Maria O’Hara (Reading List Services Support Co-Ordinator) outlines why we need to question the existing structures of the Library, namely our classification system -Dewey Decimal – a system used in thousands of libraries across the globe.
The way information is organised can have a profound and often invisible effect on how we think about, and assign value to, information. Both library users and librarians can assume that, because we have a system, our collections are organised in an impartial, logical way. In fact, classification systems, like the Dewey Decimal System we use here at Goldsmiths, are the creation of flawed individuals. Libraries actually arrange themselves around the dated and often offensive worldviews of old, white Victorian men, and are far from impartial.
To understand how our library is organised, we all need to know a bit more about the man who created the system we use, Melvil Dewey 1. A more famous librarian than Giles from Buffy, Dewey co-founded the American Library association and published the Dewey Decimal Classification System in 1876. In 1884 he founded the first institute for the instruction of librarians and insisted that women be admitted. This all seems very positive until you realise that, he also insisted that female applicants supply photos because ‘you can’t polish a pumpkin’ 2.
By 1905 he had been asked to step down from the American Library Association, amid criticism of his refusal to admit Jewish people to a private members’ club he owned and accusations that he had made unwanted advances on 3 female colleagues during a trip to Alaska 3.
So what system did this anti-Semitic, serial harasser bequeath us? A good place to get to grips with some of Dewey Decimals inherent problems is in the 305s – groups of people 4. First let’s look at some ‘good’ Dewey – age groups.
At the top level of ‘Age Groups’ you have books that cover multiple generations, and then you have sub-fields for young people, adults and older adults. Sensible, right?
Let’s compare that to ‘People by Gender’. At the top level you have interdisciplinary works on all genders and gender identity. You might expect the subcategories to be men, women and intersex – but no. Instead you have men, more about men and employment of men.
So where have all the non-men gone? Well it turns out women are just too darn special to classify under ‘People by Gender’. Instead, we’ve got a section all to ourselves just below it. And intersexuality? Intersexuality apparently doesn’t come under gender, its classed with LGBT+ headings completely outside the ‘Groups of People’ section.
Let’s take a brief foray outside the 305s to look at LGBT+ rights and their journey through Dewey 5. LGBT groups of people first made it into the system in 1932 under the straight up offensive ‘abnormal psychology’. By 1989 they had been moved to the differently offensive section for ‘social problems’. So where are they now? The good news is the sections themselves use modern, acceptable terms and they’re found in the section ‘306.7 – Sexual orientation, transgenderism, intersexuality’. The bad news is that 306.7 sandwiches LGBT+ people between prostitution and child trafficking on one side and fetishes and BDSM on the other.
Rather than classifying the LGBT+ community in an area dedicated to sex and surrounded by a whiff of deviancy, I would argue that LGBT+ people should be classed in the 305s as a group of people, because that is what they are.
That brings us to one of Deweys most egregious failings – its marginalisation of most of the world and its legacy of racism6. Entire books have been written about this and I will only be scratching the surface. Melvil Dewey published his classification system in the period immediately after the post-civil war reconstruction in America ended. This context undoubtedly shaped his treatment of African Americans, whom he referred to by a racial slur. They appeared in only two sections – under Biology and Slavery – in a reflection of the United States’ (and indeed the world’s) continuing preoccupation with white supremacy.
No traces of those offensive and problematic sections remain today, but people are still subdivided into groups by race and nationality. You will likely be unsurprised to head that most of these groupings are either European or descended from Europeans. Most of the world is slotted into the final subcategory, which covers entire continents like Africa and Asia. It also includes groups Melvil Dewey probably saw as “others” who were not part of Western Civilisation. These include (but are not limited to) African Americans, Indigenous Peoples and, in a relic that can seem particularly bizarre to modern commentators, the Irish.
The Dewey Decimal System has evolved and improved significantly since its original publication in 1876. While it is a useful tool for efficiently organising libraries, it is also an invisible tool reinforcing social inequalities that place greater value on knowledge produced by, for and about straight white men. Next time you go to find a book, think about where you’re looking, and who created the path to that information.
2 Kendall J. Melvil Dewey, Compulsive Innovator: The decimal obsessions of an information organizer. American Libraries Magazine [Internet]. 2014; Available from: https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2014/03/24/melvil-dewey-compulsive-innovator/
3 Ford A. Bringing Harassment Out of the History Books: Addressing the troubling aspects of Melvil Dewey’s legacy. American Libraries Magazine [Internet]. 2018; Available from: https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2018/06/01/melvil-dewey-bringing-harassment-out-of-the-history-books/
4 OCLC. 300 [Internet]. Available from: https://www.oclc.org/content/dam/oclc/webdewey/help/300.pdf
5 Sullivan D. A brief history of homophobia in Dewey decimal classification. Overland literary journal [Internet]. 2015; Available from: https://overland.org.au/2015/07/a-brief-history-of-homophobia-in-dewey-decimal-classification/
6 Adler M. Classification Along the Color Line: Excavating Racism in the Stacks. Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies [Internet]. 2017 Jan 29;1(1). Available from: http://libraryjuicepress.com/journals/index.php/jclis/article/view/17/10
– Maria O’Hara (Reading List Services Support Co-Ordinator)
Note: On 12/05/2021 this post was updated so that the sentence ‘This context undoubtedly shaped his treatment of African Americans, whom he referred to by a racial slur.’ no longer references to the specific word used.