The Dewey Decimal System (DDC).
Oh how you plague me.
I despise the DDC and have essentially ditched it at my high school library.
I know, I know, I know. I know all of the arguments that people will have about this.
But it simply had to be done.
This process and reasoning is complex so I expect I’ll use multiple blog posts to cover all the details of my reasoning and my process. This first post acts as an introduction to WHY I decided Dewey had to go. The next blog post will detail how I went about it and what system I’ve replaced it with.
If you are a Dewey purist or someone who thinks all libraries should keep operating the same way now as we did 100 years ago, I encourage you to just scroll on past and not read this blog post, because what you read here may shock and offend you. 🙂
I’ve never been one for doing things a certain way just because it’s the way they’ve always been done. You have been warned!
THE PROBLEM WITH DEWEY
Ok, like where do I even start? There are SOOOOOOO many problems with Dewey, but I’ll try to mention just a few.
- Its old. Like, really really old!
- First created in the 1870s, which means it was created for a society that is almost entirely different than our current society. Modern libraries serve a slew of different kind of people and different kinds of needs than a 1880 library would have. There are so many things in existence today that weren’t even dreamed of yet when the DDC was originally crafted. We don’t eat, travel, teach, or live the same way now as we would have if it were 1876, so why are we using a classification system from 1876? I don’t take medical advice that a 1876 doctor would give, so why would I classify books the same way as a 1876 librarian?
- And yeah, sure, we have been working to make updates to DDC over the years to make it work better for current needs, but its like using chewing gum to plug the holes in a 200 year old rowboat. Its not going to be able to keep the thing floating forever, and its not going to make the vessel as efficient or effective or safe as it would to just design a new boat.
- It is SO. DAMN. BIASED.
- This is the worst part for me. DDC is RIFE with Dewey’s personal biases and prejudices, as well as the social “mores” of the Victorian period. These biases are ingrained into the entire system, and that kind of thing causes irreparable harm to our communities now. There are a lot of bias issues in Dewey, but here are just a few to consider:
- Dewey was a notorious sexist and a serial sexual harasser, and sexism is found in the way he categorized topics. For instance, he catalogs books with subject “social roles of women” in the same place with books with the subject “feminism.” But feminism is, in fact, a political movement, and not one that only pertains to women. It doesn’t make sense for these to be classified together.
- Racism and Marginalization
- For example let’s look at the Language section of the 400s. European (i.e. traditionally having white populations) languages like German and English each have 8 DDC categories, while the entire continent of Africa is squeezed into just one single category of 496, which encompasses all “African Languages”!
- Colonizer perspective
- The colonizer perspective is particularly easily seen in DDC’s treatment and prioritization of religion, language, and literature. You can see that in these sections priority is given to European cultures since they take up all of the numbers from 400-489 and 800-889, with all other culture’s language and literature being squeezed in at the end in the 90s “other” category. Since Dewey was a result of Puritanical Victorian British society, this is no surprise. But it may surprise you to know that all 19 members of the Editorial Policy Committee for the 23rd edition of the DDC (the most current edition), still originate from the U.K. or countries that were once British colonies. Meaning that in the last 150ish years we haven’t really done anything to correct the colonizer-perspective of the DDC.
- There is considerable issues relating to homophobia in how books dealing with LGBTQIA+ subjects are classified in DDC. Throughout history these books have been classified in the 100s as “Mental Derangements” in the 600s as a “neurological disorder,” and even very recently these books have been classified in the 360s under “social problems,” amongst other so called “controversies,” and usually interfiled near the crime and pornography books. The current rules indicate that books on “homosexuality,” and “gay liberation movements” should be filed in the 306 section.
- I feel like this issue should be one of the most easily seen because when one looks at the 200s classification categories under DDC, one immediately realizes that every number between 200-289 is reserved for Christianity. All other religions are squeezed into the last couple of categories.
