Classifying the World

Since Melvil Dewey first published his cataloguing rules in 1876, the Dewey Decimal Classification system has been used by an increasing number libraries worldwide to catalogue their collections. Its endurance has been remarkable. Created in an industrial age of mass printing and storage in libraries that embodied 19th century civic pride it continues in today’s digital age of linked data and click and swipe access to materials online.

The Origins of Dewey

Melvil Dewey was a practical man who liked to solve problems. He declared that the solution to the problem he had set himself of how to catalogue a library came to him in church during a long compulsory Sunday sermon. A flash of inspiration illuminated him and ‘I jumpt in my seat and came very near shouting Eureka!’ as he described fifty years after his system had been published and adopted.

Dewey did not dwell on the philosophical foundations of his system. He may not have been fully aware of them. He wanted librarians and library users to benefit from his system.

Dewey’s system has an interesting lineage. Francis Bacon offers one of the first modern examples of Dewey-like thinking and he created a very effective system to catalogue a library. Bacon’s system was emulated by Edward Johnston at the St Louis Mercantile Library which in turn influenced William T. Harris when he catalogued St Louis Public School. Harris preferred knowledge divided up and served à la German philosopher, GWF Hegel. Hegel offered the basic division of knowledge into Reason, Imagination and Memory or Science, Art and History. It is Hegel’s system that led to some apparent idiosyncrasies in Dewey’s system such as language being placed so far from literature and social sciences so far from history.

Worldwide Adoption

The sheer scale of adoption of DDC worldwide can readily give rise to anomalies and differences in the application of the system while the superimposition of DDC onto pre-existing yet inadequate cataloguing systems in diverse countries and cultures leads to further issues as the world becomes globalised. Add to this the need for translation across languages and the need to standardise mapping DDC with other classification systems, as well as the ever growing set of human knowledge and practice in areas such as media, jurisprudence and computer science, and it becomes evident that the DDC system needs regular revision.

1876 saw the publication of 1000 copies of version one of Melvil Dewey’s classification system; 1885 saw a second edition and a further 21 new editions have been published while subsequent editions take on the more dynamic delivery method of the internet via WebDewey rather than the printed page. DDC is here to stay and it has more users now than ever before.

Dewey and BDS Data

BDS has an interesting role to play in the formation of new rules within DDC. Development of the numbering scheme has to be justified based on literary warrant (i.e. the number of items being published in a field), and because BDS sees all the pre-publication information on UK publications, it is aware of what is being published and where trends are developing. Hence BDS plays an active role within Dewey committees and sub-committees and has its representative, Jo Maxwell, on the Mapping Working Group. This group’s work is of particular interest to BDS because its focus is on the mapping of subject headings and local classification systems to DDC.

The originality of Dewey was that he did not ask about what are the relationships between fields of knowledge, but how do I find the field of knowledge that I want – or how do I reliably find the book I want?

His system has been answering that question for 140 years.