Dewey Decimal? We Do Not!

Hello readers!

The Dewey Decimal system is the most famous and probably the most commonly-used library classification system in use today. It was invented in 1876 by Melvil Dewey, and is now managed by OCLC, a non-profit library collective.

Briefly, the way it works is every subject is given a number, and from left-to-right the digits become more specific. For example, class 600 is technology, and class 604 is patents, a more-specific topic within technology. If you need even more specific subcategories, you can add numbers to the right of the decimal place.

Who Was Melvil Dewey?

(most of this is cribbed from Wikipedia)

Melvil Dewey, born in 1851, was a librarian and spelling reform advocate - he was born Melville Dewey - who did much to modernize and improve library sciences in the USA. He founded a library supply company, established a traveling library sytem in New York State, was a founding member of the American Library Association (remember this) and, of course, invented the Dewey Decimal System. Outside of work, he was a founder of the Lake Placid Club, a health resort in New York State, and instrumental in bringing the 1932 Olympics there.

He was also a serial sexual harasser, racist, and antisemite. He made sure his library sciences program was open to women - but he also made them submit a headshot. He was notorious for unwanted touching, hugging, and kissing. He was forced to resign from the ALA after harassing four prominent librarians, and settled out of court after being sued by a stenographer he harassed in 1929.

The Lake Placid Club banned Jews and other minority groups, and Dewey personally bought the land surrounding the club to make sure it wasn’t bought by Jews. After complaints, the NY Board of Regents issued a public rebuke to Dewey and he resigned as a result.

But What About the System?

The system is not great either. Dewey based it on the Amherst College library where he was working when he invented it, and the collection there was not a representative sample of subjects, either now or at the time.

The most egregious example is class 200, religion. The Bible gets its own section (220) as does Christianity itself. All told, eight of the ten sections are dedicated to some aspect of Christianity All other religions are given one section (290). Within that section, Judaism gets a number, Zoroastrianism gets a number, and Islam shares a number with Baha’i and Babism. All other religions share a single number, 299.

Within the language section (410) there is a number dedicated to prescriptive linguistics. As a trained linguist myself, I can tell you that trying to tell people how to speak is a bad idea, always classist, and frequently racist. The most popular European languages get a section a piece, but “other languages” are relegated to a single section.

Other parts of it are simply out of date. We don’t need an entire number for “animal husbandry” any more, or for “household furnishings”. Latin doesn’t need an entire section to itself. Fiction books are classified by the language they’re written in, and no further.

What Should We Use Instead?

Well, the Library of Congress system is very popular. But I have a few ideas of my own, some good and some more imaginative. But with Title Reader, you can use any system, or none, and still find your books.

With thanks to my friend Margo Kirzner for the inspiration for this post. Until next time, happy reading!