The latest episode of Library Bytegeist breaks down the power and pitfalls of classification systems

Jess de Courcy Hines is the Library Director at Bard High School Early College in Queens, New York. She is the founding librarian and has worked there for the past 10 years. But over time, she started to notice something troubling in the history section.

“I was like, huh, the 900s feels really white,” said Jess. The 900s is code for the history section of the Dewey Decimal System. The Dewey Decimal System is what Jess uses to catalog the nonfiction books in her library.

Jess noticed that certain kinds of history books weren’t getting Dewey numbers in the 900s. Books that cover the history of the civil rights movement, immigrant histories, and women’s history were getting sent to the 300s — the social sciences section in Dewey — in a way that felt idiosyncratic to Jess.

Elements of the Dewey Decimal System also felt wrong to some of her students. “It seems like most of these should be in history because their stories contributed to history and need to be an acknowledged part of the story,” said Emily, a student at Bard. “And if you’re in history, you’re only going to find the stories of white men. Based on the Dewey Decimal System.”

Many people remember learning the Dewey Decimal System at their elementary school library. What they might not realize is that the Dewey Decimal System remains the most popular library classification system in the world — which is pretty remarkable, considering it was created by a man named Melvil Dewey when he was a college student in the 1870s.

Dewey went on to shape what librarianship would become in the United States. He helped establish many of the systems and institutions that helped transform library work from a vocation to a profession, like the American Library Association, the Library Journal, and the first library education program at Columbia University (then Columbia College) in 1887.

In order to understand a classification system, it’s important to understand the people who created it and the cultural context in which they lived. Melvil Dewey was a late-nineteenth century reformer with a strong obsessive-compulsive streak.

“He was a 19th century white New England academic, and that’s how he viewed the world,” explained Greg Cotton, who has been cataloging with the Dewey Decimal System for over 30 years. “And the scheme still reflects some of that bias.”

Some of the ways that Dewey viewed the world are particularly troubling. He was notably racist, homophobicanti-Semitic, and a serial sexual harasser. Today, librarians and library patrons have to confronting the bias baked into the system and decide what they should do about it.

Why libraries still use Dewey

Barbara Fister has been working in libraries for a long time. She’s seen different classification systems ebb and flow. “There was a time where a lot of public libraries were resistant to [Dewey] and saying what can we do differently and maybe we can just organize ourselves like a bookstore,” said Barbara.

Barbara sees how there are biases embedded in Dewey. But she still thinks libraries should use it — because no classification system is perfect. “Any of these systems came out of a particular context, and they’re flawed in a number of ways,” said Barbara.

Barbara recommends working within Dewey to reform the system rather than throwing it out entirely. Most librarians have opted to do just that. Creating a classification system is really complicated. The Dewey Decimal System is flexible enough to accommodate changes. Librarians can adjust Dewey numbers to fit their patrons and the OCLC The Decimal Classification Editorial Policy Committee updates the system regularly. We are currently on the 23rd edition of the Dewey Decimal System, which they published in 2012.

Why classification matters in the age of search

Many libraries have put their catalogs online and are moving to search algorithms as the primary discovery tool. But even so, classification systems are still relevant today. In fact, classification systems become more rigid and less adaptable in online databases.

Dorothy Berry is a project lead for Umbra Search at the University of Minnesota Libraries. Umbra Search is an online database that provides access to over 800,000 items related to African American history. It pulls these documents from over 1000 different libraries, archives, and museums.

In order to make sure that all of these items are accessible through one database, Dorothy spends her days going through files and folders of documents, making sure that every item uses the same standardized classification headings (also known as metadata). She has to comply with existing standards, even when she doesn’t agree with them.

“A term I have used because I want these materials to be aggregated well is “juvenile delinquents.” I would prefer to describe those documents as “youth interactions with the criminal justice system,” said Dorothy. “If I don’t use that subject heading, I can’t be assured that that would be one that anyone else would use. And the point of subject headings in this kind of digital aggregation context, is to make sure that when you search, you pull together things from different collections and institutions.”

How Dewey works

Dewey divided up all of printed human knowledge into 10 categories:

  • The 000s Computer science, information & general works (Greg Cotton calls this the junk drawer for topics that don’t fit anywhere else)
  • The 100s are Philosophy & psychology
  • The 200s are Religion
  • The 300s are Social sciences
  • The 400s are Language
  • The 500s are Natural Sciences
  • The 600s are Technology
  • The 700s are Arts & recreation
  • The 800s are Literature
  • The 900s are History, Geography, and Travel

Then these 10 categories are broken into 10 sub-categories, and so on. The more numbers a cataloger adds, the longer and more descriptive a Dewey number becomes. A decimal point is added between every three numbers as a kind of syntax.

For example, Greg Cotton would catalog the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx as follows:

  • 300s for social sciences
  • Add a 3 for economics
  • Add a 5 for socialism
  • Add a 4 for Marxian systems
  • Add 22 to specify that it was written between the years 1848 and 1875

And there it is: the Dewey number that Greg generated for the Communist Manifesto is 335.422. Which will help nestle Karl Marx on the shelves with other books about Marxian systems.

Reinventing the system

Jess de Courcy Hines called a meeting with the students interns who help her run the library. After listening to their thoughts and opinions, Jess decided to take the plunge and reclassify about 40 books in their library.

“There might be inequality in the way that is was created, but we can still bend and stretch it. And reinvent it,” said Jess.

A full transcript of the episode