Dewey Decimal Classification March 17, 2007

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]

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  • 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.

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