Have you ever wondered why it’s so difficult to find a book at the public library? Why you must use the card catalog or ask a librarian for assistance? I’ll tell you why: the frickin’ Dewey Decimal System.

I just spent four hours sorting a large portion of my non-fiction library in Dewey Decimal order, lightly printing the call number for every book on its back flyleaf. When a book’s title page did not list the call number, I looked it up in the local library system. I did this for about two hundred books. (I set aside another two hundred as not yet worth the effort, and didn’t even touch another four hundred volumes.)

This took time.

Lots of it.

I had supposed that ultimately all this work would be worthwhile because it would yield better organized books. I was wrong. Tomorrow after work I’m going to go home and undo the entire system and reshelve according to Roth Non-Decimal System.

Here are some examples of the craziness in Dewey:

  • For many books, there is no one set classification. For example, The Gutenberg Elegies may be classified under 028.9 (reading) or under 302.232 (social interaction). I admit that this makes sense in some cases, but under Dewey, the delineations are often bizarre.
  • Barack Obama’s memoir is filed under 973.4 (general history of North America – United States). It’s an autobiography; shouldn’t it be under 921? Elspeth’s Huxley’s semi-fictional account of growing up in Kenya is classed in 921, as one might expect, but Alexandra Fuller’s recent book about growing up in southern Africa is shelved at 968.91 (general history of Africa – southern Africa). These books are nearly identical except for the time periods in which they occur. They’re both autobiographies. Why aren’t all three of these books in 921?
  • Hiking Oregon is 796.51, which makes sense; 796 is “athletic & outdoor sports & games”. However, Into Thin Air is 796.52, which does not make sense. (Into Thin Air is about disaster while climbing Everest.) Oregon’s Best Wildflower Hikes is 582.13 for spermatophyta (seed-bearing plants), which makes a tiny bit of sense (but only a tiny bit). The book is about hiking, not about wildflowers. It ought to be shelved next to Hiking Oregon, and Into Thin Air ought to be shelved someplace near The Worst Journey in the World, another book about a disastrous expedition.
  • John Muir’s Travels in Alaska is filed under 979.8 (general history of North America – Great Basin & Pacific Slope), but Into the Wild and One Man’s Wilderness are filed under 917.48 (North America).
  • The Lifetime Reading Plan, a reading guide to the literary canon, is shelved at 011.7 (bibliographies), but An Invitation to the Classics, a Christian reading guide to the literary canon, is shelved at 809 (literary history and criticism). Other reading guides to the literary canon are shelved elsewhere.
  • Gardening books are strewn about through all sorts of classifications so that I cannot even begin to decipher a rhyme or reason. Some are in applied science, some are in natural science, and some are in social science. Some are in art! If I were organizing them, they’d all be together under — and this might be a shocker — gardening.

Admittedly, what makes sense for a home library might not make for a large institutional library. Still, I get the distinct impression that the Dewey Decimal system has long outlived its usefulness and ought to be quietly put down. (I had four years of exposure to the Library of Congress system during college, but don’t know it well enough to be able to state whether it would be any better than Dewey for my purposes.)

It’s a sad state of affairs when I can walk into Borders and find the book I want — without assistance — in less than a minute, yet if I were to try the same thing at my small local public library, I’d have to walk up and down every aisle and I still might miss my subject. Even at Powell’s, the “city of books”, where there are gigantic rooms filled with thousands of volumes, I can generally find what I want quickly.

This seems like a good place to voice another library complaint. Over the past year, as I’ve begun to use the library more, I’ve noticed that each branch in the Clackamas County Library system has its own method of organizing non-book media. This makes it frustrating to locate things.

For example, several of the libraries stock graphic novels (glorified comic books). At most branches, graphic novels are organized by title, so that all Superman graphic novels are together under S, for example. In Milwaukie, however, they sort the graphic novels by author. This is insanely stupid. It is rare that a comic book carries a single author for more than a couple of years. If I want to borrow a bunch of X-Men comics from Milwaukie, I have to look under each individual writer’s name, if I can even remember them. Note that none of these are filed under X, where one might reasonably expect to find X-Men.

Most libraries display their compact discs end-on, so that it is easy to view a large number of them quickly during a search. Not the Oak Grove branch. The Oak Grove branch forces you to flip through drawers full of CDs. Worse, instead of filing them alphabetically by artist name in broad genre classifications, they sort the CDs by Dewey Decimal order! Does a Maria Callas opera compilation come before or after Beethoven’s complete symphonies? And why is Dawn Upshaw’s “Because I Wish It So” collection of popular songs filed nearby? Who knows? You have to flip through a drawer full of CDs (or maybe two drawers full) in order to find out. It’s maddening.

