C’mon Everybody–It’s Dewey Decimal Time!


So, I’m sitting here, drinking a nice dark pint of1554 Belgian Black Ale, listening to the Beatles White Album, and thinking about Melvil Dewey. That’s the name of the guy who, you know, invented the famous library Decimal System. He was also very serious about spelling reform in English language, and insisted people spell his last name “Dui.” This made him insanely popular at dinner parties, or maybe just insane. This is true, by the way. Would you believe me if I said he wore a monocle and a silk padded birdcage on his head and called his mother Fang? Well, that, my friends, would not be true. It goes to show you–never trust a librarian.

Doin' the Dui.

Still, the old guy revolutionized public libraries. The DDC is now in its 23rd edition.–just came out last year.  A friend of mine posted this to my Facebook page today:

“Since you’re my library geek friend, I’m going to vent to you. Whatever happened to the dewey decimal system. Yes, I know, I’m showing my age, but I feel all that work on the library module my Freshman year was a waste of time. Now the call numbers, if they are even still called that, are so long it is like you are playing battleship. There now I feel better. Have a great day, my library geek friend.”

Well this library geek has a geek answer, and here ya go.  Yes the university’s library module was a waste of time, especially if you did it without realizing that the library used the LC Classification system, and not DDC. The difference is this.  Dewey built their system first. LC asked him if they could use it, but make a couple changes. Dui said “O HEL NO!” (spelling reform, remember? It looks a lot like the way they talk at LOLCats.com) and LC said “OK. We’ll make our own inefficient, sprawling jumble of information to paste onto the spine of books.”

Dewey strove to organize knowledge. With Dewey Decimals, if you’ve got a small enough library (say 7 books) , you could classify them at the century mark: “My literature book goes in 800. My Reader’s Digest Medical Dictionary is at 600. My bible is parked at 200.” and so on, for 4 more books. Now, Library of Congress  has 22,194,656 cataloged books and (with journals, records, etc.), 147,093,357 total Items. They needed something bigger. So the big difference between the two systems: Library of Congress Classification system organizes books. They were suffering from that age-old problem–too much of a good thing. So they classify down to the most infitessimal point. For Example:

BX    --->  Practical Theology
6198  --->  Other Denominations
.A6   --->  Assemblies of God
D5    --->  Dobson
1991  --->  Publication year
v.2   --->  Volume
c.1   --->  Copy number

So, LC was built to set a book in its place, on its shelf, next to and between other books, which are all in their proper places as well. It is especially good because LC has a lot of books, and have to be able to find them, for example, when a congressional person wanders in, thumb in nose, looking to find out if he still knows pornography when he sees it.

Dewey is not exempt from the spread of information. The 21st century gave rise to numbers like this one:

362.196044009  --->  History of geriatric chronic diseases

So, Tammy, that’s the answer to your question. Libraries everywhere are getting bigger.  In 2010 alone, Bowker reports that over 3 million books were published worldwide. With that kind of growth where will we put all our novels? Dame Barbara Cartland herself wrote over 723 romance novels in her lifetime. Now, if you think the collected works of Shakespeare looks ominous sitting on a shelf, consider that just a moment. All his plays fit in a single 2000 page volume (including footnotes, and extensive biliographies, and essays). So, Mr. Dui’s system fell victim of a uniquely 21st century problem–too much information. They were basically forced to put long numbers on the spines of books, or run the risk of never ever finding the latest musings of Stephanie Meyer. And if that’s not a sad thought, I don’t know how else I could possibly persuade you.

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