Nine Years Ago, I Speculated that Dewey’s Days Were Numbered. How Far Have We Come? | Opinion

I was vilified for criticizing the Dewey Decimal system. We librarians need to stop perpetuating its systemic racism in our libraries.

Almost a decade ago, my colleagues and I wrote an article for SLJ entitled “Are Dewey’s Days Numbered?” in which we made the argument that the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system had lost its relevance. We took a bold stance, and the backlash was swift. Fellow librarians would wait outside the rooms I was speaking in at conferences, backing me into corners to demand that I stop talking about alternative systems. 

SLJ cover image from October 2012 (Are Dewey's Days Numbered?)At the time, we focused on creating better, more fluent access for children and modernizing a system that was created in the 19th century. It seems appropriate that today, an era when the status quo has been turned upside down by COVID and the racial justice movement, I find myself once again looking at the Dewey system. In this time that has highlighted the vast inequalities and injustices in our country, are we going to continue to use a cataloging system that is steeped in the values and worldview of a racist, misogynistic anti-Semite?

In 2019, ALA approved a resolution to take Melvil Dewey’s name off of one of the organization’s top awards for librarians, because of his known history as a racist, anti-Semite, and sexual predator. The reason: “the behavior demonstrated for decades by Dewey does not represent the stated fundamental values of ALA in equity, diversity, and inclusion.”

It is impossible to ignore that these ideas are ingrained in the system. Just look at a few examples: African American culture and history is located in groups of people (305), not American culture and history (973). In fact, any activist from suffragettes to environmentalists are classified in social sciences, history.

What message does that send our students? Are we suggesting that these groups of people can only be studied in relation to others, that their own history is not enough to stand on its own? Christians make up approximately 30 percent of the world’s religious population, yet they make up 90 percent of the 200s (religion.) The Dewey Decimal System is a perfect example of systemic racism, and we as librarians are perpetuating this harmful worldview in our libraries.

In a recent article in SLJ, many librarians commented about how weeding their collections allowed them to focus on issues of diversity and inclusion. Collection development is the natural focus of many librarians when thinking about how to make our libraries more diverse. But how inclusive can we be if the system itself is exclusionary? Most of us put a lot of effort into collecting diverse, informative books that provide windows and mirrors. When we put those books on the shelf in an outdated system, it negates those very principles. Students searching for the 16 official languages of India find out that they are shoved into 495.9 (miscellaneous languages of southeast Asia.) There are twice as many people living in India as in all of Europe, but the message we send is crystal clear to our children that white, European people and their culture are the most important. Kids looking for LGBTQ+ nonfiction books find out that they are shelved next to prostitution and pornography. The understanding that their thoughts, their very identity, is wrong and immoral comes through loud and clear no matter what we might say to the contrary.

It’s striking to me that librarians aren’t applying our rigorous weeding criteria to the system itself. Dewey is outdated and obsolete, it is difficult to use, and it doesn’t resonate with our patrons, our values, or the world around us. The system codifies and upholds a white, male, Eurocentric, Christian, heteronormative, abled perspective.

Some people will argue that we just need to tweak the system, make some more adjustments. But that is no longer enough. Of course, some of the flaws in the system are because of age and circumstance. Dewey never could have predicted the advent of the Internet or the sheer number of books published in a year, but the fact that the system doesn’t allow for flexibility is in itself a problem. Classification is based on knowing the exact place you will find a book. Librarians don’t have the time or resources to recatalog these issues continually. If we keep making small tweaks, the “standard” system is no longer standard at all. But I would argue that the bigger issues related to bias run too deep to be fixed by cosmetic repairs. Bias is a feature, not a bug. In order to make the necessary adjustments, the entire system will have to be overhauled.

There are some concrete ways to get started. Talk with your colleagues and start asking questions. What values are important to your school? Who is in your community? Who is marginalized? Where are the books that reflect them? Then start looking at some other systems - Library of Congress, BISAC, Anythink - and see how they align with your values and goals.

I, of course, would suggest you look at the Metis system my colleagues and I put together, which was geared towards elementary schools. You will most likely still need to tweak the system you choose. We started by recataloging and labeling discrete sections and leaving them in the same place, the kids didn’t have any issue because they didn’t use the call numbers to find books anyway. Then, over the summer, we finished it up and moved the collection around.

It is time to imagine a new future in our libraries, one that truly supports and incorporates our values of intellectual freedom, equality, and social justice. It is not acceptable to excuse the Dewey Decimal system or its deeply flawed creator as “a product of its time” and keep using it. No system is perfect. I am not asking for perfection, but I am asking that we use a system that is less imperfect. A system that is based on the values of inclusion, innovation, and integrity. A system that reflects the world we have and the world that we want. This will not be easy. It will take hard work, courage, and commitment. But, librarians have always understood the importance of access to quality information, and we owe it to ourselves and our children to make sure that everyone can find what they are looking for in a place that reflects the world we have and want to create.

Tali Balas is the lower school librarian at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. She has been working in school libraries for half of her life and is passionate about advocating for children and making books easily accessible.



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