Inquiring Minds: Dewey Decimal System classification

Q. Why are the LGBTQ books like Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home: a Family Tragicomic” shelved right next to the books about prostitution and pornography? It’s really insulting.

A. The library uses a classification system called the Dewey Decimal Classification scheme in order to insure that books devoted to similar subjects stand together on the shelf. The system was devised in the 1870s, in considerably less sexually enlightened times than our own. The system makes use of a thousand broad, interrelated categories of subject matter, and each additional digit in the call number beyond the decimal point further refines the subject of an individual work. So, the call number for Bechdel’s book is 306.766309. The first three digits 306 indicates that the book is part of a general subject category called “Culture & Institutions.” Since 306.6 is applied to Religious Institutions and 306.8 is reserved for “Marriage and the Family,” it seemed logical to the original devisers of the system to subsume all other sexual relationships under 306.7, a somewhat catch-all category labeled “Institutions Pertaining to Relations of the Sexes.” The call number is further subdivided so that books on lesbians (like Bechdel’s) stand separately, but near, books on teenage dating, sex instruction, gay male culture and several other subtopics…including prostitution and pornography.

In a certain sense, the Dewey Decimal system is a snapshot of the way designer Melvil Dewey’s mind worked in the nineteenth century. If the Dewey Decimal System were to be invented today, it might be organized differently, without such an absolute division between sexual relations inside and outside of heterosexual marriage. We now understand that gay and lesbian issues encompass far more than sexuality, and modern cataloging practices reflect this. Books on issues faced by gay parents are shelved with other books on parenting, for example; books on planning a same-sex wedding are to be found with other event planning books; materials on gay legal and medical issues are found in the appropriate subject areas, and so forth. 

Dewey Decimal classifications do change, but slowly. The advantage to retaining the system — even with the sort of elements that occasionally make it jarring to the modern eye — is that it provides global continuity and uniformity across libraries. The Dewey Decimal system is the most widely used library classification scheme in the world.  Without knowing the language or even the alphabet of one of the 135 countries in which it is used, you could still find material on a particular subject just by knowing the right Dewey Decimal call number. 

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- Do you have a question for the staff at the Roseville Library? You can call them at 651-628-6803 or ask your question in person at the Information Desk, Roseville Library, 2180 Hamline Ave. Library hours are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday; and 1 to 5 p.m. on Sunday.


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