The good, the bad, and the misshelved | Library call numbers in the movies

When movies gets call numbers right, when they get them wrong, and when they give up

If you’re a regular reader (thank you!), then you’ll be aware that I often mention call numbers in my posts about reel librarians, as books and their call numbers often serve as props and clues to movie plot points. When I spy a call number onscreen, I always look it up to see if it’s accurate, as call numbers can reveal many things. And when movies get it wrong, I have been known to go on a rant… or two… 😉

What’s a call number?

Before I get into any rants, however, let’s make sure we know what we’re talking about. Each book or item in a library has a unique number, commonly known as a “call number,” which essentially serves as an address for the item so it can be located in a library. With books, call numbers usually appear on the spines, so the call number is visible when organized on shelves.

Closeup of Dewey Decimal call numbers | Screenshot from "Dual Spires" Psych episode
Closeup of Dewey Decimal call numbers | Screenshot from “Dual Spires” Psych episode

There are different systems of call numbers, also known as “classification systems.” The most common systems are:

  • The Dewey Decimal system is commonly used in public and school libraries. This call number system, as seen in the photo above, starts off with a combination of numbers, 000s through 900s (10 main categories), to classify non-fiction items by subject.
    • An example of a Dewey Decimal call number would be: 305.20973 T39 (the 300s reveal this book has to do with Social Sciences)
  • The Library of Congress system, or “LC” for short, is commonly used for academic (college and university) libraries and larger collections. This system starts off with a combination of letters and numbers to classify both fiction AND non-fiction items by subject.
    • An example of a Library of Congress call number would be: LB 2395 .C65 1992 (the “L” part reveals it’s in Education)

In my experience, call numbers often get confused with ISBNs (international standard book numbers). ISBNs are unique codes, either 10 or 13 digits, purchased and assigned to books by publishers, whereas call numbers are created and assigned by librarians (more specifically, catalogers). ISBNs are like a book’s DNA while call numbers reveal where the book currently lives. Make sense?

Who cares about call numbers?

You mean outside of librarians and catalogers? EVERYONE SHOULD. Well, all library users… which means EVERYONE, right?! 😉

In all seriousness, call numbers are useful and necessary. It’s how you find items in a library. Period. If you don’t have some kind of organizational system — and that’s all a call number system is — then how do you find anything you’re looking for? (And if you suggest by book cover color, then you can go sit in the corner and think about what you’ve done.)

Here’s a scene in one of my favorite reel librarian movies, Party Girl (1995), that delves into this very question, after she spies a patron randomly (mis)shelving a book:

Librarian Lays Down the Law” video uploaded by evilkingdedede, Standard YouTube license

Below is Mary’s rant in total:

MaryExcuse me? What are you doing? Were you just putting that book away? It looked like you were just putting that book away. I guess you didn’t know we have a system for putting books away here. You know, I’m curious, you were just randomly putting that book on the shelf, is that it? You’ve just given us a great idea. I mean, why are we wasting our time with the Dewey Decimal system, when your system is so much easier? MUCH easier. We’ll just put the books ANYWHERE. Hear that, everybody? Our friend here has given us a great idea. We’ll just put the book ANY DAMN PLACE WE CHOOSE. WE DON’T CARE. Right?! Isn’t that right?

I wish I could play that clip for every library user ever.

When movies get call numbers wrong:

Sometimes, movies get call numbers wrong. And that’s when I get all CAPSY.

Finding Forrester (2000):

In Finding Forrester (2000), the lead character goes to the New York Public Library to search for copies of a classic book. And they get the call numbers ALLLLLLLLLLLL kinds of wrong:

Library catalog results in 'Finding Forrester'"
Library catalog results in ‘Finding Forrester'”

This looks like a pretty typical card catalog screen, especially for that time period. But what is UP with those janky call numbers? D-107424, D-109478, D-783719, etc. Those do not look like any call numbers I’ve ever come across — especially not for a fiction book. They look more like accession numbers to me, which are automatically assigned numbers to items as they are entered into a system. (Archives collections are the only collections I’m aware of that sometimes shelve items by accession numbers. A public library would have a more generic call number for a work of fiction, something like FIC FOR, for “Fiction – Forrester”)

You can read my full analysis of Finding Forrester (2000) here in this 2015 post.

“Dual Spires” episode from Psych (2010):

Technicality — this isn’t from a movie, but rather a TV series episode. But oh, the call number shenanigans in this episode.

