I now blog over at The Eyre Guide! This blog is an archive of my past posts.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Refined Reader (16) Dewey Decimal System

Posted by Charlene // Tags: ,

The Refined Reader aims to take a look at the journey to where we are as readers today.  It's part history, part commentary - providing a brief, conversational summary of various aspects of our bookish past and comparing it to how it has affected us in modern times.  I love history, but I am no historian, and while I plan to do my research, if there are any errors, please let me know!  This is as much a learning venture for me as I hope it is for my blog visitors!

Created by Melvil Dewey in 1876, the Dewey Decimal System categorizes books by topic, with decimal numbers added for sub categories within each broad topic.  Previously libraries often organized their books in order of acquisition or by height. (!)

Melvil Dewey came up with his classification while working in the library of Amherst College and was largely inspired by the structural systems of Sir Francis Bacon, and the card system of Italian publisher Natale Battezzati. After some refinement, he published his system as a pamphlet and it quickly gained popularity in the U.S.  Although of late, other systems have been put into use because the Dewey system is copyrighted and can be expensive (The Library of Congress uses a classification based on one created by Charles Ammi Cutter), the Dewey system is still widely used and continues to be updated. Here's how the Dewey Decimal system breaks down 800 - Literature:

800  Literature, rhetoric & criticism
810  American literature in English
  • 811 Poetry
  • 812 Drama
  • 813 Fiction
  • 814 Essays
  • 815 Speeches
  • 816 Letters
  • 817 Satire & humor
  • 818 Miscellaneous writings
  • 819 Puzzle activities
820  English & Old English literatures
830  German & related literatures
840  French & related literatures
850  Italian, Romanian & related literatures
860  Spanish & Portuguese literatures
870  Latin & Italic literatures
880  Classical & modern Greek literatures
890  Other literatures

Obviously this can be sub-divided into many more categories.  Another example I wanted to look at is a phrase I've seen around that I think is pretty cute - "I still believe in 398.2"

300 - Social Sciences
390 - Customs, etiquette and folklore
398 - Folklore
  • 398.204 Folk literature by language
  • 398.208 Groups of people
  • 398.209 History, geographic treatment, biography
  • 398.21 Tales and lore of paranatural beings of human and semihuman form
  • 398.22 Tales and lore of persons without paranormal powers
  • 398.23 Tales and lore of places and times
  • 398.24 Tales and lore of plants and animals
  • 398.25 Ghost stories
  • 398.26 Tales and lore involving physical and natural phenomena
  • 398.27 Tales and lore of humanity and human existence
  • 398.28 Tales and lore of other topics
Uh, basically fairy tales.  The Dewey Decimal System does have it's criticisms - it can be complex, it's geared towards an Anglo-American world-view, and it is copyrighted.  But it enjoys a widespread popularity as a classification system in libraries, and it helped changed the way libraries are organized to make it more accessible to the patron.  Although when I was younger, I never really understood how it worked!  I just looked at the name of each section!

How familiar are you with the Dewey Decimal System? Did you understand it's basic structure before reading this post? (I'm wondering how widely it was understood for library patrons.  Of course if you're a librarian that is different!)

Wikipedia / Wikipedia
Nova University
Dewey Decimal Classification

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  1. My local library is getting away from using this system and they now organize their shelves based on subject. I've never liked the Dewey Decimal system-too complicated!

  2. Yep, the libraries here (Hungary) use the Dewey Decimal system too and I quite like it. "I still believe in 398.2" - lol, I love it ! I'm going to steal it :)

  3. I like having precise numbers to look for when finding a book. Basing it soley on subject could get confusing if a book is considered with more than 1 subject. I just watched an episode of Curious George where he shelved books based on color which was gorgeous, than by height which was hard, and then finally by subject and author...maybe he knew something I didnt! :)

  4. Kayla @ The Thousand LivesJuly 7, 2014 at 1:27 PM

    Thank you for adding that line! I was reading the 800 section and thought, "what is that fairy tale thing??" And then you saved me ^_^ I love the little bracelets and necklaces with the saying on it.

    I don't use the library often, but I'm pretty sure mine uses a different system. Although I'd actually prefer the Dewey system - they're so unorganized otherwise and I can never find anything.

  5. I've never been very good at understanding the Dewey Decimal System; I think the last time I made an attempt was back in high school, which was a long time ago indeed, lol. My local library groups the books downstairs by genre, with an entire room devoted to YA. All of the collections upstairs are categorized according to Dewey. Fortunately, most of the books I borrow can be found downstairs, so I usually have a good idea where I can find them! :D

  6. It does seem pretty complicated - I don't usually look at the numbers when I'm looking for books in the library - I just go to the section and look alphabetically!

  7. I do like that the system gives bookish people a code to speak in when referring to books! It makes being a book lover even cooler! I kind of want to become more familiar with the numbers for Literature just because of that! :)

  8. Oh my gosh Curious George really made it hard for himself! LOL I don't think I would have an easy time of it in his library. I think the Library of Congress has more precise numbers for each book, although I haven't really looked into how their system works!

  9. LOL, oh wow I didn't realize I'm a little bit psychic (I wish!). I think the jewelry with that phrase is really cute too, and it's so insider for book lovers! I really like subtle references to the things I love.

  10. Oh that's great that you tried to learn it in high school! I never even tried! But there are so many sub-divisions, that I think it must be hard for anyone to have a great grasp for them. It's good that your favorite section is just off by itself though! :) Good for the librarians to make the YA room the most accessible!

  11. Honestly, I had no idea how to read it. I mean, I knew numbers went with things--and that's it! I think we learned in a class when I was in middle school, but I'd completely forgotten. I just go to the right section and look alphabetically. Though, I was doing a research paper last month and had to go into the non-fiction books and the library did still use it there. I remember the book was in the 820s! Otherwise, I think my library doesn't use it, since the other books I've got from there don't have numbers. I'm just glad books aren't organized by height anymore. I'd pull out my hair. :)

  12. Omg, I like this! But I think it would be hard for me to remember which number goes to which unless it's my favorite category? D: But I like this system because it's like a secret code and I like decoding stuff, lol. :P

  13. I had a vague idea of how the Dewey Decimal System is structured, but I never really read too much into it (badump-tssssh). I'm more used to the Library of Congress one, but I don't even understand that one too much. I just head over to the catalogue, copy down the number, and look at the signs above the shelves to figure out where the book I want would be. :P

  14. Honestly I had no idea how this system was used. I used to be so confused when I would use the library card system. I love that now I can just look up a title and put it on hold and just pick it up without looking for it. I haven't actually looked to see what my library uses but you do have be intrigued to look at see next time I go in there.

  15. LOL, these numbers are much preferable to organization by height! It is good that you had learned something about the system when you were younger - I just don't recall ever having it explained to me!

  16. It is like a code! A very cool code for bookish nerds! Although I feel like it is only really necessary to know the numbers for the Literature section - so that should make it easier! :)

  17. I need to look up more info on the Library of Congress system, I am curious to know how it differs from Dewey's system! But yes, just going towards the section is much easier - and that way we can browse the shelves and perhaps find more books we are interested in! :)

  18. You are so right, the computer has made library trips so easy - and I love that I can renew online if I need to as well! I think my library uses the Dewey system, but I do have to go back and double check - and maybe see if I have retained much of anything since writing this post. :D