So, Dewey is a name that gets thrown around in library circles a lot. We talk more about his system of organization than we do about him as a human being because, well, you’ll see…
Like Anne Carroll Moore, he is one of those people who generally has two separate narratives applied to his life, one somewhat laudatory, one much, much, less so. Like I did with our friend, Ms. Moore, I’ll give you both stories, but I don’t think any of us will appreciate him very much as a human being by the time I’m done.
If we were to stick to the narrative of Melville Dewey as library innovator, this is what we’d say: The dude founded the very first library school, the American Library Association, AND the organizational system that many libraries still use today (including JCLS). What’s more, it was through his advocacy that women were admitted to the very first library school, and he fought HARD for women to be admitted. Yay, Dewey, a father of our profession! Right? Well, it’s really not quite so simple. You see….
Melville Dewey was also very famously a serial sexual harasser, a racist, and an antisemite. Now, you might do the thing that many people do and point out that the amount of casual sexual harassment, antisemitism, and racism when he was alive (1851-1931) was rampant and that we can’t judge him by today’s standard. Here’s the thing though: This guy. THIS guy was so virulently all those things that he was considered offensive enough by his peers to be kicked out of the American Library Association (an organization of which he was an officer and which he helped to found) during his own time for being those things. So, yeah, he was not the kind of guy we hold up as a model of library excellence. It also calls into question why, exactly, he fought so hard to have women allowed into his library school program, especially since he required that they supply a photograph of themselves with their application. He never denied any of it and instead chose to justify his harassing behavior by saying things like “pure women would understand my ways.” Also: if he had his way we’d all be spelling everything phonetically. That’s why you see his name spelled different ways (Melville vs. Melvil). At one time he actually spelled his last name “Dui.”
But… we have this system he created. Which is interesting and can be useful, but is not without its flaws. So, here’s a list of things I usually tell non-library people who will stand still long enough to listen to me tell them about the Dewey Decimal system.
- First a basic primer: Dewey’s system divides all knowledge into 10 broad categories (centuries) that are then divided into 10 sub categories (decades) and then extra detail can be included by adding decimal strings to the ends of these broader numbers. Looking for a cookbook? It’s at 641. Looking for a travel book? try the 910s. And so on.
- Most people think about Dewey as the system we use for non-fiction classification BUT
- Plays, graphic novels, and folk & fairy tales are all in the nonfiction section and are most often works of fiction.
- As Dewey created the system, it was intended to be used for fiction as well, but no one in their right mind would use it for that because it does such a poor job of it.
- The 800s are where literature is meant to “live” and is where poetry and plays reside today. The reason fiction isn’t in there too is because no one wants to browse for their next fiction read based on the nation of origin of the author. No one. Literally.
- Yes, plays and poetry are still classified by country of origin of author. This means that Shakespeare is at 822 (sorted alphabetically with other playwrights from England) and August Wilson is at 812 (sorted alphabetically with other playwrights from the USA)… which leads to another issue that requires a whole ‘nother bullet…
- At one time, August Wilson would not have been cataloged in the 812s with other playwrights from the USA at all. Yup, Black playwrights as a matter of practice were in 325 (the Social Sciences section for International Migration and Colonization… herein you see how the obsession with country of origin as well as inherent racism created some really weird cataloging decisions). You can read more about how Dorothy Porter, a librarian at Howard University, worked to decolonize how Dewey was used HERE. Seriously: an HBCU that was actively collecting works by Black authors couldn’t possibly put them all under 325… well, wait, they technically could…
- See, you can take a classification number like 325 and add decimals to it to create some level of order within a category that’s clearly too broad (all of which begs the question because obviously it doesn’t make sense to segregate collections in this way and we definitely don’t do it any longer.) Also: putting all works written by Black authors from the African Diaspora into 325 and not in the same classification group as their white counterparts is inherently dehumanizing of those authors and has really far reaching and unpleasant implications about the reality of Black people were viewed at this point in history.
- …and we do still do something like this in our 200s (the religion section). 200-290 is all devoted to classifying different types of works about Christianity. 290-299 is for everything else…yup, all other religions get put in a very small bucket of classification numbers. Author’s note: the majority of the world population practices a religion other than Christianity.
- And then if you look at how it breaks down history and geography… wait… come back. Yeah, I know, too much.
I know only real library nerds get excited about this stuff, but I think it does make a broader point about how structural the centering western civilization can be. Yeah, you can tweak the system to make it work so that everything fits, sort of, but the system itself is still full of the assumptions that are part of the problem to begin with and tweaking does nothing to break down those underlying assumptions. Also continuing to use such a system actually does go some distance to affirm those assumptions. Creating a whole new system is hard and expensive and overwhelming, and I’m not sure if I’m just talking about Dewey any more.
At any rate: More to come on the library nerdiness front. Up next, our friend Andrew Carnegie.