Jacobean Witchcraft Drama in Three Library Classification Schemes: BISAC, DDC and LCC

My professional work often coincides with my scholarly work, which is of course influenced by my personal interests. Here is an example of the examination of witchcraft in a very specific sense in Library Cataloging. (You may or may not find this interesting, but I was pleased with how it came out).



Witchcraft is a topic that can be studied and approached in a variety of ways: it is a religion, an important presence in folkloric, anthropological and sociological studies, and has great relevance in historical contexts. But witchcraft has an important place in Jacobean drama that is separate from these larger topics. In looking at the witch in early modern drama and literature, the witch becomes an important symbol of danger, power and influence. Jacobean audiences were terrified of the witch present in their midst, but had also began to see the witch as a metaphor for many of the things that were wrong in their society. The witch’s power came not from her magic, but from her words and her ability to influence events (DeVoe, 2015). Because of this, the witch as a part of the larger scheme of Jacobean drama is significant and needs to be categorized as an import subject in its own right. This paper will look at how the witch in Jacobean drama is treated in three library classification schemes: Library of Congress Classification (LCC), Dewey Decimal Classification (DCC), and Book Industry Standards and Communications (BISAC) classification.  Given the nature of the topic, the discussion will focus on the relevance and effectiveness of these classification schemes for use in the academic library.

Background and History:

The idea of a woman’s unruly tongue is an important idea in Jacobean and early modern drama. Penny Gay says in her discussion of the unruly woman that: “Any occurrence of evil is seen as disrupting, or rather disobeying, these persuasive rhythms, and a scapegoat figure will usually, in the course of the play’s plot be expelled from the community represented on stage so that at the end we may join in, via our proxies the actors, the dance or feast which signals the communities confidence in its self-ordering” (Gay, 2002, pg. 2). Women and their ability to speak became a major focus of the writing and performance of this era. Women could disrupt the entire community and influence major events that should have been well outside their control. The eponymous three witches in Macbeth are iconic. We are told that they are witches and throughout the play they do very scary, witch-like things, but in the end, the worst thing they do is foretell Macbeth’s destiny. Without their vocalization of the possibilities of his future, would Macbeth ever have attempted to become king? We are led to believe that he would not have done so without the influence of women’s words in his ear. This is a theme that is repeated constantly throughout the drama of the period.

Through these works, the construction of gender relations and social behavior of women in this time period began to show distinct demarcations between “normal” female behavior and the practice of witchcraft. Women who operated outside of society’s strict boundaries became dangerous. Stephanie Irene Spoto points out that “It seems easy to believe that witches were simply the unfortunate victims of a misogynist woman-hunt or of an oppressive patriarchal religion, but to ignore the subcurrents of evidence pointing towards the possibility of witchcraft constructed as an empowering aspiration during the witch-hunts is to ignore the possibility that things stand not in the perfect dichotomy of victim /aggressor or good-guy /bad-guy” (Spoto, 2010, pg. 53). Suddenly, women were not simply creatures that functioned solely as instruments of the men around them. They became both complicated individuals, and threats to social order. When a woman spoke independently, her words had to be defended and proved to be normative and not witchlike (Gay, 2002). This sudden change in the potential of the female heavily influenced many major works of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Law itself was affected by the idea of the witch. Many treatises were written concerning witchcraft, and significant effort was put into writings on how a witch could be identified and then legally dealt with. Numerous pamphlets appeared with news of witches and their interrogations. Much of the reported dialogue of actual interrogations began to appear in drama, lifted for the purpose of commenting on the hierarchy and ruling class of Jacobean society. James I himself was terrified of witches, believing that they had tried to kill him on his passage across the channel. His Demonology was a poor replication of the infamous Malleus Malificarum. Elizabeth I had been a beloved ruler who openly embraced the occult: with James I’s ascension to the throne, his overt fear and hysteria of witchcraft began the first open criticism of the witch trials, which were seen as an analogy for the senseless fear and bloodshed that had been occurring in English society (DeVoe, 2015). By showing the witch to be a creature worthy of empathy with and pity, writers began to turn this dangerous language back on those who were victimizing both the witch and the lower classes of England.

Classification Schemes:

To look at how this subject is treated in three different library classification schemes, it is first important to clarify subject headings. When examining the subject headings related to the idea of witchcraft in drama during the seventeenth century, we are left with “English drama – 17th century; Witchcraft – Drama” using Library of Congress subject headings. It is important to recognize the necessity of noting “witchcraft” as a key subject heading under the broader subject headings of both “English drama” and the “seventeenth century.” More detailed classifications will be more useful in giving this topic the recognition necessary within these larger schemes.


