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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 Classification and Libraries Go Hand-In-Hand.

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, April 24, 2005

The Dewey Decimal Classification and libraries go hand-in-hand. If I am introduced to someone for the first time as a librarian, the Dewey Decimal classification is often mentioned within the first minute of the conversation. People remember Dewey even if they never use a library.

My generation of librarians learned Dewey as part of library school.  When in a group with other librarians, we sometimes "talk" Dewey. Most school and public libraries still use Dewey as the means of organizing and classifying the library's collection.

Melvil Dewey devised the system in 1873, when he was an undergraduate library assistant at Amherst.  Dewey felt that it would be easier to put books in order by number than by alphabetical letters. When the first Dewey Decimal Classification was published in 1876, all of the knowledge of the world had been divided into 1,000 classes from 000-999. Young Dewey went on to establish the American Library Association, and "Library Journal" magazine, both still existing today.

In 1924, Dewey established the Lake Placid Club Educational Foundation to continue his work and own the classification's trademarks.  Forest Press managed and operated the classification until it was sold to Columbus-based OCLC, Inc. in 1988. One of the marvels of Dewey is its ability to grow and change with the times.  For instance, the 780 section on music was completely changed and updated to accommodate new information and styles.

Computers and technology didn't exist in 1876, yet Dewey simply flexes its classification tables and incorporates it into the schedules. As a subject becomes more specific, the number lengthens in Dewey to keep the subject in order.  Ohio history is 977.1 yet history specific to Jefferson County, Ohio is 977.169.

The other library classification system in common use is the Library of Congress classification, commonly called "LC." LC is used in most academic and college libraries where the collections are more complex and require a more sophisticated system for shelf organization.

Following the War of 1812, when the British burned the U.S. Capitol, and the Library of Congress; Thomas Jefferson sold his book collection to start a new library.Jefferson's scheme of classification was continued until 1897 when the Library of Congress moved to its new building and the one million volumes needed a new system. Thus LC was born, and continues to be used today.

Some early libraries arranged books by author, by title, by subject, or chronologically by when the book was acquired.  All worked will as long as the library remained small.

The advantage of both Dewey and LC is the fact that they can be used today for non-book materials such as Videos and DVDs. Now that Dewey and LC are combined with computerized catalogs of libraries, the best of all worlds exists to allow you to find information.

So, how do you keep your books in order?  Size of bindings, color of the cover, or the last one read to the end of the shelf? Dewey is simply the stereotype that comes with my profession.