Call numbers are not hieroglyphics, Shawn | Screenshot from "Dual Spires" Psych episode
Call numbers are not hieroglyphics, Shawn | Screenshot from “Dual Spires” Psych episode

Allow me to recap from my original post:

So. We have three different call number situations going on in this scene, within a span of 30 seconds:

– Library of Congress call numbers on a row of books behind the librarian

– Dewey Decimal call numbers on a row of books in a standing bookcase

– No call numbers at all on a row of books at the end of a bookcase.

The propmaster for this episode totally messed up. I. Am. Seriously. Displeased. And thank you, reader, for allowing me to rant online about my rage over these call number shenanigans.

You can read my full analysis of this Psych episode here in this 2018 post.

Abandon (2002):

This movie gets call numbers both right AND wrong. Pretty impressive.

In this thriller, college senior Katie (Katie Holmes) is trying to finish her thesis (in the library, natch), when a cop (Benjamin Bratt) starts investigating the disappearance of her ex-boyfriend, Embry (Charlie Hunnam). Then Katie starts seeing Embry again around campus—is she hallucinating, or is he stalking her? She wakes up in one library scene to find a call number scratched into her desk.

Dewey Decimal call numbers in Abandon (2002)
Dewey Decimal call numbers in Abandon (2002)

It’s interesting to note that this is a Dewey Decimal call number, which is an odd choice for a college/university library. Usually, college and university libraries have larger collections and therefore use the Library of Congress (LC) classification system.

So y’all know I had to look up this call number, right? RIGHT. Turns out it’s the call number for Dante’s Inferno (Embry’s last student production was “Trip Hop Inferno” — spooky!). Then I had to look up where this scene was filmed, and it was in a library at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. That then led me to look up the book in the McGill University’s library catalog — and they use the LC classification system, NOT the Dewey Decimal system! So CLEARLY this whole call number sequence in the movie was created just for the film. Odd.

You can read my full analysis of Abandon (2002) here in this 2017 post.

National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets (2007):

In this action adventure sequel, treasure hunter Gates (Nicolas Cage) kinda sorta kidnaps POTUS and gets a clue in return: XY 234786. I immediately knew this was a call number clue, which leads the adventurers to the Library of Congress to track down the “Book of Secrets” referenced in the film’s title.

Library of Congress call number closeups in National Treasure 2 (2007)
Library of Congress call number closeups in National Treasure 2 (2007)

Riley:  Where do we start?

Chase:  XY is the book classification code. Stands for special collections, which means very special books.

Of course the reel librarian/archivist would figure out straight away that it’s a call number!

Note:  The Library of Congress classification system generally follows the alphabet for the first part of its call number combinations, as you can see here, meaning there are potentially 26 major categories of call numbers. However, 5 of the 26 English language letters are not currently used for call number categories, being kept in “reserve” for future use. “X” is one of those letters not currently used for Library of Congress call numbers. (I, O, W, and Y are the other letters not in use.) So it could be possible, theoretically, that the Library of Congress could use the “X” category for secret collections not known to the public.

You can read my full analysis of National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets (2007) here in this 2018 post.

Wet Hot American Summer (2001):

This movie didn’t get it wrong so much as it went rogue with call numbers. It is a comedy, after all. They created their own call numbers for a short library scene:

Call numbers in the library scene from Wet Hot American Summer
Call numbers in the library scene from Wet Hot American Summer

The call numbers highlighted in this scene are also fake — “AS” begins the section on astrophysics call numbers, while “CA DIR” begins the section on camp directing — but I had to laugh out loud at this celluloid call numbering system!

You can read my full analysis of Wet Hot American Summer here in this 2016 post.

The Next Three Days (2010):

In the action thriller The Next Three Days, star Russell Crowe looks up books in an online library catalog. This movie didn’t include call numbers at all but got an ISBN wrong instead.

Here’s what I wrote in my analysis post about this short research scene:

Library catalog record in The Next Three Days (2010)
Library catalog record in The Next Three Days (2010)

That list of results also led him to this (fictitious) title, Over the Walls, with an author’s picture, seen below. Soooooo not accurate, because:

– Library catalog records do not include authors’ pictures, at least none that I’ve seen

– They don’t include info about where an author lives (dude, privacy issues)

– There would definitely be info in the publisher, pub year, and pages fields, or a note indicating that no such info could be found (but that’s really only for rare old books).

– The ISBN listed, 029019745716, is 12 digits, and ISBNs are either 10- or 13-digit numbers. But I still plugged in that number into the ISBN Search database. And yes, there is such a thing as an ISBN Search database. Now you know. 

