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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

The Dewey Decimal System

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, August 8, 2010

Andrew Carnegie and the Dewey Decimal System are the two common things that most people relate to public libraries.


From 1881-1919, Carnegie funded the construction of 2,509 libraries world-wide, and his legacy will continue well into the future.


The Dewey Decimal System was invented in 1876, and its legacy remains on the spines of millions of library books around the world.  For some reason, people assume that Dewey is going away with the advent of computers.


No true!  Dewey is alive and well in libraries today; and the assortment of numbers that form Dewey is being entered into computer systems and networks as it remains the largest library classification system in the world.


The method of library classification was developed by 25 year old Melvil Dewey in 1876, the same year he formed the American Library Association, and “Library Journal” magazine, as well as the “Library Bureau” company to provide the products for the classification system.


He continued in the library field, serving as the State Librarian for New York for many years.


His classification divides all knowledge into 10 main classes, which are then divided into 10 divisions, 10 sections, and so forth.


You likely remember learning about Dewey in school.  School librarians are famous for their “Dewey speeches” accompanied by posters, charts, and displays.


Today, most public libraries still use Dewey to classify their collections, even non-book formats.


Academic libraries tend to use the 1890 Library of Congress Classification, which allows a more sophisticated division of knowledge, and accommodates new categories more easily than Dewey.


Both systems are under constant revision and updating, with the Dewey Decimal Classification owned and copyrighted since 1988 by OCLC, Inc. in Columbus.


We old-timer librarians attended classes in Library School for Dewey, our own abridged Dewey Decimal Classification under one arm and headed for a professor who could “cite Dewey” without even opening the book.


The “hot Dewey topic” in 1976 (I was in class on the 100th anniversary of Dewey) was whether UFOs should be in 629.133 for aircraft, or 001.9 for controversial knowledge relating to mysteries.


I found these discussions of Dewey to be rather interesting, as well as the formation of Dewey numbers by adding number extensions from various tables of the classification.


A good librarian of the time could rattle off Dewey numbers and even “talk Dewey” with colleagues, which sounds rather strange when viewed from the perspective of 2010.


The Dewey Decimal Classification is supplemented by the Sears Guide to Subject Headings, developed by Minnie Sears, another librarian.


Poor Sears has lost out to the Library of Congress Subject Heading Guide that is commonly used today, even with computerized cataloging.


Another loser in the “classification fights” has been the Cutter-Sanborn Tables, developed by Kate Emery Sanborn and Charles A. Cutter in the 19th century.


Those tables were made to convert author names into numerical order on the second line of the classification, but have mostly been superseded by simply using the author’s last name.


I am sure this was more than you wanted to know about Dewey, Sears, and Cutter-Sanborn.


Let me conclude with the fact that the Library of Congress has just changed its subject heading “Cookery” to “Cookbooks” and UFOs are now officially in the 001s.


The library world moves slowly.