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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

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, November 11, 2012

I was reaching for something on my office bookshelves, and my 1971 Dewey Decimal Classification text slid into my lap, reminding me of my days in Library School.


We had to purchase an abridged version of Dewey to use as a textbook throughout Library School and most librarians keep it as a reminder of “those college days.”


Let me first clarify that Dewey is still used in over 200,000 libraries worldwide, and practicing librarians rattle off those familiar numbers daily in using a library.


In addition to classifying books, the Dewey Decimal Classification is used to organize DVDs and CDs, as well as most everything physically located on the library shelves.


College and university libraries tend to use the Library of Congress Classification, which is larger in scope and more comprehensive to their collection needs.


Dewey is named for its founder, Melvil Dewey (1851-1931) who was a fascinating person with tremendous connections to the library world.


He attended Amherst College, and from 1883-1906 served as chief librarian of Columbia University, and then head of the State Library of New York.


While still a student at Amherst, he developed his Decimal Classification, which is trademarked and has been through 23 major editions and published in a multi-volume set.


Dewey himself handled his classification until his death, after which it was published by the Lake Placid Club Education Foundation.  He was a developer of the New York resort that has hosted the Winter Olympics.


Later it was published by Forest Press, Inc., and sold to Columbus-based OCLC, Inc. in 1988.  Today it is managed and updated in cooperation with the Library of Congress.


Librarians used to pour over the indexes and tables of Dewey looking for the perfect number for the spine of a book, but now electronic records usually contain the “suggested” Dewey classification for the book.


On a rare occasion, a book will land on my desk “for a Dewey number” and I have to search Dewey to find a number, a real challenge for a librarian and their Dewey Classification.


Basically, Dewey divides knowledge into 10 categories, with each then divided into another 10 categories.  The amazing thing is that after 135 years, the structure still works with editing for new information.


Subjects are moved around with time.  When UFOs were first introduced to the public in the 1950s, catalogers placed them in Aeronautics, but later they were moved to a new category that includes curiosities, mysteries, errors, delusions, and superstitions.


In Library School, we used to test each other calling off topics to see if we knew the Dewey number for the topic.


The other game we played was “drop the one” in which you take the geographic Dewey number for a place such as 917.71 for Ohio, remove the first “1” and slide the numbers to make 977.1 which is the Dewey number for the history of Ohio.


I doubt that these games are part of Library School today.  Technology probably dictates a computer software program that manages Dewey and inserts it into today’s MARC online format and loads it into the online database for the library collection.


I guess I will put by Dewey back on the shelf.  I thumbed through the “relative index” and the “standard tables of language, areas, and sciences” and noticed the worn part of my Dewey from when the early years required constant review.


There are pencil marks next to “cross reference summaries of hierarchical force of entries” and “definitions, scope notes, example notes,” showing that I must have been looking for them.


Aside of his classification system, Melvil Dewey also started the Library Bureau furniture and supply company, invented hanging file folders, and was one of the founders of the American Library Association.