But hey, it gives Liam Neeson a bit more screen time (hah!), and propels the plot forward for John to meet up with Damon, an ex-convict who has broken out of several prisons. And I totally get why they used an invalid ISBN for the purposes of the film, like they do with fake 555 telephone numbers.

You can read my full analysis of The Next Three Days here in this 2013 post.

When movies get call numbers right:

Sometimes, movies get call numbers right. And that’s when I get a warm glow in my librarian’s heart. 😉

Spotlight (2015):

In this Best Picture Oscar-winning film, Boston Globe reporters do a lot of researching, enlisting the aid of the newspaper’s research team and head librarian, Lisa Tuite.

Print directories in Spotlight (2015)
Print directories in Spotlight (2015)

In the very next scene, we see Lisa again, this time in what must be the print collection of the newspaper library and archives. We get a closeup of the multi-volume Catholic Encyclopedia and paperback copies of the Massachusetts Catholic Directory, all with spine labels of what looks to be Dewey Decimal call numbers in the 200’s. [And that is correct, Class 200 in the Dewey Decimal classification system is about religion. Y’all knew I would doublecheck that, right?!]

You can read my full analysis of Spotlight here in this 2016 post.

WarGames (1983):

In this classic ’80s film, David, a computer whiz (Matthew Broderick), hacks into a computer game system, accidentally starting World War III. Is it a simulation, or a real-life crisis? A library research montage reveals how David discovers the secret password into the computer system.

Library card catalog in WarGames (1983)
Library card catalog in WarGames (1983)
Closeup of card catalog record in WarGames (1983)
Closeup of card catalog record in WarGames (1983)

He then goes back a third time and shuffles through a card catalog drawer to locate a card for Falken’s thesis, as seen below. (More sigh of nostalgia.) Another clue that he’s researching at a college library, because the call number is a Library of Congress (LC) call number, which uses a combination of letters and numbers. (Most public and school libraries use the Dewey Decimal call number system.)

And yes, I totally looked up that call number in WorldCat. The first part of the call number, QA76.9, is spot-on, as that’s in the call number range for computer systems and software. The Qs are for Science, and the QA subclass is for Mathematics. Also, all of the research materials in this film are super-convincing. None of the articles are real — there’s no Stephen W. Falken, of course — but the film’s prop masters used real publications, like Scientific Americanand The Atlantic to add an edge of verisimilitude. Also, somebody studied real library catalog cards, as that is the best faux-library catalog card I’ve ever seen onscreen. Look at all that info!

You can read my full analysis of WarGames here in this 2014 post.

RED (2010):

In this comedy-action film, retired but extremely dangerous (“RED”) agents team up against people trying to kill them. This film also introduces a real-life call number system that was wholly new to me, the Harvard-Yenching classification system created in the late 1920s to catalog Chinese-language materials.

About a half-hour or so into RED (2010), Frank (Bruce Willis) and Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) follow up a lead in New York from a reporter who had been killed. When they question the reporter’s mother, they come across an odd number written on back of a postcard:

Call number clue from RED (2010)
Call number clue from RED (2010)

The next scene cuts to Frank and Sarah outside frosted glass doors that read “Downtown NYC Campus Branch” library. […]

Sarah:  Why are we here again?

Frank:  Because those number on Stephanie Chang’s postcard are actually the call number for a book.

Sarah:  Call numbers start with letters.

Frank:  In Library of Congress, yeah. In Harvard-Yenching, it’s a classification for Asian literature.

Sarah:  How could you possibly know that?

Frank:  [Starts speaking Mandarin]

NOTE:  By the way, the Harvard-Yenching classification system was begun in the late 1920s to catalog Chinese-language materials in the Harvard-Yenching Institute. The Library of Congress (LC) system was not capable at the time of classifying those kinds of materials, so other libraries around the world followed suit by using the Harvard-Yenching system to catalog their own Asian-language collections. Through the 1970s and 1980s, however, the LC system added extensive subject headings for Asian and other languages and literatures, and most U.S. libraries now classify Asian-language materials under the LC system.

You can read my full analysis of RED here in this 2014 post.

In God’s Country (2007):

In this TV movie, mother (Kelly Rowan) living in a polygamous religious community escapes with her children, and they struggle to adjust living “on the outside.”

