Librarian Dorothy Porter collected and preserved black experience objects, while making the cataloging system more inclusive at the same time. The Eurocentrism of the Dewey Decimal System is easy for catalogers to see. It is also not all that surprising considering the cataloging system was made by a successful white man more than a century ago. Porter was a groundbreaking librarian for her time, making the collection of Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center one of the largest holders of black history and culture material.
Porter acquired books by developing a network between her friends and generous publishers in the U.S. and abroad in Brazil, England, France and Mexico. She looked beyond books to the Africana cultural influencers she invited to campus, in order to show the students that African heritage was important and that they should be proud of the color of their skin and who they are. After Howard University was given the private library of Arthur B. Spingarn in 1946, Porter turned to the Library of Congress to appraise the collection. However, the appraiser told Porter that he didn’t know anything about black literature and asked her to write a report, not knowing that she herself was black. It was clear that “no American library had a suitable classification scheme for Black materials.” Four women, who worked at Howard University Library, prioritized the works done by marginalized black authors. Porter followed in their footsteps by creating an entirely new classification system.
Porter explained “every book, whether it was a book of poems by James Weldon Johnson, who everyone knew was a black poet, went under 325. And that was stupid to me.” Instead she classified works by genre and author, with complete disregard to the white Eurocentric tendencies of the Dewey system. This new system was very much in keeping with the influence of the Harlem Renaissance and the black perspective. For Porter, it was also important to focus on the histories and languages of black people around the world, so as to recover their past. It is important that we, as the next generation of librarians, remember Porter’s work on desegregating, decolonizing and repatriating the records in Howard University’s collections and recognize that it is possible to promote further change in the current cataloging and classification systems.