Melvil Dewey classifies the world

By Deb

In 1876 Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey (1851 –1931) patented the system of classification that we currently use for our books and other materials in our libraries here in the Fontana Regional Library.  The Dewey Decimal Classification System (DDC) (©OCLC) is a widely used standard in the library profession.

Dewey, by all accounts was a difficult person to get along with.  He was a person of strong opinion and was not overburdened with an abundance of humility.  One of his lifelong passions was an interest in simplifying English spelling; he was a founding member of the Spelling Reform Association.  In keeping with this, he dropped his middle names and changed his first name to Melvil.  For a time he even flirted with changing his last name to “Dui”.  (I can only imagine how well that went over at family gatherings.)  He wrote of the English language, "Speling Skolars agree that we hav the most unsyentifik, unskolarli, illojikal & wasteful speling ani languaj ever ataind."

Dewey is also suggested as the creator of vertical files, which his company, Library Bureau, may have first introduced at the World Columbian Exposition of 1893 (also known as the Chicago World’s Fair).

While he was working in the library at Amherst College, his passion for simplification led him to create a system of classification for the library’s book collection.  Basically, the Dewey Decimal system divides all the knowledge in the world into 10 main classes, which are currently defined as:

000 Computer science, information & general works
100 Philosophy & psychology
200 Religion
300 Social sciences
400 Language
500 Science
600 Technology
700 Arts & recreation
800 Literature
900 History & geography

These classes are each broken down into ten divisions, such as 630 (agriculture) and each division is broken down into ten sections such as 636 (animal husbandry).  The sections can be broken down to more specific topics by adding a decimal such as 636.8.  So, if you were looking for the book Dewey : a small-town library cat who touched the world, you would expect to find it shelved around 636.8.  You would also find other stories about cats in the same area, as well as books about caring for cats, training cats, etc.  So the DDC helps make it easier to find things in the library.  The number shows where a book is located on the shelf, and also ensures that other books on the same subject are nearby.  At this time not all of the divisions and sections are used.  This allows room for growth as need arises.  An obvious example is computers (004-006).  They were not yet invented in 1876, but they fit seamlessly into the classification system in the 000 class.  In case you were wondering, UFOs (001) are also in the 000 class.

Dewey’s system was revolutionary in the library world and has been adopted by hundreds of thousands of libraries, especially public and school libraries.  As a result there are a number of resources available on the Internet and in libraries to help students learn how to use the Dewey system.  In the Macon County Public Library, for example, there is a pamphlet in the “vertical file” in the children’s department.  Its call number is VF 020 (VF for vertical file, and 020 – the Dewey number for library information).   Vertical files, by the way, are common resources in libraries.  They are usually repositories of pamphlets, loose leaf resources, articles from newspaper and magazines, photographs, genealogies, etc.

Somewhat ironically, the Amherst College libraries where the Dewey Decimal System had its start now use the Library of Congress classification system, instead.  However the DDC is still alive and well in some interesting places besides the local library.  There are a number of websites that use the system to classify and organize links to other sites.  And if you are interested in a Dewey getaway, there is a hotel in New York that has organized its floors and rooms according to the system.

2 thoughts on “Melvil Dewey classifies the world

  1. “He was a person of strong opinion and was not overburdened with an abundance of humility. One of his lifelong passions was an interest in simplifying English spelling; he was a founding member of the Spelling Reform Association.”

    I swear I get cornered by this guy (or woman) at every party I go to — yattering on about how the Federal Reserve needs to be replaced by a panel of Mensa members; or how the medical profession misdiagnosed her best friend’s mother’s uterine polyps; or how his ideas for making rocket fuel from sofa cushions have been foiled by those cheaters at the National Academy of Science.

    I’ll bet “Melvil” was a lot of fun at the Amherst Faculty Picnic.


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