Library scene from In God's Country (TV, 2007)
Library scene from In God’s Country (TV, 2007)

In one short scene a little over an hour into the TV movie, Judith’s 12-year-old daughter, Alice, visits the school library. Alice wants a book on astronomy in order to teach the names of the stars to her mom. She goes up to the library counter, where the librarian (Agi Gallus) is checking out books to another student.

Librarian:  Can I help you?

Alice:  I’m looking for a book on astronomy.

Librarian:  Astronomy is in the 520’s.


At least the script writers got the Dewey Decimal system right, as this system of classification is the most common for school and public libraries. They also got the 520’s section right, as this is the general call number area for astronomy.

You can read my full analysis of In God’s Country here in this 2014 post.

NOTE:  There is also a scene involving the Astronomy section — one with a decidedly less favorable ending — in UHF (1989) and starring Conan the Librarian. Read all about that scene here in this post.

When movies give up on call numbers:

And sometimes movies just give up on call numbers altogether. And that’s when I roll my eyes. It’s NOT that hard, y’all.

Scream Blacula Scream (1973):

In this sequel to Blacula, an ex-policeman (Don Mitchell) investigates a series of suspicious deaths. The ex-policeman visits a library in one brief scene. I had written before that this film is notable for one of the least convincing library sets on screen, LOL!

Bad library organization-- and no call numbers! -- in Scream Blacula Scream (1973)
Bad library organization– and no call numbers! — in Scream Blacula Scream (1973)

The most notable aspect of the scene is how badly this library is organized. It is obviously a set — all you need are bookcases, books, a chair or two, hand-lettered signs, and a woman in glasses! — but not a very well-thought-out set. The three signs we see on the bookcases are all placed where they hang OVER the books — highly inconvenient for anyone to see or reach the books shelved behind the signs.

Also, the signs that are visible go from “GRAPHICS” to the “OCCULT” to “FICTION.” Huh? What kind of library system or collection is this?! You guessed it — the fake kind! Also, NO CALL NUMBERS on the books!

You can read my full analysis of Scream Blacula Scream here in this 2014 post.

Zodiac (2007):

In this dark, slow-moving film, director David Fincher explores the quest to track down the Zodiac killer and how that quest affects the lives of reporters and investigators. Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a newspaper cartoonist, never gives up in his own investigation and checks out library books to help him crack codes from the killer’s ciphers. The propmaster for the film included real books, which Graysmith reveals all came from libraries — but only SOME of the books in the film include call numbers. I figure the filmmakers didn’t think about call numbers at all.

The first scene involving library books includes no call numbers:

Codes and Ciphers book in a scene from Zodiac (2007) -- that's not a library book copy!
Codes and Ciphers book in a scene from Zodiac (2007) — that’s not a library book copy!

At 52 minutes into this 157-minute film (it’s a really long, slow-paced film, y’all), Graysmith is talking with Avery in a bar about a cipher the Zodiac killer used to write a note to the police, challenging the public to crack his message. Graysmith explains the starting point to figuring out the coded message. (Underlining throughout signifies my own emphasis.)

Avery:  But how do you go from “A” is one, “B” is two to figuring out this whole code?

Graysmith:  Same way I did. You go to the library.

At this point, Graysmith takes out a book from his briefcase, a book entitled The Code Breakers by David Kahn.

He then takes out another book from his briefcase, this one entitled Codes and Ciphers by John Laffin. This book describes another Middle Ages code called the “Zodiac Alphabet.”

NOTE:  Yep, another real book, this one published in 1964. Gotta hand it to the David Fincher team for its research skills. HOWEVER, that team overlooked the detail of including call numbers, because neither one of these books has a call number — and Graysmith clearly states that he got them from a library. A real library book would have a call number on the spine. Back in the 1960s, it was commonplace to strip the paper covers from hardback books, and then either paint on call numbers or otherwise affix typed call numbers onto the spine. But dully colored hardback books would not have cinematic impact, so I suspect the product team just bought first edition copies and didn’t think about call numbers. But librarians do!

In a later scene, Graysmith pulls out several more books, and this scene includes a mixture of books with call numbers and those without:

A mix of books and call numbers in Zodiac (2007)
A mix of books and call numbers in Zodiac (2007)

Graysmith:  Can I show you something? [Takes out books from his briefcase — sound familiar?] I’ve been doing research on the first cipher. Everything an amateur would need to create it can be found in these books. Now, I started thinking that if you can track these books, then maybe you can track the man. So I remember that you thought the Zodiac was military, so I went to every base library and I got a list of every person who’s ever checked out these books, and that’s when I found this.

