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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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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 continues to dominate the lives of librarians, and recently all the reference books in the British Library have been ‘Deweyed’ (not by me, thank heavens), which has made them much harder for me to find. Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey, who, as one biographer explained, ‘successively dropped first the “Louis”, then the “Kossuth”, then the “le” of “Melville” – and finally, for a while, tried to shorten the “Dewey” to “Dui” ’, was born in 1851. He first contemplated life as a foreign missionary, then as a maths teacher until, one day when he was in church, he had a sudden vision of perfect order in every library: ‘the solution flasht over me so that I jumpt in my seat and came very near shouting “Eureka!” It was to get absolute simplicity by using the simplest known symbols, the Arabic numerals as decimals with the ordinary significance of nought, to number a classification of all human knowledge in print.’ When you get down to trying to create a Dewey number for a book, the instructions are no more penetrable than the inspiration. The preface to the fourth edition of 1891 contains hints: ‘While Italian is always 5, 5 is by no means always Italian. Grammar is 5, Periodicals are 5, Asia is 5, Oratory is 5, etc. Even were it possible, to limit 5 to Italian would waste numbering material and would not justify cost.’ On reading this I am immediately seized with the desire to try and create a number for a periodical published in Japanese on the subject of Italian grammar which would involve a lot of 5s, but where would I put the decimal point? Dewey, however, presses on: ‘Italian (5), poetry (1) is as plainly 851 with no danger of being mistaken for “poetry of grammar” or “theory of Asia” because the numbers also have that meaning.’ I have never been any good at maths, my distinguished (and expensive) school refusing to put me in for O-level Maths as ‘it was not worth the money’, so I find anything that involves numbers and decimal points very frightening. In the early 1970s, it was decided that all the books in the Library of the School of Oriental and African Studies, where I was working in the Chinese section, should be assigned Dewey Decimal Numbers. We were handed a reasonably up-to-date copy of the Index and left to get on with it. I found it extraordinarily difficult and spent a lot of time counting on my fingers, rubbing out over and over again, and bursting into tears. Even now, looking along the shelves of the Chinese section, I can still see some terrible long strings of figures that I recognize as my desperate efforts to add, subtract and, on occasions I fear, multiply myself towards a number that summed up the contents of a book. A major problem was that the Dewey system was essentially all about America, with individual numbers for Free-will Baptists, the Pilgrim Fathers, the Prohibition Party, Herkimer County, NY, and Greenbacks. It wasn’t strong on Europe and as for China, well. Dewey divided over two millennia of Chinese history into just three chunks. That left me facing thousands of books on Chinese history to sort logically. Perhaps it is no wonder that I was forced into multiplication and long division as I struggled with the decimal point; and I still remember the day I discovered there was no number for ‘Eunuchs’, who played a considerable role in Chinese history for over 2,000 years (though there was a special number for ‘Elastic-sided boots’). I have frequently raised this point against Dewey and all I can find in the ‘Relative Index’ to the 20th edition (1989) is ‘castrato voices’, which doesn’t help at all because Chinese eunuchs had notoriously unpleasant voices. As well as his obsession with creating perfect order in libraries, Dewey was also passionate about saving time by streamlining spelling. This explains why he kept dropping bits off his name. It also explains why I have had such difficulty reading his childhood reminiscences. Writing of a visit with his mother to his uncle’s house, he recalled:
Whyle she was bizi sewing, I slipt into the back yard . . . wher a big dog was gnawing a bone. Probabli I tryd to take it away from him. At all events he tho’t me a more tender morsel and proceeded to chew me up . . . Meantym mother, who never feard anything, had mist her babi, lookt out the windo and regardless of the ugli dog, rescued me from his jaws . . .
Apart from the rather sick-making effect of the spelling, the effort is as full of inconsistencies as his Decimal System. He could have removed one of the ‘e’s from ‘proceeded’ and tried harder with ‘meantym’ (meentym?), and I cannot think what induced him to leave the unvoiced ‘g’ in ‘gnawing’. Though he worked as Director of the New York State Library, Dewey also established a resort on Lake Placid in Essex County, NY, as a sanctuary for sufferers from hay-fever, which afflicted both Dewey and his wife. However, he was forced to resign from ‘active leadership in the library profession’ in 1905 because of a sentence in the Lake Placid resort handbook which reassured visitors that ‘no Jews or strangers or consumptives or other people who can be fairly annoying to cultivated people are received under any circumstances’. Added to this, he was a serial sexual harasser, ‘accused of sexual misconduct on the American Library Association Alaska excursion of 1905’, and again in 1920 and 1930. This last time, the year before he died, when he was 80 for goodness’ sake, he was accused of ‘overly familiar behavior with younger women’ and had to settle out of court to the tune of $2,145.66. I was quite relieved to discover all this because now I can hate the man as well as his classification system.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 11 © Frances Wood 2006


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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