Thursday, May 31, 2007

Goodbye to Dewey?

I've been reading Everything is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger. The theme of the book is that the virtual nature of digital information allows us to organize it in an almost infinite number of ways. But instead of making things more messy, it makes them easier to find.

Early in the book he talks about the history of the Dewey Decimal Classification System. Developed in the 19th century, it reflects the social atmosphere of the times as well as the personal background of its inventor, Melvil Dewey. Since he was raised in a predominantly Christian society and attended Amherst College (then an orthodox Christian school), nine major divisions in the religion classification are for Christian books. Weinberger writes, "Judaism occupies its own whole number (296) but Islam shares its number with two others, Babism and Baha'i (297)."

Using the system now can sometimes present problems. For example, there was no category for computers until the 1980s when editors renamed the "Generalities" category to "Computer science, information, general works." Weinberger writes, "Dewey's system puts phrenology (discerning personality by examing the bumpiness of the head; 139) on a par with Aristotle (185) and Oriental philosophy (181)." One oddball category includes number 137, for Divinatory graphology (predicting the future through handwriting analysis).

Now we read that the Gilbert Library library will be dropping the DDC. Instead the books will be shelved by topic, similar to the way bookstores arrange them. "(They)will be organized in about 50 sections, then subsections, from sports to cooking, gardening to mysteries. For example, a book on the Civil War would be in the history neighborhood and in the U.S. section." There's already a lot of speculation on library listservs about how this will work. Check the Publib archives under Subject search for "Good-bye Dewey."


At 3:42 PM, Blogger Michael said...

My text thoughts on this can be found @

Photographic thoughts on this can be found @ and


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