How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dewey Decimal System

by James Rucker 

Thus far, we haven’t focused on non-fiction in our blog. So, broad though it may be, our topic today is the Dewey Decimal System (DDS). As the subtitle of this entry suggests, I spent some time griping about it. I actually still do, for a variety of reasons. The DDS reinforces the unhelpful belief that practical skills and projects (600s) are fundamentally separate from artistic (700s) or scientific (500s) endeavours. (For example, vegetable gardening is 635, while decorative gardening is 712, and botany is the 580s.) It gives overwhelming space to Christianity (220-289.x) when compared to the space given to every other religion in all of human existence (290-299.x). It gives a lot more space to the United states (973-979.x) when compared to Mexico (972.x), Canada (971.x), or the various indigenous groups of North America (some fraction of 970.x).

However, such problems are relatively minor compared to our topic for today: the DDS does not know where to classify history books.

Actually, I should say that the DDS doesn’t know how to categorize any books at all. History books simply show the problem in sharp relief. Of course, this isn’t just a problem with the DDS. No categorization system is ever going to be perfect, or even objective; they will always require subjective judgement for one simple reason: books can be about more than one thing at once, and this problem will persist for as long as books continue to insist on containing more than one word.

For the uninitiated, the DDS is a set of 1000 digits, each associated with a different topic. (They continue to divide past the decimal place, but we’ll get into that later.) It is first divided into ten different areas, with 100 points each:

dewey 1

“Now wait a minute!” my esteemed readers all shout at once. They then proceed to object, somewhat hyperbolically, “Are you mad? Or are you simply oblivious? You said it didn’t know where to categorize History books, yet right there, as plain as day, it says ‘900-999: History and geography’. How could you have missed something so obvious?”

I did notice, actually, but the word Geography should really be first, because, as you’ll see below, the ten sets of 10 are assigned (mostly) to more specific geographical regions. (Make a mental note that the 920s, for the most part, have fallen into disuse.):

dewey 2

To emphasize my point, we should look at how the 940s divide:

dewey 3

How would one categorize history that crosses borders? Where do we put the history of the Atlantic slave trade for example? *Searches RCLSTN catalog for “slavery” and “atlantic slave trade”* Apparently, 306 (mostly). Not in the 900s at all! What about history of art, history of science, history of sports? For a clue, let’s look at the 90x.x region:

dewey 4

Note how 901 is “philosophy and theory of history” while philosophy in general, as we saw earlier, is the 100s. Could it be? Does philosophy have this problem too? (Spoiler warning: Yes, it does.) The important clue is that they are both making use of the digit 1. On further investigation, you’ll find out 501 is philosophy of science and 701 is philosophy of art. In fact, 301 is philosophy of sociology, 401 is philosophy of language, 801 is philosophy of literature… yeah, and 101 is philosophy of philosophy (because that’s an actual thing, believe it or not). Well,  909 is world history… Which, in a way, is the history of all history. This pattern holds for other subjects: history of philosophy is 109, history of science is 509, history of art is 709, and so on.

This is because Melvil Dewey gave his system a recursive structure, where the patterns of classification echo into one another. In other words, if you take one classification number and attach it at the end of another, you might (just maybe) have a working classification that somehow combines the two topics in some way. History is the most obvious example of this. If you look under a subject’s call number, and you see either “9” or “09” tacked on the end, you are probably looking at the history of that subject. For example, 629.4  is space engineering, and Deborah Cadbury’s 2006 book, Space Race: The Epic Battle Between America and the Soviet Union for Dominion of Space, is shelved at Linebaugh under 629.409.

Biographies receive a similar treatment. As I pointed out above, the 920s used to be where biographies were categorized (actually, at Linebaugh, we still have a fair number of older biographies there). But if the 920s are generally unused, where did the books go? Well… in a way, they went everywhere. If you know what such-and-such a person is known for you’ll frequently (though not always) find biographies of that person under that topic with either “92” or “092” tacked on the end. For example, 520 is Astronomy, and so David Wootton’s 2010 book, Galileo: Watcher of the Skies, is shelved under 520.92. Similarly, 780 is music, so 780.922 is where you’d find The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold C. Schonberg.

You can use the same method for Geographical locations:

These examples have mostly been art history, but as Galileo’s biography shows, it applies to other disciplines as well. Initially, I found this quite frustrating. After all, this speaks to an ideological assumption that I’ll revisit in future posts concerning what counts as historical and what does not. From the Dewey Decimal System, one would conclude that history is all about nations, geographical regions, borders, and the wars fought to change them. And if you look at the history of the U.S. in the DDS, you’ll see that it is organized according to presidential terms. Are we then to conclude that presidents are the only important Americans? Are the only important dates those when power changed between them? I’d like to exclaim, “Of course not! History isn’t just names and dates!” But that is exactly what many people assume it is.

The causes for this popular opinion are themselves historical. When academic history began in the 1800s, nations, borders, names, dates, and (last but not least) wars were the only topics historians tended to emphasize. Mainstream historians didn’t begin exploring other areas of life in much depth until after World War II. Melvil Dewey first published the DDS in 1876 and so his system reflects the assumptions of his time. The non-academic press still lives under this assumption, and the popularly-consumed history books they publish reflect this. In addition, the political interests who dictate school curricula carry this attitude as well, and high school history classes reflect this. The general view that history is mostly the memorization of names and dates is the unfortunate result. My hope is that my blog entries, in time, will convince some hearts and minds otherwise.

Throughout the 1900s, academic historians expanded their interest from the study of politicians, generals, and diplomats to the study of industry, agriculture and trade, topics that customarily are shelved under the 300s and 600s. In other words, they helped bring historians’ attention to the doings of regular people in their practical lives. Others later broadened history’s scope further to consider the effects and changes in language and culture. It has become clear that, in a very real sense, everything humans do is historical, and therefore everything we do has a history of how we did it. Not just art and science, but gardening, beer,  and religious practice. But all these other topics are shelved apart from what the DDS considers “real history,” and that used to sadden me.

So how did I learn to stop worrying and love the Dewey Decimal System? Because of times like when I was walking through the stacks today, trying to find the books I mentioned above. In my search, I stumbled upon this:

dewey 5.png

It was a whole row of books in the 385s, which is where we shelve our books on trains, and I noticed most of them were under 385.09 and its subordinate points. Sure enough, I had discovered a little island of history books. 385.0957 was a history of Siberian railroads. 385.097, 385.0971 and 385.0973 were histories of railroads in North America, Canada, and the U.S. respectively. It was a magical moment. Despite supporting a narrower view of history on its surface, beneath that, the Dewey Decimal System contains the truth that all human endeavours are historical.

What’s the upside? If you’re ever in your little corner of the Dewey Decimal System, let’s say 641.5 (cooking), and you find a section with books under 641.5944 (French food), 641.5952 (Japanese food), or 641.5973 (“American” food), you’ll know you’ve found a little island where you’ll find the history books written just for you.

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