Thursday, August 19th, 2010

Introducing the “Melvil Decimal System”

I’ve just pushed a nifty feature for browsing the “Melvil Decimal System” (MDS).

What is MDS? MDS is the Dewey Decimal System, Melvil Dewey’s innovative classification system, as it has been applied to books in LibraryThing members’ books. The wording comes from out-of-copyright sources.

The browse system is nifty. It was to some degree inspired by the elegant user interface to Tom Hickey’s OCLC DeweyBrowser. It is also interesting to see how the classification stacks up against LibraryThing tags. Here are some examples:

As usual, the system is not complete. It does not yet show you how your books stack up against the system. That is coming.

Why MDS? Although he invented his system in 1876, and has been dead for 79 years, Dewey lives on. The library conglomerate OCLC continues to produce new editions, which are copyrighted. And the terms “Dewey,” “Dewey Decimal,” “DDC” and so forth are registered trademarks of OCLC. In the past OCLC has been touchy about Dewey. They once sued the Library Hotel for putting books in rooms according to the rooms’ Dewey number. So we aren’t taking any chances.

Although OCLC updates the Dewey Decimal System, they cannot own the numbers themselves, which are assigned by librarians around the world. Nor can they own the system as it existed in 1922—for that edition is out of copyright.

Make it stop!

Help us out! Knowing the numbers is one thing, but the words bring them alive. Every number has a space for wording, both original (1922) and modern. Members are invited to help fill it out, at least for the top tiers. The original wording should come from Dewey’s 1922 edition, with one difference. Dewey was a spelling-reform nut, and all the later editions of his work are in his semi-phonetic spelling system. This spelling is unbearable, so convert it to standard spelling.

For the “modern” wording, you may modernize both terminology and sentiment. Dewey used “sociology” in the sense of “Social science” and his religion section refers to “Mohammedanism” and “Minor Christian sects.” Those can all be improved. But improvements should reflect only modernity, not the wording of in-copyright editions of the Dewey Decimal System.*

As with other Common Knowledge sections, MDS can also be translated. Indeed, one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a while was a user translating the system into Swedish just a few minutes after launch. There is no current Swedish translation of the Dewey Decimal System.

Lastly, I got into this to help Fleela, Zoe and the other members of the Dewey Decimal Challenge group, “Read a book from every Dewey Decimal category.” Fun idea. You should try it.

What’s missing The feature is, as usual, intentionally half-done. Here are some contemplated features.

  • Connection to YOUR library
  • Links from your catalog, other pages
  • The Library of Congress System

Come talk about it on LibraryThing Talk.

* In many cases, OCLC’s changes haven’t trickled down to the libraries that use the system. DDC 288, formerly for Unitarianism**, is now blank. But both OCLC’s DeweyBrowser and LibraryThing’s MDS browser show books there—a Channing fest to be sure.
** That Unitarianism gets as much space as Catholicism, Judaism and Islam speaks to Dewey’s western Massachusetts world-view.

Dewey, Dewey Decimal, Dewey Decimal Classification, DDC and OCLC are registered trademarks of OCLC. Read more about OCLC and the DDC on their website. LibraryThing is not affiliated with OCLC, but we have the same hatter.

Labels: cataloging, classification, new feature, new features


  1. thelibaryhag says:

    OMG, a librarian’s dream. You are an evil evil person. I could stay up all night with this. Yes, please connect to our libraries!

  2. MsLadyLib says:

    I like. Keep it up!

  3. Tim, your footnotes bring me back to the days of library school – when I wrote an entire paper which proposed a complete overhaul (a “phoenix” schedule) of the Dewey 200s. You probably would have loved the proposed system.

  4. FernandoP says:

    But why Melvile Dewey?

    His classification system is way too complex and the classes he’s created are Very questionable — for example using the class 2 almost entirely for Christianity, compacting the other belief systems in one single subclass.

    Why not something based on the Universal Classification System? Paul Otlet and La Fontaine were, in fact, interested in creating a “neutral” (yeah, not that they could) classification system, much more broad and.. erm… universal.

    I really like LibraryThing but unfortunatelly the Dewey system (a historically USA, white, Christian-centered) was picked instead of my dear Otlet/La Fontaine… Pity.

  5. jksmvly says:

    “unfortunatelly the Dewey system (a historically USA, white, Christian-centered) was picked”

    Uhh… fortunately the U.S. is a Christian centered country!

  6. Nancy Stewart says:

    As an international librarian, I have found the Dewey Decimal system in use in the south Pacific, West Africa, and the Himalayas, and it is simple enough that elementary students from non-western countries can use it, so I don’t understand why FernandoP says it is complex–or ‘white’, for that matter. Now, Library of Congress classification IS complicated!! I am pleased that LibraryThing is providing a way to help people classify their books without having to know Dewey or LC or having access to the cataloging schedules, which are expensive and bulky. I look forward to exploring the new feature!

  7. Bookladymn says:

    I begin introducing Dewey in 2nd grade, really practice and focus and teach it in 3rd grade and have a through review and use it all the time in 4th and 5th grades.
    My personal books have been in Dewey Order since I was in grade school.
    I even wrote a book about the Dewey System for elementary and middle level students.
    I love this – please connect me!

  8. FernandoP says:

    Hi, Nancy.

    In college (as of the posting of this reply I’m still a LIS student in Brazil) we have studied the DDC and the UDC. For what I have seen, UDC classification is usually about juxtaposition of numbers, whereas DDC had a lot of aglutination of them. That is what I refered to as “complex”.

    About the cultural bias, I meant that the origin of DDC was, explicitly, made for American libraries, and, because of the Zeitgeist of when it was thought out, tended more to Christian and “civilized” (what I refered to as “white”) culture.

    I link here a blog post on the mapping of UDC to DDC (and vice versa) classes that also mentions what I am trying to express:
    More specifically this paragraph: “The example below illustrates another interesting case. Classes Dewey 061 and UDC 06 cover roughy the same semantic field but in the subdivision the Dewey Summaries lists a combination of subject and place and as an enumerative classification, provides ready made numbers for combinations of place that are most common in an average (American?) library. This is a frequent approach in the schemes created with the physical book arrangement, i.e. library schelves, in mind. UDC, designed as an indexing language for information retrieval, keeps subject and place in separate tables and allows for any concept of place such as, e.g. (7) North America to be used in combination with any subject as these may coincide in documents. Thus combinations such as Newspapers in North America, or Organizations in North America would not be offered as ready made combinations. There is no selection of ‘preferred’ or ‘most needed countries’ or languages or cultures in the standard UDC edition”

    I’m sorry for the long reply.
    Plus, I’d be glad if you (or anyone else reading :-)) could suggest some 101-reading on LoC Classification — I know about it only what I have read on Wikipedia.

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