- Read more about DDC bias issues
- Decolonizing the Dewey Decimal System
- It just doesn’t seem to work for my high school students
- This one is a little bit harder to explain, but the DDC just didn’t seem to be working for my high school students. I really do think that the DDC is something only librarians understand, and so its not really helping our users have ownership and independence. My students don’t really know or understand the DDC, so they don’t know how to use the numbers to find what they need. Instead they just search the catalog to find the books they need. They do know how to use a call # to locate a certain book on the shelf as long as they found the call # in the catalog, but they don’t know what the number mean. And when browsing, the DDC only makes things harder for them. A student doing research on Watergate would find the books in the 973 section and would assume that was all of the Watergate books. They wouldn’t understand why some more Watergate books would be all the way over in the 300s. Students looking for books on Witch Hunts would think to look in the history section, the 900s. They would not think to look in the 100s. And they surely would not look in the 300s to find books about warfare and weapons, when they see all of the World War II books in the 940s. Maybe DDC works better in a public library, I can’t speak to that. But I can say that it just was not working at all for the students in my high school library. The way they use the library was not being served well by DDC.
- Let’s all be honest, the DDC has become a pretty weird mess
- The 300s are so freaking messy and repetitive that it makes it difficult for my students to research, and the 600s are not much better. There is so much crossover from the 300s to the 600s and the 900s that it renders the 300s essentially unusable. The 200s has serious issues and the 800s are just bizarre now that we’ve tended to remove most of those to the “fiction” section. So really, all in all, the whole DDC has tended to become sort of sloppy and weird. Religion is in the 200s but mythology (which is or was someone’s religion) are in the 390s but then cryptids are in the 000s and so on and so on, the whole thing has become a messy and weird nightmare.
Addressing the Arguments
Since I know some people are going to want to argue with me about ditching dewey, I’m addressing the three most common arguments I usually get:
ARGUMENT #1: BUT IF STUDENTS DON’T LEARN DDC, THEY WON’T BE ABLE TO USE THEIR PUBLIC OR COLLEGE LIBRARIES!! YOU ARE NOT PREPARING THEM FOR LIFE AFTER HIGH SCHOOL!
So if you do not know, the DDC is a classification system that is commonly used by SOME libraries as a way of organizing and classifying the library books. It is usually used in public and school libraries. DDC is NOT typically used in academic, law, or other specialized libraries. So the argument that my students will be irreparably harmed and disadvantaged in life if I don’t keep our library as officially DDC is just a bit ridiculous. Not every library they access will use DDC. The libraries at their college certainly is not likely to use DDC. As long as I am teaching my students that libraries are organized by some kind of classification system, and teaching them how to search an OPAC, gather up the call #s of any books they want, and utilize signage to then locate those call #s, then my students will be just fine and perfectly able to use ANY library they should encounter throughout their lives.
ARGUMENT #2: BUT IF EVERY LIBRARY JUST MAKES UP ITS OWN CLASSIFICATION SYSTEM IT WILL BE CHAOS! CHAOS, I SAY!
No. It won’t. I promise the world will not descend into chaos (well not any more chaos than we are already in) if every library on the planet were to use subtly or significantly different classification systems. Do you know how I know that it won’t fall into chaos? Because every library already does use differing systems. If you truly think that every single library has always been identical in how it classifies and shelves books, then I have some shocking news to share with you. That just is not true. Every library I’ve ever been in organizes things differently. And all libraries pretty much already are “genrefied” in one way or another. If the fiction books are not found in the 800s section, then that library is genrefied. Some libraries have graphic novels, memoirs, books in non-english languages, biographies, large print, audiobooks, juvenile fiction, juvenile nonfiction, paperbacks, picture books, and/or board books separated out of the general collection and categorized differently than traditional DDC calls for. Libraries have been non-standardized for a long time already and we have continued to function just fine. If you still really think libraries are standardized, then I’m afraid you have not been paying attention.
ARGUMENT #3: Changing the system is too much work!
