classification system that was created by Henry E. Bliss (1870–1955) and published in four volumes between 1940 and 1953. Although originally devised in the United States, it was more commonly adopted by British libraries.[1] A second edition of the system (BC2) has been developed in Britain since 1977.

Origins of the system

Bliss was born in New York in 1870. In 1891, he began work in the library of the College of the City of New York (now City College of the City University of New York).

Bliss had a lifelong interest in the organization, structure and philosophy of knowledge and was very critical of the library classification systems that were available to him. He believed that because the popular Library of Congress system had been designed for a specific library (the Library of Congress) it had no use as a standard system outside that library. He also greatly disliked the Dewey Decimal system.

Bliss wanted a classification system that would provide distinct rules yet still be adaptable to whatever kind of collection a library might have, as different libraries have different needs. His solution was the concept of “alternative location,” in which a particular subject could be put in more than one place, as long as the library made a specific choice and used it consistently.

In 1908 Bliss reclassified 60,000 of his library’s books, and in 1910 he published an article with a rough scheme of his general ideas. But as he continued to develop his system he realized that it was going to be a much larger project than he had anticipated. The first of his four volumes appeared in 1940 (the year he retired) and the last in 1953, two years before his death.

Some of the underlying policies of the BC system were:

  • alternative location
  • brief, concise notation
  • organizing knowledge according to academic expertise
  • subjects moving gradually from topic to topic as they naturally related to one another.


Bliss deliberately avoided the use of the decimal point because of his objection to Dewey's system. Instead he used capital and lower-case letters, numerals, and every typographical symbol available on his extensive and somewhat eccentric typewriter.

In the revised edition (BC2), only capital letters are used, with numerals occasionally used for special purposes. Here is an extract:

HJ        Preventive medicine
. . .
HL        Curative medicine
HLK           Primary care; general practice
HLY           Secondary care, aftercare

Adoption and change

BC was not used by many North American libraries. The system was not without its flaws[vague] (the result of being largely a one-person project), and the layout of Bliss’s text was difficult to read. A few library schools sometimes taught the BC system to their students, but only in a minor way. The failure of the system to catch on in North America was partly because of its internal deficiencies but also because the Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress systems were already well established.

The City College library continued to use Bliss’s system until 1967, when it reluctantly switched to the Library of Congress system. It had become too expensive to train new staff members to use BC, and too expensive to maintain in general. Much of the Bliss stacks remain, however, as no-one has recatalogued the books.

The case was different, however, in Britain. BC proved more popular there and also spread to other English-speaking countries. Part of the reason for its success was that libraries in teachers’ colleges liked the way Bliss had organized the subject areas on teaching and education. By the mid-1950s the system was being used in at least sixty British libraries and in a hundred by the 1970s.

In 1967 the Bliss Classification Association was formed. Its first publication was the Abridged Bliss Classification (ABC), intended for school libraries. In 1977 it began to publish and maintain a much-improved, revised version of Bliss’s system, the Bliss Bibliographic Classification (Second Edition) or BC2. This retains only the broad outlines of Bliss's scheme, replacing most of the detailed notation with a new scheme based on the principles of faceted classification. 15 of approximately 28 volumes of schedules have so far been published.


The top level organisation is:

See also


  1. List of libraries using Bliss Classification.


  • Bliss, Henry E. (1910). A modern classification for libraries, with simple notation, mnemonics, and alternatives. Library Journal 35, 351–358.
  • Bliss, Henry E. (1935). A system of bibliographic classification. New York: H. W. Wilson.
  • Bliss, Henry E. (1940–1953). A bibliographic classification, extended by systematic auxiliary schedules for composite specification (4 volumes). New York: H. W. Wilson.
  • Maltby, Arthur & Gill, Lindy (1979). The case for Bliss. London: Clive Bingley. ISBN 0-85157-290-1.
  • Thomas, Alan R. (1997). Bibliographical classification: the ideas and achievements of Henry E. Bliss. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 25 (1), 51–104.

External links