Driven Dotty by Dewey

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In the olden days, when people went to public libraries to borrow books to read, they were probably unaware of the workings of the librarian’s mind. Librarians cherish the illusion that the Dewey Decimal Classification system is second nature to readers as well as librarians. Thus the reader in search of books on cookery will head immediately for the 641s, and anyone planning to travel to Germany to look at its architecture can be found in front of the 720s searching specifically for the numbers after the decimal point – 943 – because, as any fool knows, 720 is Architecture and 943 is Germany (although if you were to turn it round, 943. 7 is Czechoslovakia).

Everything has a potential number created from ten main classes, subdivided into ten divisions, each of which has ten sections, and then there is a decimal point, after which the numbers seem to go on for ever. No. 551 is earth sciences. No. 551.5 is meteorology. No. 551.5784 is snow. No. 551.578409 is ‘snow – historical and persons treatment’. So, if you didn’t know it was Danish fiction and therefore 839.82, possibly followed by 74 for post-1945, you might classify Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow as 551.578409.

No. 266.02373051 is given as foreign missions of the US in China and is made up of 266.023, ‘Foreign Missions’, 73 for the United States (though only after the decimal point) and 51 for China, but I’m afraid I don’t know where the zeros came from as I’m copying from the Manual. You have to be careful about zeros, however. Rule 5.13 suggests that zeros in the fourth position should be avoided, but they are clearly acceptable elsewhere. I am just going to lie down with a towel (643.52) on my head.

My own memory of using the local library is that, despite an intense and very distressing immersion in the Dewey system, I always looked up at the large boards that read ‘History’ or ‘Travel’ or ‘Fiction A-F’ and then searched below. But Dewey continu

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About the contributor

Curator of the Chinese collections in the British Library, Frances Wood is aware that she is not entitled to call herself a librarian as she has never taken any library exams. She thus avoided the humiliation suffered by her father who managed to fail his (because they were so boring) but nonetheless ended his career as Principal Keeper of the Department of Printed Books in the British Library.

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