4 Reasons To Overhaul the Dewey Decimal System

The Dewey Decimal System has been a library staple for almost 150 years. After all this time, it’s still full of Melvil Dewey’s biases.

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a row of library books with dewey decimal numbers on their spines

What is the Dewey Decimal System?

The Dewey Decimal System is a library classification system created by Melvil Dewey in 1876. Dewey’s system uses numbers, with each number from 0 to 999 representing a different topic to read about. The more decimal places that a number has, the more specific the classification. This sounds harmless enough, but unfortunately, Dewey’s hateful biases have bled into this system.

1. Racism

To begin with, the Dewey Decimal System is incredibly Eurocentric. In earlier editions, almost anything written by or about people of color was classified in either 325 for “International Migration and Colonization,” or 305.8 for “Ethnic and National Groups.” Anything from poetry to history went into these sections simply because the subject or author isn’t white. Joel Christian Gill has a comic that dives deeper into these issues.

4 Reasons To Overhaul the Dewey Decimal System on native Americans

In today’s editions, we can still see the echoes of Dewey’s racism. For example, under the “Literature” section, there are plenty of European countries listed out from the 810s to the 880s. It isn’t until the 890s that we get to see literature from “Other Languages.” While the system is at least willing to acknowledge the work of other races, it’s still lumping a bunch of unrelated people together simply because they don’t belong to one of 8 specific white races. This requires readers to get incredibly specific when looking for literature by people of color, and it makes this literature much more difficult to find.

2. Religious Bias

250-280 Christian church-- religious bias

One of the Dewey Decimal System’s main ten sections is dedicated to religion. This makes it all the more shocking that even today, sections 220 to 289 are all focused on Christianity. Any other religion is crammed into the 290s under “Other Religions.” This is similar to the race issue, where the breakdown of categories is explicitly biased toward Christianity, and the other religions are grouped together for no real reason. What’s worse is that many of these religions weren’t always in the “Religions” category. In early editions, some were even classified as myths. While this placement has been updated, the bias toward Christianity has not.

3. Homophobia

In the earliest editions of the Dewey Decimal System, LGBTQ topics were found in sections ranging from “Abnormal Psychology,” to “Perversion,” to “Medical Disorders.” Thankfully, many of these specific and insulting numbers are no longer used.

a timeline showing when different orientations were added to the Dewey Decimal System

While LGBTQ topics have shifted throughout the 23 editions of the Dewey Decimal System, they still remain in inappropriate places. The worst offender is probably 363.49, which places homosexuality under “Social Problems” and next to “Pornography.” Many LGBTQ based books are in the 306.7 section under “Sexuality,” but it’s still concerning to see homosexuality classified as problematic in some places.

4. Misogyny

Dewey helped found the American Library Association. However, he was forced to resign after several women came forward and said that he had sexually harassed them. Recently, his name was also removed from the ALA’s top honor. This speaks volumes about what Dewey thought of women, and earlier versions of the Dewey Decimal System reflected this. For example, “Women’s Work” was separated from other “Jobs.”

female symbol

Thankfully, the system seems to have evolved to be more considerate of women’s experiences today. Although women are included and acknowledged more, they still have their own, slightly smaller versions of sections meant for men. The Dewey Decimal System has certainly changed for the better over its 23 editions, but it’s still far from perfect. If we want to continue to use this system, I think an update fixing the above issues is long overdue.

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