Dewey Decimal Classification

I was reading Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail, and I came across a part where he talked about the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC).

He was arguing that our old ways of classifying information (in this example, the DDC) didn’t work so well in the modern world.

Here’s a typical breakdown (PDF) you would see in a library:

  • 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

Not too bad.

Anderson then explained how each particular category broke down even further and that’s where the old system failed us. For example, he looked at the subgroups under “Religion”:

  • 200 Religion
  • 210 Philosophy & theory of religion
  • 220 The Bible
  • 230 Christianity & Christian theology
  • 240 Christian practice & observance
  • 250 Christian pastoral practice & religious orders
  • 260 Christian organization, social work & worship
  • 270 History of Christianity
  • 280 Christian denominations
  • 290 Other religions

That’s right… Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and all those other religions that, combined, represent the majority of the world’s population are all relegated to the 290s. Clearly, a relic of times past.

This page breaks it down even more.

As Anderson explained, “This taxonomy says more about the culture of 19th century America in which the system was developed, and probably something about Melvil Dewey himself, than it does about the world of faith.”

Libraries would do well to reorganize themselves, but that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

A quick check of suburban libraries in Illinois places Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in the 211 section (“Concepts of God”), Sam Harris’ The End of Faith in the 200 section (the all-encompassing “Religion”), and Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation in the 277 section (“Christian church in North America”).

When did the day pass when it was easier to find a book at Borders than at a library?

[tags]atheist, atheism, Chris Anderson, The Long Tail, Dewey Decimal Classification, Religion, Bible, Christianity, Christian, theology, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Melvil Dewey, Illinois, Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Sam Harris, The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, Borders, church[/tags]

  • Craig

    The US Library of Congress classification of religion includes many more subcategories and distributes them a little more evenly. Many university libraries use the LoC system. Unfortunately, the DDS is still used at most public libraries.

    Christianity still gets the lion’s share of subcategories – Christianity (BR), The Bible (BS – somewhat appropriate), Practical Theology (BV), and Christian Denominations (BX). Rationalism only gets BL2700-2790. That is slightly more than Jainism (BL1300-1380).

  • MTran

    Most libraries, and probably nearly every academic library, has used the Library of Congress Catalog system for over 30 years. It has also had online cataliguecapabilities for about that long, too (from back in the days of dial up services).

    Whichever cataloguing system is used, though, can be expanded or adapted to accommodate new or expanding categories. The great advantage of the LOC system is that it has a central authority, is widely used by professional librarians, and has encountered just about every text that a collection is likely to encounter.

  • False Prophet

    Most public libraries in North America still use DDC (Most in Europe use UDC, a closely related system). LOC is used by most academic libraries, though medical schools and hospital libraries often make use of National Library of Medicine (NLM) classification.

    DDC has its faults, but it is constantly evolving to address its inherent biases. The main reason the system hasn’t changed much has less to do with lack of will and more to do with a lack of funds. Libraries are by and large publicly-funded institutions that are rarely prominent in the eyes of most of the public. It would take a lot of money to reclassify the entire 200s section of the library for just one library system. Now do it for the thousands of library systems across the continent.

    I have friends in IT and computer science who ask why libraries don’t move to a system of tagging or keyword searching. These are all great systems, but they don’t address the fact that libraries have to place items in physical space. DDC (and LOC) do a good job of placing similar books next to each other on the shelf, and most people aren’t looking for a specific title, they just want to browse.

    This Straight Dope article has a good comparison between DDC and LOC.

  • MTran

    When did the day pass when it was easier to find a book at Borders than at a library?

    Libraries need to be organized for study and storage considerations, not sales. Even small libraries have a very different mix of books and serve a different purpose than bookstores do.

    Access to library collections is expedited by the use of card catalogs. I don’t know of any library that doesn’t use a card catalog, with plenty moving to computerized catalogs.

    I have friends in IT and computer science who ask why libraries don’t move to a system of tagging or keyword searching.

    I’ve heard a number of engineer types say this sort of thing and it makes me wonder if they ever spent much quality time in libraries.

    Most books will have multiple entries in a library catalog, including title, author, and (possibly multiple entries for) subject matter. Traditionally, each entry also indicated the other classifications that might apply to each work. Beyond that, library cataloguing schemes are extremely scalable.

    So there are many ways to find books in a library other than strolling the shelves, which can be fun for recreational purposes, not so much fun for research.

  • Litesp33d

    The other problem is that you have tens of thousands of librarians very familiar with Dewey who can find a book for you in seconds. As more catalogues go online this will become less important.

    It has held back the growth of humanism/atheism though. Think how often you have browsed a section and found a book on a related/unrelated subject that has opened your mind. Had Beliefs been the name of the category rather than Religion then more people would have found books on humanism and atheism (if the library had stocked them). However this and other conspiracies in favour of xtianity and against other beliefs is coming to an end thanks to the interweb.

    This is another reason for the rapid take up of non-belief in the last 10 years. Librarians do need a way to store the books so they can be found. In my experience the books libraries carry is dependent on demand. Our job is to request books on the subjects we want so they can carry them.

    As less people request books on xtianity it need not mean the cataloging system necessarily needs to change it just means less shelf space will be needed for religious books which will be readily filled with other less mythical ones. For example books on computing didn’t exist in 1890 but now they fill loads of shelf space. Personally I would put all books on religion into the Myths section but could you imagine the hue and cry that would cause. Religion (unless we get a theocracy in the West)will end up there eventually it will just take time.