Dewey System Still Works after All These Years
Byline: Sarah Long
How would you approach the task of devising a structure for all human knowledge?
The task would just seem overwhelming to me. But in 1876 Melvil Dewey devised a hierarchical scheme that moves from the general to the specific. It's based on 10 broad categories such as 000 Generalities, 100 Philosophy and Psychology, 200 Religion, etc. Each major category divides into nine subcategories spanning a range of 10 to 90. Each subcategory is further divided into nine specialized topics ranging from 1 to 9. Decimals are added to break the topics down even further. Of course you recognize this as the Dewey Decimal System (though technically it's Dewey Decimal Classification). It is commonly used in most public and school libraries in this country and in more than 200,000 libraries worldwide.
But consider the many changes, new inventions and concepts that are part of human knowledge today that were unknown in 1876. These have been accommodated in the 22 editions or updates to the scheme to date.
Dewey Decimal Classification is now owned by Online Computer Library Center, a non-profit membership organization dedicated to furthering access to the world's information. Most libraries catalog their books using center's giant bibliographic database. This collaborative effort results in a standardization of library cataloging as well as a savings. In other words, libraries can copy the cataloging originated by others to save time and money.
One of the beauties of a library organized by the Dewey Decimal Classification is that it puts all the books in one subject area on the shelf together. Finding the call number of one cookbook, for example, will lead you not only to its particular home in the library, but also to a cache of other cookbooks which you might like even better. It's this serendipity that makes the Dewey Decimal Classification a really useful organizing tool in my book.
This system only has enough spaces to accommodate a library of about 200,000 titles. …