Yes, it is a lot of work. And yes, I probably made mistakes and I will probably learn something next year that will make me need to go back in and change things again. And maybe it will even be a disaster and I’ll regret changing things (though I doubt it). But do you know what? None of that really matters more than the fact that the current DDC system does not work, and actually causes harm, and furthers oppression and marginalization of those who should not still be being oppressed and marginalized.
Did ditching Dewey, creating an entirely new system, and recataloging & relabeling every single book in my collection take a ton of time? Yes, yes it did. Seriously you don’t even want to know how many hours this process has taken me. But I refuse to perpetuate the status quo when I know that it is causing harm. And since no one else has provided us with a definitive better option yet, many of us are being forced to construct our own solutions to the Dewey problem. But that is certainly better than sticking with any system that is inherently oppressive and bigoted.
My middle/high school library is going to be remodeled in a year. I need to weed and pack up everything. This is giving me food for thought. I can’t wait to read your next post.
My elementary school ditched Dewey shortly before I started working there, and it works so much better for the kids! We’re using the METIS classification system, and the kids are able to navigate the collection easily, and they are more willing to explore and try new genres than in any school I’ve been in before.
I’ve had to put in quite a bit of work to update the digital side of things (and update spine labels), so it’s an ongoing process, but one that has been paying off when there’s 20 kids who have difficulty finding new books in a class period.
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That’s wonderful!! I think it’s going to be great for my students too 🤞
I am new to my library (6-8th grade) and the previous librarian had started to undewey dewey which is fantastic, however, I am discovering sections that are still needing to be done and just today I found a book that is on the 2nd amendment and it is 323.4 which puts it SMACK DAB in the start of where civil rights are! so I am moving it to the rest of the US GOVT section along with a few others I found in that section. Your blog has been so very helpful (why are Nazi War Criminals in 300s rather than 940? So thank you!
Happy to help! And i know what you mean. the 300s are particularly troublesome as most of them could fit into other areas instead. Government being in a different place than american history has always seemed weird to me, military & warfare being in 350s and sometimes 600s but also in the 940s… what a mess lol. It felt really good to clean it all up and to heck with dewey 🙂
After hearing all the responses from other librarians… what are your thoughts on classification in Elementary school libraries? Decimals are dumb – they don’t even learn them until their last year in elementary school. And because of the content k-5 are reading, there are so many natural adjustments that can be made… I’m eager to hear your response!
Yea I think Dewey is pretty terrible in school libraries in general but especially in elementary level…. the kids just don’t yet have the foundational knowledge to really begin understanding how the system works and that makes it hard for them to be empowered to utilize the library on their own terms. Which makes sense, because Dewey didnt invent the system with the expectation that the general public, let alone CHILDREN, would have to understand it. He invented it it with the expectation that really only librarians would be needing to understand it, so its the kind of thing that only really makes sense or is useful to librarians, who have to study it and specialize to understand it. So when we are running libraries intended to be user-friendly to the general public, and kids in particular, my opinion is that using the DDC is pretty detrimental to our goals. We don’t WANT our library users to have to ask librarians for help in finding books they need/want. We want them to be able to navigate and browse and find the info they need mostly on their own, though we are certainly always willing to assist as needed. So my opinion is that it makes total sense for school libraries, especially elementary to use a more user-friendly intuitive system. Many elementary librarians are moving to the BISAC system, which is what bookstores use, or something like it where in stead of using numbers at all you organize by general topic and I think that makes a lot of sense. For example, at elementary it makes no sense for the “wild animals” to be separated from the “domestiacated animals.” Kids just want to know where the “animal section” is lol
Is it possible to share a summary as to what system currently exists in public libraries in the US? I’ve been trying to research this tidbit for a novel, but cannot figure out if the Dewey Decimal system has been completely dumped or not. Thank you for any insights you can offer! And if it’s gone, approximately what date did that occur?
DDC is used in many US public and school libraries. Some public and school libraries have adapted, ditched, or semi-ditched dewey. Some use LOC or BISAC instead. It varies greatly!