Defeating Dewey and his dated Decimal System

Welcome to the Blogging from A to Z April Challenge! This month my theme is Library Love, focusing on my love of libraries generally, as well as for the Sacramento Public Library (my local library) more specifically. I hope you find these posts informative as well as fun, and that they encourage you to visit your local library to see what’s new.

First things first: I know I said that I’m here to share my LOVE of libraries, and that that implies positivity and rainbows in my posts.

But. BUT!

You can’t get to the rainbow without going through a storm, right? So there are going to be some mentions of the ways that libraries are not just sunshine and lollipops here, too, and this post is going to take down a big ol’ sacred cow that I’d say most non-library folks may (still?) not realize is such a problematic figure.

Melvil Dewey is the thorn pricking the side of most modern libraries, and has been since the start.

The dude eventually resigned from the ALA on charges of sexual harassment, racism, and antisemitism. The ALA finally stripped his name and likeness from their highest honor in 2019, renaming it the ALA Medal of Excellence. Melvil Dewey was NOT a good guy.

So yeah, there is plenty of anti-Dewey sentiment, both in and outside of Libraryland, and I’m not the first one to notice it.

But I did want to include him here as a part of my love for libraries, not because I think he’s a swell guy, but because learning more about how awful he truly was made me want to get more involved with social justice issues at my workplace and gave me some good starting points to dig deeper and do so.

If that sounds a bit weird, I can understand your confusion.

So let me start again with a woman named Dorothy Porter, a librarian at Howard University who dedicated her library career to decolonizing Dewey’s Decimal Classification (DDC) system, placing the achievements of Black scholars alongside those of white scholars — as they ought to have been catalogued from the start.

Unlike Dewey, Dorothy understood that Black culture was not separate from but an influential, integral part of American culture, and therefore ought to be included throughout the DDC, rather than segregated into two degrading decimal points (325 for Colonization or 326 for Slavery). Classifying works by genre and author, rather than by decimal points, she took an “Africana approach to cataloging [which] was very much in line with the priorities of the Harlem Renaissance.” (Smithsonian Magazine, November 2018)

I first learned about Porter’s work in a college class that referenced the documentary Change the Subject, which led me to wonder whether my library (which employes the DDC in its Nonfiction sections) had managed to decolonize its racist subject headings. Long story short: SPL is currently working on the issue, which is well-known in library circles and also difficult to reform quickly, given the many-headed Hydra of racist terms, linguistic slurs, and derogatory subject headings currently embedded in the DDC (as well as the Library of Congress [LOC] system, which is the one challenged by the students profiled in the documentary mentioned above).

If, like Dorothy Porter, we aim to decolonize the catalog, then major revisions are required. Perhaps even an entirely new system needs to be implemented. This can be costly, both in terms of time and money, but it’s also necessary. Who wants to see their personal identity represented negatively in an online catalog, when searching for information that is supposed to educate, enlighten and liberate us?

Clearly, Dewey’s system — and his “complicated” legacy — has got to go.

Fast Facts

For more information on Decolonizing the Catalog, I highly recommend reading this article by the American Libraries Magazine, as well as watching the 2019 documentary Change the Subject.

Thanks for stopping by, and I look forward to sharing more library trivia, tips and tricks for getting the most out of your local library — using all their awesome and often unpublicized free resources — throughout the month of April. See you tomorrow for a fresh new post!


  • Anne E.G. Nydam

    Interesting info about Dewey and the problems with both the man and the system. But it is helpful to have a system where like things are shelved together, so that you can browse instead of just finding the one thing you already knew to look for. I guess part of the problem is deciding what’s “like.”
    Alphabet of Alphabets: Diana

  • Anne Young

    Visiting from A to Z

    O Wow – hadn’t thought about Dewey as a person and sad to read he was so unpleasant

    I usethe Dewey system to organise my own books helped by the app LibraryThing. There are defintely some plusses about grouping like with like until one comes to some surprising separations – I suspect all systems have their limitations. I will follow up your suggested links to learn a bit more.