Debunking Dewey

This Sunday at church I bumped into an acquaintance just back from traveling across Europe during a semester abroad.  I found myself chatting blithely about his plans for his upcoming school year, his jet lag, and how many amazing, exciting, thrilling experiences he managed to have in only a few short months.  (Pictures of which are now practically spamming my Facebook wall.)  The conversation inevitably lagged (not because of any latent envy on my part, don’t be ridiculous) before he leaned in and said, “So, how’s it going being a librarian? They still, uh, using the Dewey Decimal System over there?”


Though I smiled politely and nodded, acknowledging with the most infinitesimal of smiles his shockingly original joke, what I was really thinking was:

  • What kind of a punk-ass question is that, Euro-snob?
  • How many more times in my professional life will I have to endure this?

Dewey is one of those two things people know about libraries (the other being the quiet).  Har har, I get it, Dewey was a pain in the ass when you had to learn it in elementary school.  And apparently the experience was so scarring that you have to berate it into adulthood.  Yet why am I suffering because of this?  Why does the Dewey question immediately follow when I announce my career choice in conversation?  When did I sign up to be a Dewey therapist for those whose school librarians marched them up and down the numbered rows instead of just telling them where that book on volcanoes for their science project was shelved?

Well, y’all are getting a lesson today, so I can say it once and never say it again.  Dewey is around, and it’s here to stay!  Dewey is a system of classification for library collections (that includes not only books, but other “informational material” as we say in library-speak, which is often so vague as to be almost meaningless).  In 1876, Melvil Dewey published a pamphlet titled A Classification and Subject Index for Cataloging and Arranging the Books and Pamphlets of a Library.  If the creator’s name or persnickety title aren’t clues enough of the nature of the system, I will conspicuously state here that it is a fastidiously organized hierarchical classification.

Which is a fancy way of saying that Dewey may have been a wee bit anal-retentive and that the system organizes information in broad categories with more specific categories nested within them.

But this doesn’t mean the Dewey system is difficult to use, even if it is super old; in fact, even though there are many limitations to Dewey—it is often inflexible, it was created in a time before modern technology, it oppresses certain groups by privileging the white upper-class in its topical headings (e.g. there are many slots for Western languages, literature, religion, and social characteristics, but little to no space for groups that fall outside of these categories).  But it is simply a really good classification system for small collections, like those of public libraries.  (Larger libraries, in universities or government agencies, use the Library of Congress system, which is broader in its anticipation of informational development.)

And Dewey’s not hard to understand, either!  It breaks down into ten major categories, which most libraries will have posted if you desire to wander around for your book of choice.  They are:

  • 000  Computer science, knowledge & systems
  • 100  Philosophy
  • 200  Religion
  • 300  Social Sciences, sociology & anthropology
  • 400  Language
  • 500  Science
  • 600  Technology
  • 700  Arts
  • 800 Literature, rhetoric & criticism
  • 900  History

Obviously within each category are subcategories, which are almost innumerable in their detail.  The decimal numbers you see on your library book’s spine are calculated by catalogers according to the Dewey categories and his accompanying rules for classification (which have been revised several times throughout the last century and a half to adapt with information and libraries).  But let’s lay it to rest once and for all:  Dewey is useful, and Dewey is here to stay!

So quit mocking your librarian friends, or go get a therapist!