Misc //

Scaling Mount Dewey

Mariana Podesta-Diverio on the exquisitely satisfying and ordered majesty of the Dewey Decimal System.

Melville “Melvil” Louis Kossuth Dewey, a man so impassioned by linguistic utilitarianism he eliminated the redundant letters from his own name, demonstrated applied interest in three things from an early age: library cataloguing and indexing, spelling reform, and library furnishings. His penchant for book indexing is what makes his life’s work relevant and useful to us.[1]

Dewey’s entrancement with the classification and organisation of literature was evident as early as his undergraduate years. He identified the insurmountable necessity to develop a classification that allowed for an infinite number of additions to a library’s collection. Indeed, how can any sizeable collection of books be navigated without systematic organisation? Even private domestic collections—the kind I am certain most people who have gotten this far in the article possess—have their own self-contained system of organisation, be it subject, author, recentness of acquisition, or even colour scheme.

There exists to this day only one major rival for the DDC, the US Library of Congress Classification system (LCC), which is, let’s say, comparable to the imperial system of measurement in terms of sense and relevance of usage locations. I.e. it (the LCC) exists in a dominant part of the world and is therefore relevant but it’s annoying and not as sound as the alternative.

Anyway, I’m not up to the challenge of attempting to make everyone care about the exquisitely satisfying and ordered majesty of the DDC or even of library culture in general,[2] but what I do feel compelled to do, as any good library worker should, is to share knowledge.

All University of Sydney Libraries use the DDC to organise the vast collection that comprises the USYD library catalogue. This, of course, includes the behemoth that is Eastern Avenue’s Fisher Library, the USYD library network’s veritable amygdala.[3]

I love helping people find books in Fisher. It’s one of my favourite parts of the job, not least because it helps me keep my vocal chords warm during a long silent shift. The thing is, upwards of 75% of people who ask me for help do so because they do not know how the system works. Of these, 60%[4] are convinced they do know how the system works, and a further 20% may even dare suggest that their inability to find a book is due to the fact the library is out of order.[5] The rest are a mixed bag. One person once said to me “I know it’s in the 420s[6] so can you just help me look around?” as if this wasn’t a preposterous idea in a library with almost a million titles and the 420s themselves being a voluptuous section indeed. The funny thing is, many of us think we know the system and can navigate it, but even the most DDC-savvy postgraduates are unaware of how to navigate certain parts.

And so, to the discernible purpose of this article: a handy pocket reference guide simple condensed easy to read cheat sheet for how to avoid the more commonly confused elements of the DDC.[7] There are a couple of places where people tend to get lost. They are (in my experience), in this order: Curriculum, Australian/Canadian/South African Literature, ‘decimals vs spaces’ and ‘Which library?’ This list is by no means exhaustive.

Some basics: it’s easy to forget that the system is a decimal system. That means we apply the rules of decimals when establishing the order they should be in. After the decimal point, books are sorted by digit, not by whole number. It means that 418.00071 will be shelved before 418.0071; 495.905 will come before 495.91, and so on. Also, there’s the East Asian collection on level 9, where the Chinese, Japanese and Korean books are organised separately to the Main collection.

Curriculum vs. Main

The Curriculum section, on Level 5, supplies Education students with materials for their courses and teaching placement. It includes primary and high school textbooks, children’s books, young adult fiction and, hot tip, a nice selection of graphic novels around the 740s. The books in Curriculum use the same call numbers as Main, but they are a self-contained sub-section of the library. So if you’ve wandered into level 5 and spotted what you think is the right section but can’t for the life of you locate that book on linguistic theory you’re after, it’s probably because the book you’re looking for is in the Main collection, and the numbers on the shelves actually relate to Curriculum books. Obviously, the obverse goes if you’re trying to locate a book in the Main section that might actually be in Curriculum.

Australian/Canadian/South African Literature

This is the habitat of English students and seasoned procrastinators with a penchant for ingesting extra-curricular fiction. Just like the Curriculum section, the A/C/S Lit section uses the same call numbers as other books but is its own separate section. This exists in the 823s, of which there are three sections: 823 (English/American/Dominant English-speaking countries), A823 (Australian), C823 (Canadian) and S823 (South African). Books in the A/C/S 823s will have the same ‘class’ number (823.91 or 823.89, say) but a specific author number and then book number will succeed it. The infinite-building-block-format of the DDC is quite evident here. Here’s an example, bearing in mind that the 820 section (from 820 to 829) denotes English literature, including poetry, plays, speeches, and essays among other things. The English fiction book [823. 91], by Jeanette Winterson [W7881] (note the ‘W’ obviously indicates ‘Winterson’), “Written on the Body”, [J5 1] is at 823.91 W7881 J5 1. If you look for it in the A823.91 W section, you will not find it. Instead you will find something by an Australian writer like Alexis Wright (who has produced critically acclaimed fiction—so you’d end up with some good reading anyway).[8]

Pay attention to where the spaces are

A decimal point is not the same as a space. Many people go wrong here. This is one of those times where remembering rudimentary mathematics might be of assistance. Identification of the decimal/space difference is facilitated by the fact that a number-space combination takes up two lines on a spine (usually, vertically), and a number-decimal combination takes up one line (usually horizontally). 040 191 is a different book to 040.191, which is itself wholly different to 040.19 1. Pay attention to where the spaces are. They are not for a moment coincidental or dismissible.

Which library?

Is it at Fisher or at the Conservatorium (City)? Maybe Sydney College of the Arts (Rozelle)? Check the “location” on the online entry to make sure you’re in the right building—nay—suburb.[9]

So there you have it. The wonderful world of the DDC marvels some and confuses others but is at its core a thing of great beauty. If you prefer to ask staff for help, please do. Part of the role of the librarians and library assistants (sadly, a dying profession) is guide researchers – so make use of the privilege of talking to a human being before it’s gone.



[1] Although he is best known for his decimal classification system (The Dewey Decimal Classification, hereafter DDC), which he developed at just 21 and copyrighted in 1876, Dewey masterminded a number of library innovations, including furnishings and supplies.

[2]But also like, library culture means book culture, and book culture includes learning cool things like what a “Bastard title” is. I dare you not to Google it.

[3] Basically the most important part of the human brain because of its role in memory, learning and self-preservation. Though if I’d said “cerebral cortex” you might have gotten my point, even though it would have been inaccurate and misleading.

[4] These statistics are completely fabricated approximations.

[5] Although this is true in some cases, the people that say this tend to be arrogant contrarians.

[6] The English & Old English section, otherwise known as “Blaze it”.

[7] This guide is relevant to Fisher only, and is not emblematic of all DDC-organised libraries.

[8] Another example: the Canadian fiction book [C 823.91 ] by Margaret Atwood [A887] The Handmaid’s Tale, [J2 X 2] lives at C823.91 A887 J2 X 2.

[9] Idiot.