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Dewey Decimal System

Introduction to the Dewey Decimal System, Melvil Dewey, and issues in cataloging and organizing books

Cataloging Books and Presuppositions

Categorizing books into subject headings is never an simple. This is made even more difficult when approaching academic works. One goal of academic research is approaching issues from different angles, inserting new perspectives into disciplinary fields, and exploring how seemingly simple concepts are actually quite complicated. Ultimately catalogers are faced with the task of fitting complex ideas into neat categories, a task that will always be fraught. Entire message boards on the OCLC website are dedicated to discussions cataloging new books and revising old subject headings to reflect modern discourse.

Why all the Inside Library knowledge? Because how we categorize books is how library users finds books, and this categorization highlights the history of knowledge organization. While some categorizations can be humorous - like books about UFOs in the 001 heading for Knowledge, as UFOs are Unknown - often the Dewey Decimal System classifications showcase the limitations of Melvil Dewey's worldview.

If you find a book that you think is miscategorized, ask a librarian! While there are agreed cataloging standards, robust and open dialogue about the process of organizing books is the only way we can work against biases in Dewey's organization scheme.

A Tale of Three Fashion Books

The three books below about fashion design in the Brooklyn Library stacks illustrate the complexity of cataloging. Though all three are about fashion, they are shelved under vastly different call numbers:

The first book - A Queer History of Fashion - explores the history of queer people working in fashion. It is shelved in 391: the 300 main class is for social science, while the 90 subdivision contains materials on customs, etiquette, and folklore, and the further 91 subdivision for costumes and personal appearance. A lot of books about the history of fashion design are found in 391. Some of this makes sense: history is indeed a social science. But why are books about the history of fashion alongside books about Halloween? When Dewey was creating the Dewey Decimal System, a "costume" referred to a fancy outfit. Fans of the documentary Grey Gardens know that referring to a fashionable outfit as a "costume" remained the preferred nomenclature in some circles. Books about the study of fashion are then shelved in 391, with further designations for the perspective or theoretical lens the book uses, like a history of Black fashion designers in America or a study of Frida Kahlo's wardrobe.

The second book - Laser Cutting for Fashion and Textiles - has a 646 call number. The 600 main class is for technology, while the 40 subdivision is for home and family management, with a further 46 subdivision for sewing, clothing, and personal living. Unlike the book about the history of fashion, this book discusses the manufacturing of clothes using laser cutting technology, a technology applied to clothing and sewing. Books shelved in 646 include books about making sewing patterns and restoring vintage clothes.

So fashion books with a 391 call number discuss the social history of fashion and books with the 646 call number focus on the manufacturing of clothing and textiles. But what about the third book, Native Fashion Now, shelved in 746? The 700 main class includes materials about the fine and decorative arts, with the 40 subdivision reserved for drawing and the decorative arts, further subdivided into 46 for textile arts. This section contains books on the art of fashion, often focused on fashion designers as artists and the art of textile making. Though the book Native Fashion Now certainly uses the socio-historical lens of Native American and Indigenous representation in fashion, it is more image-based and designer-focused than fashion books in the 391 section. Other titles in the 746 range illustrate this distinction, from books about critical fashion practice to the intersections of performance art, fashion, and the grotesque.

For further information about cataloging fashion books, this blog post from the San Francisco Public Library provides insight into Dewey's categorizations of costume, clothing manufacture, and the high art of fashion. For more information about researching fashion in the Pratt Institute Library, this research guide includes information about honing search terms, helpful reference books, and databases with fashion research materials.