The BISAC subject headings list was created by the Book Industry Study Group. BISAC “stands for Book Industry Standards and Communications” (Joudrey, Taylor and Miller, 2015, pg. 651). Developed for use by bookstores and the publishing industry, a BISAC subject heading is required by the Online Information Exchange and any item offered by publishers should have one. BISAC has fifty-two broad categories, which each have their own categories under their headings. There are two, three or even four levels of headings or references (Joudrey, Taylor and Miller, 2015, 652). Once a publisher has decided on the main subject heading, that subject heading is used when the item is listed for sale. Sometimes adopted by libraries (mostly public or school libraries), BISAC is seen as being a simple and user friendly classification system (Joudrey, Taylor and Miller, 2015,652).

For this topic, we should look under drama, possibly choosing “DRA003000  DRAMA.” The most appropriate sub-category available is European/English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, with no further breakdown. While this is helpful for shelving the item in the appropriate category to recognize that this is a part of the literary and performative nature of this topic, it doesn’t work particularly well for our purposes of ensuring that witchcraft within Jacobean drama is recognized as a significant category in its own right. If shelved under this category, some other definitive category would need to be added on a case-by-case basis.

Instead of starting at “Drama” as the main category, we could perhaps start with “Literary Collections” as the main subject heading, but then the sub category ends up being the same as the first Drama heading: English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh. Either way, the main idea of this subject is lost. BISAC’s simple categorization loses the important aspects of this topic. While there are some possibilities under religion, the literary aspects are lost there and only the religious importance comes out, which loses the focus on women’s speech and social construction.

While BISAC offers simple categorization, it’s too simple for the more in-depth categorization upon which this subject depends. Witchcraft in Jacobean drama is a subcategory of a subcategory and only having national sub-categories does not narrow down the focus sufficiently to determine the finer nuances of this subject. While BISAC may work well for online sales, where greater details and keywords can be added, it does not seem like it would be sufficient for use in an academic library, especially in regards to topics and subjects such as this one, where academics place a much finer definitive break downs of specific topics.

Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC)

The Dewey Decimal Classification system, or DDC, is one of the oldest and most recognized (as well as most widely used) library classification schemes (Joudrey, Taylor and Miller, 2015, 693). Created by Melvil Dewey, DDC is flexible enough to adapt and create new subjects as they appear. Dewey used decimal notation to represent hierarchical relationships in order to divide subject headings indefinitely. Unlike BISAC, with its simple headings, DDC allows for much more in-depth possibilities within subject headings, allowing specific topics to be categorized in the most appropriate manner.

There are ten main, broad subject classes and from there, each subject is systematically and linearly categorized. DDC recognizes that there is no single class for any given subject, so the primary arrangement is by discipline (Joudrey, Taylor and Miller, 2015, pg 696). So for our purposes, Jacobean witchcraft drama would fall under the main subject heading of “Literature,” or “800” and from there we can build to:

“821– 828, English and English Literatures”

“822 – English Drama.”

From there we should go to 822.3 for “Arts and Literatures for dealing with specific themes and subjects” (OCLC, 2013) or in this case, specifically:

822.3 Drama of Elizabethan period, 1558-1625

Web Dewey tells us that we can go further by going to 822.309 “English drama–1558-1625–history and criticism, . . .”, which allows us to specify a time period and start to pinpoint the cultural and social importance of a special topic within this category and time frame.  Without having a specific book, this is probably as far as we can currently narrow this topic down, but this already puts us well ahead of the subject heading available through BISAC, because we can narrow this topic down as far as we would like to go. By having a decimal place for specific themes, we can ensure that witchcraft is included under the subject heading of Jacobean drama and for these items we can ensure that there is a specific category for shelving and cataloging. While it would still be difficult for a reader to find this specific title on the shelf, it at least allows for more specialized categorization that would place all books under this topic in the same place. Once a reader found the section by knowing how to narrow their search down to this level, this topic would be found gathered in one place.

Library of Congress Classification (LCC)

The Library of Congress Classification system, or LCC, is a system of “authority-controlled, multidisciplinary terminology that is used to represent the topical, geographic, chronological, and form elements of the contents of resources” (Joudrey, Taylor and Miller, 2015, 557). The LCC has been developed using Cutter’s original rules. While many libraries use LCC subject headings, they often supplement the LCC subject headings with Dewey Decimal call numbers in order to get a much more focused subject area on the shelves. Subject headings in LCC are assigned to represent “the aboutness of the work contained within a resource” (Joudrey, Taylor and Miller, 2015, 561). Key concepts of a work are identified and translated into the subject headings. This summarization of the work is indicated by the main subject heading and followed by a string of other subject headings to adequately classify the topic of the work. Since we started with our LCC subject string (English drama – 17th century; Witchcraft – Drama), we can get a clearer picture of the call number.