7 Replies to “The Dewey Dumbcimal System”

  1. alan says:

    Of course I’m going to weigh in here, live from the LIBRARY conference I’m attending in California. We place books in weird Dewey numbers because we need the work. We need to sabotage the computers that are taking over our libraries, so you’ll have to ask us questions. After all, everything’s on google, right? 😉

    Seriously though, when I worked in my first library job, as an undergrad, I had to become vaguely familiar with 27 classification schemes. Dewey is actually one of the most friendly. LC was designed FOR the Library of Congress (the building), so it baffles me why so many libraries adopted it.

    Of course Dewey’s not perfect, as you’ve noticed. But imagine you’re a cataloger and you get a a new book. In most cases, someone at the Library of Congress has already cataloged it and suggested a Dewey number. Most catalogers will just accept that number. But if you’re the first person to catalog it and your entry in the automated system is going to be the suggested number for all other libraries, there’s a lot of weight on your shoulders.

    So let’s use one of your disputed titles that I’ve actually read: Into Thin Air. You don’t think it belongs in sports because the story is more about the disaster. But isn’t it a comment on a culture that places value on conquering things? Isn’t it about IMAX? Isn’t it about the rich and the privleged? The person who cataloged it is responsible for deciding what it’s MOST about, often without reading anything more than a blurb. It’s a challenge.

    So no real answers for you. But it’s nice to have someone (non-librarian) who actually cares enough to write about it.

  2. mac says:

    ummmm…I think J.D. was a librarian in a former life…or maybe will be one in his next life.

  3. My non-fiction library is filed under the Rawdon Non-Decimal System. I never even considered filing it according to Dewey. But I’m glad you went to the work to reject it so I didn’t have to. 😉

    My local library files CDs in bins, too. Annoying.

    My comic book collection is filed at the highest level alphabetically by publisher. If a comic was published by multiple publishers, I choose whichever seems most relevant. (The only major change I’ve made to my filing system in the last 15 years was to move from alphabetical-by-title-or-character to alphabetical-by-publisher, because years of experience made me decide that would be more useful. And I was right!)

    Within a publisher, it’s alphabetical-by-title-or-character, whichever seems most relevant. For instance, all my Justice Society comics are filed under JUS, not under ALL (All-Star Comics) or JSA. So they follow the Justice Leage comics (JUL), and precede the Legion of Super-Heroes comics (LEG).

    Within a title-or-character, the comics are filed generally chronolically-by-date-of-original-publication (i.e., collections are filed under date the comics were originally published, not date the collection was published). If a comic was published out-of-continuity then it goes at the end (JLA: The Nail goes after all the Justice League comics). If a comic adheres closely to retroactive continuity, then I may file it according to character continuity rather than publishing date (e.g., All-Star Squadron falls between volumes 2 and 3 of the All-Star Comics Archives).

    It works for me! Even if occasionally I can’t remember who published some comic because both the comic and publisher are obscure. And it does cause the occasional headache for a publisher who was bought by another publisher (for instance, all my Wildstorm titles are now stocked immediately after the DC titles).

    Anyway, enough geeking. Back to work.

  4. Will says:

    Why not sort numerically by ISBN?

  5. dowingba says:

    The advantage of the decimal system is that all you have to do is look up the book in the cards and then it’ll be easy to find, provided you know how to count. The disadvantage is that it’s tough to just browse for books without any particular one in mind.

  6. Jan Steinman says:

    The Dewey Decimal System is like Democracy — it’s the worst possible system, except for all the other systems out there!

    But you know what, you don’t have to be slavish about it. I use Dewey for my personal library of about 1,200 volumes. When a “suggested” DDC doesn’t make sense, I make a new tag for the book with a number that DOES make sense.

    What DDC has done for you is given you a framework. A lot of bright people have already come up with a taxonomy so you don’t have to. But that doesn’t mean you must (or even should) accept the DDC as a dictate for any given book.

  7. Jan Steinman says:

    Will wrote, “Why not sort numerically by ISBN?”

    Ugh. You do realize that ISBNs can be considered totally random, when it comes to topics?

    The most significant digits of ISBNs are for country and publisher. But within a publisher, the numbers are generally time-sequential.

    It might make sense to sort by publisher if most of your books come from small presses that tend to only have books you like. But what about places like Random House (pun intended), where they may publish a book on gardening, and the very next sequential ISBN may be a child’s book on dinosaurs!

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