Melvil Dewey gets things sorted

The world of science can be found in the world’s libraries. That we can find it at all, owes much to the work of Melvil Dewey.

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Melvil Dewey made his mark, but was somewhat controversial. Credit: State Library of Oregon

“The collection of written knowledge in some sort of repository is a practice as old as civilisation itself,” notes an article in History magazine.

Public libraries first appeared in the fourth century BCE, it says, but private libraries were more prevalent. “Aristotle, for instance, amassed a large private collection” and was said to have “taught the kings in Egypt how to arrange a library.”

Therein lies the perpetual challenge: how to arrange these storehouses in a manner that allows easy access to information, while accommodating the constant in-and-out flow of material.

Many strategies have been used, from alphabetical classification to those inspired by the investigative method developed by Sir Francis Bacon and put forward in 1620 in his book Novum Organum (New Method), which grouped books by general subject.

In many ways libraries have been at the centre of the technological revolutions that have transformed our world, and as organisational systems continue to evolve and develop, library science remains a thriving field of study.

The website explains that library science is closely related to knowledge organisation, which “covers how knowledge is represented and stored (computer science/linguistics), how it might be automatically processed (artificial intelligence), and how it is organised outside the library in global systems such as the internet”.

Library science, it says, “typically refers to a specific community engaged in managing holdings as they are found in university and government libraries. The library system is thus one socio-technical structure for knowledge organisation”.

Throughout decades of change, one system has stood the test of time. The Dewey Decimal Classification, created by Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey, is “the most widely used library classification scheme in the world”, says the US Library of Congress. 

Dewey was born in Adams Centre, New York, on 10 December 1851. As a young man he took an interest in simplified spelling; he shortened his first name to Melvil, dropped his middle names, and for a time spelled his last name as Dui.

The Library of Congress article says Dewey invented his decimal classification system when he was 21, working as a student assistant in the library of Amherst College in Massachusetts, “drawing from Sir Francis Bacon’s classification of knowledge”, and other systems. 

Library books had often been housed according to a numbering system that indicated the floor, aisle, section, and shelf on which they were stored, says Anna Elliott in her Dewey biography, “A singular and contentious life”, in the Wilson Library Bulletin, a professional journal published in New York from 1914 to 1995.

When rearrangement was necessary, the books had to be reclassified. “Perceiving the amount of time wasted not only in finding books when they were needed but in their necessary and frequent reclassification, Dewey was determined to devise a simple, workable, and permanent classification system,” Elliott says.

He sectioned a library’s contents into 10 broad categories, each denoted by a three-digit number, from 000 (general information) to 900 (history and geography).

Britain’s Newcastle University describes how each book is issued a “shelfmark number”, usually found on the spine of the book, and arranged in numerical order.

The first three digits refer to the broad subject area, followed by a decimal point. The next three numbers show the sub-section of the subject area. After the numbers are three letters, which refer to the author or editor of the book, in alphabetical order.

Dewey himself remains a controversial figure, as Elliott says. He “originated one of the most efficient arrangements of library books ever devised… He was loved and hated, lauded and ridiculed – an enigma to his friends and enemies”.

It must be noted that Dewey was credibly accused of many acts of improper behaviour towards women, including unwanted kissing, hugging and caressing in public.

Elliott also documents acts in which Dewey publicly displayed strong feelings of antisemitism and racism. However, she says, until his death in Florida on 26 December 1931, he continuously updated and improved his classification index, which is still periodically revised and published.

“Nearly as helpful as his book classification system was Dewey’s standardisation of catalogue cards to a single size and use of uniform abbreviations,” she says.

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