He then takes out a sheaf of papers and hands them to Toschi. (Side note:  I did notice that at least one of the books below, a thinner tan-colored one, *does* have a call number label on its spine. Hurrah!)

You can read my full analysis of Zodiac here in this 2018 post.

Urban Legend (1998):

In this horror flick, college students keep getting killed off in scenarios based on urban legends. Is there a serial killer on an urban legend killing spree? Early on in the film, Natalie (Alicia Witt) heads off to the college library to research urban legends.

No call numbers on the library books in Urban Legend
No call numbers on the library books in Urban Legend

I also found it HILARIOUS that the prop manager didn’t even bother stocking the shelves with real library books. How can I tell? There are no call numbers on the spines or edges of the books! Strike two.

You can read my full analysis of Urban Legend here in this 2013 post.

The Pit (1981):

In this horror film, twelve year-old Jamie Benjamin (Sammy Snyders), a social outcast, talks to his teddy bear and fantasizes about older women, including the public librarian. He discovers Trogs in a pit deep in the woods, and with Teddy’s help, discovers a way to seek revenge on those who have been mean to him. There are several scenes set in the local public library, including an early scene that reveals Jamie’s obsessions.

Book closeup (with no call number) in The Pit (1981)
Book closeup (with no call number) in The Pit (1981)

Within the first five minutes of the film, Jamie (played by Sammy Snyders) is seen writing sentences on a school blackboard, punishment for bringing in a naughty book. The schoolteacher opens the book, titled Creative Nude Photography, and comes across a page with a nude silhouette that’s been cut out.

Even though the book clearly has NO CALL NUMBER on the spine (the tell-tale clue to differentiate between books in a bookstore vs. a library), the schoolteacher assumes it’s a library book. She also states that she’s sure “Ms. Livingstone can find some way to repair it [the book].”

Librarian:  Hello, Marian. What can I do for you?

Teacher:  I’m returning this. Jamie, one of my little boy borrowed it. There isn’t likely to be any record of it having gone out. Perhaps you could slip it back for me?

Librarian:  I’ll make sure it’s put back on the shelves.

You can read my full analysis of The Pit here in this 2016 post.

Let’s dance!

Let’s end on a positive note, shall we? How about we revisit Party Girl, this time for the awesome dance scene, in which Mary has the “wildest night of [her] existence” figuring out the Dewey Decimal system? So true to life. 😉

Party Girl Library Dance” video uploaded by jehnnamari, Standard YouTube license

This scene makes me smile every time. Carry on, call numbers! 😀

Sources used:

  • Abandon. Dir. Stephen Gaghan. Perf. Katie Holmes, Benjamin Bratt, Charlie Hunnam, Zooey Deschanel. Buena Vista, 2002.
  • “Dual Spires.” Psych. USA Network, Dec. 2010.
  • Finding Forrester. Dir. Gus Van Sant. Perf. Sean Connery, Rob Brown, F. Murray Abraham. Columbia, 2000.
  • In God’s Country (TV movie). Dir. Kelly Rowan. Lifetime Telvision, 2007.
  • National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets. Dir. Jon Turteltaub. Perf. Nicolas Cage, Diane Kruger, Justin Bartha, Jon Voight, Helen Mirren, Ed Harris. Walt Disney, 2007.
  • The Next Three Days. Dir. Paul Haggis. Perf. Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Neeson. Columbia, 1989.
  • The Pit, aka Teddy. Dir. Lew Lehman. Perf. Sammy Snyders, Jeannie Elias, Laura Hollingsworth. Amulet Pictures, 1981.
  • RED. Dir. Robert Schwentke. Perf. Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren. Summit, 2010.
  • Scream Blacula Scream. Dir. Bob Kelljan. Perf. William Marshall, Pam Grier. American International, 1973.
  • Spotlight. Dir. Tom McCarthy. Perf. Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber. First Look, 2015.
  • Urban Legend. Dir. Jim Gillespie. Perf. Alicia Witt, Jared Leto, Rebecca Gayheart, Joshua Jackson. Columbia TriStar, 1998.
  • WarGames. Dir. John Badham. Perf. Matthew Broderick, Ally Sheedy, John Wood, Dabney Coleman. United Artists, 1983.
  • Wet Hot American Summer. Dir. David Wain. Perf. Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Michael Showalter, Paul Rudd. Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 2001.
  • Zodiac. Dir. David Fincher. Perf. Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr. Paramount, 2007.

Author: Jennifer

Librarian, blogger, movie lover

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