“The Dark Side of the Dewey Decimal System”

Cassia Kisshauer (653-01)

Back in January the podcast “The Kitchen Sisters Present…” discussed The Dark Side of the Dewey Decimal System. The episode was in collaboration with the podcast Library Bytegeist and co-hosted by Molly Schwartz of METRO. The podcast provides historical context with brief biography of Dewey and his classification system. In the episode Schwartz visited Bard High School Early College to see how students “rebelled against” the Dewey Decimal System. The podcast specifically emphasizes the systems’ problems related to race, gender, and sexuality and the intersections of those. There was also acknowledgement that the hierarchical structure does not always match ways of approaching knowledge in the 21st century.

At BHSEC, students noticed there were few books about Black history or women’s history in the history section (900s). Instead they were considered social sciences. A student expressed concerns, “Why is that a political book about white people in America automatically goes to history but a political book about Black people or immigrants in America or women would be categorized in the 300s? If you’re in history you’re only going to find the stories of white men based on the DDC.”

One student discussed difficulties with categorizing LGBTQ fiction. By creating a new section for LGBTQ books, a person looking for a new read in the fiction section may only find heteronormative books. One work around the library found was adding rainbow stickers to LGBTQ books within the fiction section to help those seeking queer stories in the fiction section without separating them

Perhaps what interested me most about the podcast, however, was the discussion I saw outside the library world. It has popped up on my Twitter feed from friends working in food service, churches, universities, and activism. While few were shocked to learn a man at the turn of the century abused his power in sexist, anti-Semitic, and racist ways, several expressed their surprise that institutions [libraries] they considered open, progressive, and welcoming were using the system.
This forces us to consider the question… why use it?
One defense provided in the podcast came from a librarian who emphasized, “Classification systems aren’t like a mandate from on high, [they’re] a craft. It gives you these tools and you can work within them. As a librarian it’s your job to be able to adjust it. Every classification system can be tailor made to fit your own library and your own community.”

A fun side note from the podcast: I loved hearing about professor and cataloger Greg Cotton’s road trip game with his kids- they called out three digits from passing license plates, and he would tell them what it meant according to DDC!

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by Hugh McLeod

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Pratt Institute School of Information
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