In LCC we would start with the main class, P – Language and Literature. And then break it down further to PR – English Literature. We would next choose PR 1241-1273 for Drama categories. Or we could choose PR 2199-3195 for English renaissance (1500-1640). We can then add witchcraft and drama as the secondary subject headings to further clarify the topic. When looking up a title that falls within this subject, Three Jacobean Witchcraft Dramas, we get the LCC call number: PR1265 T45 1986. So, so far we have:


English Literature

Drama/English Renaissance



The addition of the secondary category allows us to finally get much closer to actual topic classification that we need to truly represent this category. Because of this, it seems like LCC would be the best classification scheme for the needs of an academic library, where there will be multiple topics that require that next breakdown in category to get at the true essence of the subject of a work. While Jacobean witchcraft drama might be a strange subject for a public or school library, it is fairly typical in showing how many subcategories academic subjects might require. As Collin Higgins points out on his article on the structure of LCC, “The divisions reflect a description of a physical collection, not a coherent epistemic ideology” (Higgins, 2012, pg. 251). LCC is not set up to set a traditional scientific structure of classification: it has the room to flex and bend to ensure that a topic is as widely covered as possible.


In all three classification schemes, it was hard to reach the level of detail necessary to adequately break the topic down as far as it needed to go without highly confusing the matter. While LCC was able to reach the closest of the three, it still had its issues when it came to the actual call number and shelf listing. The subject headings available through LCC got the closest to the subject necessary, but it would still be difficult then to find that topic placed all together on a shelf. Academic libraries require a level of sub-categorization to truly classify subjects of academic works. While public libraries and school libraries need less detailed subject management, academic libraries need to function in a way that helps scholars address rare and harder to find subject headings. Miles and Bergstrom note in their study on classification that: “If participants were unable to make a selection after the initial scan of items, they would hesitate as they struggled to determine how the question might be reclassified to make one of the labels fit” (Miles and Bergstrom, 2009, pg. 19). It seems like each classification scheme requires one to stop and think about how to truly address subject heading issues. While BISAC was never meant for use in the academic library, both DDC and LCC classifications should be able to address the more detailed subjects that come out of academic research.

In the end, the creators of these classification systems tried to create a system that could address needs they could foresee. It would be impossible to create a system that could foresee every potential need: “Enumerative and hierarchical classifications are inherently problematic because knowledge inevitably grows in ways the developers of such schemes could not have predicted” (Higgins, 2012, pg. 255). There are plenty of ways to approach the subject heading of English drama between 1570 and 1640, but it becomes much harder to categorically break it down further than the national identity and the time period of the search. LCC and DDC have both been criticized for their lack of consideration of gender and ethnic issues. In this case, the inability to completely classify witchcraft as a significant part of the Jacobean drama tradition could be seen as a lack of focus on minorities, and as a gender studies issue.

In the end, this particular subject is a sub-category of a sub-category. While LCC and DDC can come close, neither can fully address its major themes directly. BISAC doesn’t even come close. LCC seems to be the best system available for academic libraries. Another approach that might be taken towards this topic would be to find it through the subject heading of Women’s Studies, but when this topic was searched, it didn’t easily yield the required headings either. It seems like all of these classification systems need to address the expansion of subject headings in the directions of minorities, gender studies and other alternative subject classifications.


In looking at how Jacobean Witchcraft drama is treated by three separate library classification schemes, it becomes obvious that none of these classification schemes were fully able to address this subject in a fully appropriate way. While LCC came the closest, the other two were much more difficult to navigate in regards to finding the truly proper niche for this topic under the heading of English Literature Drama. Some of the issues identified seem to have to do with the right tools to address women’s issues specifically within a classification. While LCC was the best of the three, even LCC could stand to be updated with these categories in mind. Witchcraft in Jacobean Drama addresses issues of women’s place in society and their ability to speak up and be heard. None of these classification schemes have the right tools to address these sub-categories.


Corbin, P., Sedge, D., Marston, J., Middleton, T., & Dekker, T. (1986). Three Jacobean

            Witchcraft Plays. Wolfeboro, N.H., USA; Manchester, UK; Manchester University


DeVoe, L.E. (2015). Erichtho’s Mouth: Persuasive Speaking, Sexuality and Magic (Master’s

Thesis). University of New Orleans Theses and Dissertations. Paper 2020.


Gay, P. (2002). As She Likes It: Shakespeare’s Unruly Women. New York; London; Routledge.

Higgins, C. (2012). Library of Congress Classification: Teddy Roosevelt’s World in Numbers?

Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 50(4), 249-262.


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            Classification (Eleventh ed.). Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

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Spoto, S. I.. (2010). Jacobean Witchcraft and Feminine Power. Pacific Coast Philology, 45, 53–

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Umjetnost 46, no. 1: 15-32. Humanities International Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed

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Witchcraft Narratives. Journal of Narrative Theory 42(2), 119-148. Eastern Michigan

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Copyright Lauren DeVoe

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