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A lot of old things are racist. For example Mickey Mouse’s white gloves. The concept of a peanut gallery. But public libraries? Impossible right? Well, public libraries have many racial issues, from excessive policing to an exclusive Masters degree (some of which I’ve written about here.) But one of the biggest barriers to realizing racial justice in public libraries is the Dewey decimal system. That’s right: the basic cataloging system you learned in elementary school has one big racism problem. If you know anything about its inventor, Melvil Dewey, racism in the Dewey decimal system may not come as a shock. However, in case you don’t, read on and hold onto your socks.
Dewey: A racist man!
It’s actually hard to overestimate Dewey’s contributions to public education. His work led directly to the establishment of not only public libraries in his home state of New York, but the entire concept of the free public library in America. He also invented the New York Board of Regents, which became a template for public education across the country. And of course he invented the Dewey decimal system.
All of that said Dewey was really racist.
Even in his day, people were appalled by his anti-Semitism. He literally opened his own social club just to exclude Jews, including many of his own colleagues. (Of course, colored people were not welcome either.) Finally, in the early 1900s, there was a successful attempt to drive him out of public life because of his obvious and enormous prejudices. Dewey was kind of a dumpster fire from a guy. Unfortunately, his attitude affects the cataloging system he invented.
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Where did the decimal system come from?
Dewey invented the decimal system in 1873. He was 21 years old and had many great ideas, including organizing his employer’s library, Amherst College. To this end, he resorted to the work of Sir Francis Bacon, a natural philosopher of the 16th century. Bacon was an early pioneer of inductive thinking, which is vital to the scientific method, and he had written extensively on the logical organization of knowledge in his book Instauratio magna. Dewey also claimed that an Italian graphic artist named Natale Battezzati was an inspiration. Battezzati had invented a card-based catalog for bookstores. While Bacon was dead for a few centuries and changed when Dewey introduced his fateful cataloging system, Battezzati was a living and well-known contemporary.
Dewey copyrighted his decimal system in 1876 after sending it to a number of colleagues for criticism. The first edition published was about 40 pages long. The modern version is hundreds.
It’s important to remember the reasons Dewey wanted public libraries to be a thing at all. He wasn’t an altruist; he believed that people and concepts belong in certain places in society and that they have to stay there. Poor people, for example, had to be content with non-unionized factory work. Christianity was the only real religion. Was there really a need to address the non-white people?
The Dewey system is racist
The quickest possible look reveals the racism in the Dewey decimal system. Take the religion section as an example. The 200s nominally encompass all religions, although the problems with this premise are obvious. Each Dewey heading has ten main topics, each divided by sub-topics that add digits at the end of the number. Six of the ten subjects in the 200s are subjects specifically related to Christianity. Three of the remaining are either explicitly or implicitly Judeo-Christian. Finally, at the bottom of the pile, the 290s cover “other” religions. Islam, Baha’ai and Babism all share 297. Germanic religions receive 293. All “religions of Indian origin”, in other words Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, share 294. Hinduism receives all 294.5 for itself. How generous!
299 covers everything else, and we’ll focus on that part because it’s the most glaring example of racism in the Dewey decimal system that can come to mind. You see where I’m going with this: Religions that Dewey associated with People of Color had a lot less space than “real” belief. Unconvinced? Fine. There’s a section in the 200s just for blacks.
The entire subdivision 299.6 is for “Religions of Black Africans and People of Black African Descent”. In fact, according to DDS, everything about the “African religion of the Haitians in Haiti” can be classified in 299.6097294. Because at some point someone decided – for some reason – that Haitian religions that came from blacks weren’t as important as “Germanic” religions that came from whites. If this doesn’t piss you off, you are likely qualified to write a cataloging system in the late 19th century.
Why is that important?
But support the outrage for a minute. Obviously it is ridiculous and racist that the catalog is cornering people of color, but does this racism really play a role in the Dewey decimal system? After all, the books are still there. You can still find them. But on the contrary! Because the real problem here is the cutter number. This is the long sequence of digits after the point in the above phone number.
Now think about the last non-fiction book you borrowed from the library. If you have one on hand, grab one. If you’re reading in the library, stroll to these shelves and take a look at the spines of the books. Do you see any that have a cutting edge number longer than four digits?
Of course not! Book spines aren’t that big, and catalogers have better things to do than manage seven-digit cutting edge numbers. That means catalogers boil down long cutters out of necessity. In the case of 299,6097294, our number for Black Haitian religions, it will likely be 299,609 or even just 299.6. That would lump it with all faiths whose origins are linked to black people in and outside Africa, except for black Muslims. (They are used in 297.8, “Islamic Sect and Reform Movements”.)
As gross as it is for the system to classify (and apparently prioritize) religion by race, it’s actually quite significant that a truncated number for Haitian religion makes it a lot harder to find. Once it’s reduced to 299.609 or 299.6 by local cataloging conventions, the author’s last name determines where it goes on the shelf. At this point it won’t be other books on the Haitian religion, so people looking for it will have to sort through each book on black non-Abrahamic religions alphabetically by author. Instead of using the system as a search tool, they need to know exactly what they are looking for, right down to the correct spelling of the author’s last name.
Lost in the stacks
This is how people of color get lost in the Dewey system. The problem with the 200s occurs again in the 300s, where almost everything about People of Color can be classified under 305.8, “Ethnic and National Groups”. Within this sub-heading, the Teutons get a relatively clean cutter again – 305.82 to be precise. Meanwhile, 305,895 covers all East and South Asian peoples. You can probably extrapolate the problems of filling nearly two billion people with literally hundreds of different cultures, languages, and collective priorities to the cataloging equivalent of a studio apartment. The Greeks, on the other hand, get the relatively spacious 305.88 all to themselves and the British 305.82. Because of course they do.
What can we do?
It’s incredibly difficult to re-catalog a collection. When this collection is part of a consortium or library system it becomes next to impossible. There are other, more flexible options for cataloging books – BISAC, a bookstore-like, theme-based organization system, is one, though it has its own problems. However, the people have also made some noble attempts to decolonize Dewey. Dorothy Parker, a librarian who worked at Howard University, is probably the best known of them. She is such an unsung boss that you need to read about her right away.
Aside from the heroic efforts of individuals, however, the death of the card catalog was the main salvation of the Dewey system. Computerized library systems now enable keyword searches. These make the small numbers on the spine essentially arcane, except as unique locators. If you need a book on Malaysian food etiquette, you can damn well ask the catalog and it will tell you, even if the book itself is inundated with abbreviated cutter numbers in a sea of abbreviated numbers.
But even if the effective racism of the catalog subsides, the sting remains. The racism in the Dewey decimal system makes the prejudices and relative values of its creator abundantly clear, and to some extent bypassing it with technology isn’t really a solution. After all, not everyone has the same access to computers or the same technical skills. A messed up shelving system still makes a difference to them, just as institutional racism everywhere makes the world worse. Until someone overhauls it, it will remain a map of Dewey’s brain rather than the foundation of a truly public library.