Obdormio.com Unwasted Hours

9 February, 2012

I Am Not a Librarian: Damn It, Dewey!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

As you might have noticed, I am a big fan of books – both in the abstract and as the physical object. I am also a big fan of systems and organisation. This might not be readily apparent to anyone peeking at my floors, but in my bookshelves order reigns supreme. I am also an avid LibraryThing user, which lets me keep a catalogue of my books which approaches a library standard. This helps me organise them, and with tags I can have all subjects well described.

That’s an organisation of ideas, though. Tags can tell me what a book is about, in general, but they are not very well suited to shelving. For that bastion of order, I need to use something else. Currently, my shelves are separated into three sections – once by format, then by content. Comics are separated from the prose books, which are in turn divided into fiction and non-fiction. Actually, since Understanding Comics is in the non-fiction section, I suppose it is more accurate to say that my shelves are divided into fiction and non-fiction, and fiction further subdivided by format.

Fiction is easy; it’s shelved alphabetically by author. Non-fiction is where it gets complicated. Shelving by author doesn’t really satisfy me there – I want books grouped by general topic, in an orderly fashion, by a real system. Enter the Dewey Decimal Classification. No, Dewey is too copyrighted for thorough discussion, let’s talk about the Melvil Decimal System instead. They’re both based on the work of Melvil Dewey, who I imagine felt some of the same desires I do for orderly shelves. I’m sure you have at least passing familiarity with his concept.  I’m no librarian; I have no training in library science or in classification, which I imagine is a lot more work, requiring a lot more patience, than it would seem on the surface. LibraryThing draws data about my books from libraries, however, so most of them have already been placed neatly into order in the DDC – whose numbers translate easily into MDS – by qualified professionals.

The problem is that Dewey’s system sucks. It doesn’t make any sense. The logic behind it is obscure, and the attitudes it codifies are out-dated and extremely ethnocentric. Let’s just look at the 2-range: Religion. These are the divisions Melvil thought necessary for books concerning religion:

  • 20 – Religion
  • 21 – Natural Theology; Secularism
  • 22 – Bible
  • 23 – Doctrinal Theology
  • 24 – Devotional; Practical
  • 25 – Pastoral Theology
  • 26 –  Church; Institutions; Work
  • 27 –  Christian History
  • 28 –  Christian Churches and Sects
  • 29 –  Non-Christian Religions

That’s not Christianity, that’s Religion. A whole big lot about Christianity, and a single section set aside for the rest of the world’s religions. No good. I am also not wild about the way the Bible is classed alongside books about Christianity, while The Homeric Hymns end up in the Literature section rather than with the rest of Greek mythology. It makes little sense to me.

Another problem area is the 4-range, Language. There are a couple of sections set aside for general linguistics, and then English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Latin and Greek get their own sections, with the rest shoved into 49 – Other Languages. Norwegian is filed under German, while the equally Germanic English gets its own section. Latin has a section of its own, while three other Romance languages get one as well. It makes no sense, at least not today. Presumably, it made sense to Dewey.

I really want a more logical system I can use. I suppose it technically doesn’t even need to be robust enough for a public library. I have made some small attempts at making something logical, but it is no easy task – no wonder Librarians go to school for this kind of thing. I had some high hopes for the Open Shelves Classification, but that ended up not really going anywhere, so here I sit still.

It is a bit silly, I suppose. The MDS works, sort of, and the books are all in the shelf. I suppose I could just put them in willy nilly, based on what feels right at the time, but every fiber of me objects to such a chaotic approach. I’m sure there are smart people out there working on classification systems. The DDC is aggressively copyrighted, and its flaws well known, so alternatives are desired by people who are not me. Guess I’ll just have to wait, though I’m going to whine about it. I’m not a librarian, you see. I’m no good at being patient.


  1. English isn’t equally Germanic to Norwegian, dude. It might be equally within the Germanic family of languages, but Latin and French’s combined Romance influence on English makes it much, much less Germanic than Norwegian. Just saying.

    Just so I’ve said it – I completely agree with the Dewey-criticisms. Fine idea, pretty moronic execution.

    I don’t have my books in shelves, at the moment, they’re confined in boxes seeing as how I don’t have an apartment to put shelves for the books in, but if memory serves, I grouped my non-fiction by topic in a way I found intuitive. Just codify whatever makes sense to you and go with that, rather than trying to dig up some externally defined system tailored for another’s needs.

    Also, that way you can brag about your new, clever system after! :D

    Comment by Loki — 11 February, 2012 @ 03:14

  2. Borrowing a bunch of vocabulary doesn’t make you less Germanic. In its structure and grammar, what with modal verbs and particular style of conjugation and declension, and of course the syntax, English is Germanic as all get-out. It’s West Germanic, rather than North Germanic (making it actually more closely related to German than Norwegian is), but it is still Germanic.

    Officer Crabtree can pretend to be French all he wants, he’s fooling no-one.

