This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

July 13, 2006 - Thank You, Melvil

There seem to be two things that everybody knows about public libraries.

First, we collect fines. The collective guilt of America about overdues is staggering.

People, please! For most things, we charge the same rate we did 20 years ago: a nickel a day. It always caps out way, way less than the cost of the item. We just want you to bring things back so other people can use them. Relax!

The second thing people know is the phrase, "the Dewey Decimal System."

But nobody remembers why Melvil Dewey invented it. The short answer is: we really needed it.

Before what librarians call Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) came along, libraries were a mess. The typical system worked like this:

* we got a new book.
* we assigned it an "acquisition" number. Typically, this was nothing more than the cumulating count of our purchases and gifts. So the first book to arrive in a day might be number 700,212. The next one would be 700,213, and so on.
* we indicated a location for the item -- "the green room." Or it might be a specific shelf location -- third shelf from the top, stack number 122.

Sometimes, people also tried to add some kind of subject description. All of the geography books would be by the map cases, and it would say so in the librarian's acquisition list. (There weren't a lot of public catalogs.)

Do you see the problem? As we kept adding books, the locations started to change. One day, that third shelf was full. One day, we had too many geography books to keep in the green room, or by the map cases. So everything got shuffled around.

And nobody went back to the big acquisition book or filing cabinet to cross off the old location and write in a new one.

Dewey's contribution was a significant improvement, and had several dimensions.

Just for starters, he came up with a classification system that attempted to describe the whole universe of possible subjects.

These subjects, or classes of knowledge, were assigned to various numbers. For instance,100-199 contained all works on philosophy and psychology. Within that range were finer divisions (tens and single digits), eventually sifting into still finer subdivisions, identified by decimal numbers (.5, .073, etc).

The DDC had its biases. In the 200s, for instance, Dewey gave lots of numbers to Western religion, and very, very few to Eastern religions.

But it was sturdy. The classification system was both infinitely expandable within the hierarchy, and internally consistent.

And it kept like materials together, greatly easing research, and greatly rewarding the casual browser.

It also had the important value of being relative.

That is, it didn't describe a particular location of an item. It provided a relative location. 153 was after 152, rather than being in a particular room. If something got moved, librarians just had to change a sign -- "the collection continues at ..."

Dewey was also a tireless promoter of the system. He wasn't the first to organize collections by subject. But until him, everybody organized those collections differently. So every library you went to required you to learn a new system. Dewey established a standard.

He also popularized the idea of the public card catalog -- setting up systems where items could be searched by anybody, not just librarians.

And he was serious about those standards; he even described the correct dimensions of the catalog or "index" card. Hence the perfect uniformity of card catalog cabinets.

Developed in 1876, the DDC has been modified 22 times. Today it is used by over 95% of the more than 15,000 public libraries in the United States. It has also been widely adopted in the rest of the world, even though many card catalogs have given way to computers.

It just goes to show you. Libraries work hard to publicize the many fascinating facets of our institution: our many formats of materials, our programs, our online offerings.

What people remember is fines and the Dewey Decimal System.

Now you know why we need them.

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