The Order of Books: The Intentions of Melvil Dewey

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Issue 9, Volume 112

By Savidya (Minadee) Kulawansa 

Libraries are full of thousands of books, so trying to find the right one can seem daunting. Organizing books in a library is an intimidating task, and the person who designed the categorization system that libraries currently use was incredibly intelligent. However, his accomplishments don’t exempt him from being criticized. Similar to how members of the Stuyvesant community are looking into renaming our school because of Peter Stuyvesant’s anti-Semitic sentiments, it is time to look into who Melvil Dewey was and his legacy in libraries. Instead of erasing controversial figures from history, we should recognize their accomplishments and build off of their work to fix the problems they created. This idea applies to Dewey, who was the creator of an ingenious method of organization that revolutionized libraries all across the globe but was also a sexist, racist, and homophobic anti-Semite.

Dewey published the Dewey Decimal System in 1876 to sort the Amherst College Library. This system categorizes books by different subjects, such as religion, social sciences, history, biography, and geography. These sections determine the hundreds place of the book number. From there, each of the topics is divided into 10 subtopics that determine the tens place. The following subsections are divided into even smaller subsections, which determine the ones place. The more specific the subsections are, the more digits after the decimal point, until one reaches the specific book. This method of organization is efficient, but when the numbers become categories, its problem becomes apparent.

Books with a classification number from 200-250 encompass strictly Christian-related subjects, while books in the 260s-280s are on Judeo-Christian topics. The bottom of the pile, the 290s, are allocated for about 4,000 “other” religions, further illustrating Dewey’s attempts to keep books about “inferior religions” hidden. The problem with giving such a vast topic, like religion, a small number of diverging subcategories (10 subtopics) is that there is a vast increase in the number of digits after the decimal place. If all 4,000 of the world’s religions except for Judaism and Christianity are under 290, then 291, 292, 293, and so on, would be used to divide all these religions into the main 10, after which may be the role of these religions in certain countries. As the subtopics get more specific, the classification number gets longer.

Librarians and readers probably do not want to label and look for a book with 10 digits after the decimal point—nor are book spines big enough to fit such a large label—so they merely chop off the extra numbers, keeping the book with its more general subject. When this truncation happens, the initial classification is erased, and a large number of books are unified under a broad topic. Then, the books are sorted out by the last name of the author, meaning that a book about Hinduism could be placed right next to a book about Jainism in India. Overall, it is harder for readers to find a certain book, since they have to sort through an entire section of uncategorized books.

This problem is seen again in the 300s section, where books written by African Americans can be classified under the number 305.8 with the title “Ethnic and National Groups,” and books by East and South Asians can be put under the number 305.895. African American and Asian authors face the gross pooling of all subjects into one impenetrable mass because of their race, as books they write about topics other than “Ethnic and National Groups” are often still placed in the 305.8 or 305.895 sections. For example, books about Barack Obama are placed in the 300s section instead of the 900s section with all the other presidents. Dewey sorted out all the books written by white authors or topics that he approved of, such as Christianity, so that browsing for these books would be much easier. He created the 300s section for the books written by people of races he thought were inferior, so these books would be hidden and readers would be much more likely to read books by white authors.

If we justify the racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and religiously motivated actions of people in the past by claiming that “it’s the way of the time,” we are unable to analyze the true character of our predecessors. Dewey’s belief that other races were inferior led him to try to make it harder for people to find their books. However, it is also important to see the positive contributions people like Dewey have made and strike a balance between honoring figures who brought change and acknowledging their misdeeds. For Dewey, it is best to keep the number portion of the Dewey Decimal System while re-allocating its subject portions. This task entails condensing the Christianity section to one tens place while dividing up the “other religions” category into more specific sections. Changes like this one will decrease the institutionalized discrimination in libraries.