    Comment by Obdormio — 11 February, 2012 @ 10:54

  3. I disagree. I do agree that syntax and grammar is more important in identity than vocabulary, but I refuse your implication that vocabulary is irrelevant. I never said it wasn’t Germanic, I just take issue with the claim it’s equally so to Norwegian.

    There are also some slight traces of French syntax in English that you can’t really have in Norwegian without sounding awkward and unnatural. Postmaster General, poet laureate, etc. Though I do agree that is too minor to really make it less Germanic.

    Comment by Loki — 11 February, 2012 @ 16:41

  4. Oh, and if it helps, as far as my recollection goes, my books used to be organised thusly:

    A. Modern fiction
    suborganised by continuity, first by medium:
    1. comics – alphabetically by series or continuity name (“100 Bullets”, “DCU (suborganised by focal point character; “Batman”, “Green Lantern”)”, etc)
    2. books – alphabetically by most prolific author involved.

    B. Source materials (historical texts, laws and documents, religious texts, pre-1700s fiction primarily bought for analysis or study rather than pleasure reading, etc)
    – suborganised chronologically first, by author second – Plato before Shakespeare, Shakespeare before the Declaration of Independence

    C. Non-fiction
    Suborganised by culture it deals with (chronologically, then alphabetically), then main field of study, then narrow field of study, then author’s name.
    So, for instance, a book about the Eleusinian Mystery cults would be Classical World -> Ancient Greece -> Religion -> Saviour cults -> Author name.
    A book about criminology written for and by Americans would be Modern West -> USA -> Social studies -> Criminology -> Author name.

    This sorting was very satisfying to me, though it had a couple of practical issues. Often a source text will have a non-fiction introduction or annotation system of great importance. In these cases, I tried to go by what its primary use seemed to be intended as, or if all else fails, plain math. 300 pages of source text vs 120 pages of commentary -> to section B it goes.
    Another common problem was non-fiction too broad to work properly within the system. A volume on world history from Ancient Mesopotamia to the French revolution. I mostly ended up giving these a sort of root-category placement, ignoring the culture-sorting as void and then placing them by the other categories as usual, up front in the shelves, before even a book on, say, Ancient Egypt architecture by Alvin Anderson.

    Maybe something in this logic will work for you, once you make personal taste changes?

    Comment by Loki — 11 February, 2012 @ 17:00

  5. Wow, sorting by culture before field seems sooo counter-intuitive to me. It’d look almost as bad as willy-nilly, what with a bit of history here next to some religion and some literature, and over there next to some more literature there’s a bit more history as well? I shudder to think!

    Comment by Obdormio — 11 February, 2012 @ 23:50

  6. I see how that could seem counter-intuitive to some, but in my adult life I’ve always been approached very holistically by formal learning, so it makes sense to me personally. If I studied “English”, I would be learning of history, culture, linguistics, grammar, literature, and a large array of other things. If I wanted to write a thesis on Ancient Roman religion, I was told I should have courses in Latin and history first as well. And so on. I used history books and articles as much as religion ones for my papers, and frequently there’d be philosophy, literature or archeology involved in it too. It would melt my brain to sort a book on the cult of Jupiter Optimus Maximus with stuff on the Mormons, but I feel fine placing it next to a book on the Early Republic.

    Literature might be a separate thing though, as it is very meta, being _about_ other texts in the collection or the approach to texts in general. The system I sketched only makes sense for things that are somehow operating within a cultural and historical framework, which non-fiction on literature, I suppose, largely don’t, or at least aspires not to. So I would probably simply make a separate subset for that, a category D – Fiction analysis, if I had enough entries like that to warrant it. It would make sense like that – D would be to A what C is currently to B. (So I would of course order them differently to make the pairings match up, but you get my drift.)

    Anyway, though, this is why you should adapt it to your own needs and desires. I was trying to inspire, not instruct. I am, as I said, very happy with my system, so I see no reason why you cannot devise one for yourself.

    Comment by Loki — 12 February, 2012 @ 00:45

  7. Hey, as I’m walking away from the computer I recall I have a subset like this in my system! I just forget about its existence because I don’t care about those kinds of books much and forget I own some.

    The subset is broader than I indicated in the above suggestion, it’s more like D. Abstract texts. In it, you find works which deal with theories, methods and ideas, but which are too modern to be considered a source to be studied (like a philosophy text from Thomas Aquinas would be, or instance). Such as books about Rituals, or Financial Systems, or Genre Conventions in Horror Movies. And in this subset, you would of course first sort by field, culture has nothing to do there as these kinds of works fetch examples from all over, willy-nilly.

    And again, this makes sense to me, but not necessarily to you. To me, a book about the Church in late Medieval England makes sense next to one about the life and politics of Henry VIII, not next to a book on Religious Imagery and one on the ritual sacrifices in South America. To you, maybe the opposite rings more true.

    Comment by Loki — 12 February, 2012 @ 01:03

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