A Look Inside the Dewey Decimal System

by Moya K. Mason

An Introduction

A classification scheme should be logical, comprehensive, and contemporary. When using PRECOORDINATE schemes such as the Dewey Decimal system, problems will sometimes arise that are associated with the era it was devised. Dewey's system was originally issued in a forty-two page booklet printed in 1876. Since that time the universe of knowledge has changed: growing constantly, with culturally dependent criteria blurring and shifting in importance. The DDC has tried to stay current by revising itself periodically and is continually open to suggestions and criticisms. By and large, it has survived the test of time by expanding and changing, but defects are inherent in all things and the DDC is no different. By closely examining individual classes and divisions, various realities of the system can be seen. This essay will look at the subject of Environment, and will endeavour to present its strengths and weaknesses within the DOC.

The whole area of the environment is a major concern to many people at the present time and has been for years. From the writings of Rachel Carson (Silent Spring and The Sea Around Us) in the 1960's, to the highly regarded book by Al Gore called An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It (2006), numerous serious issues have been exposed and written about concerning the health of the planet. These need to be easily accessible at public and academic libraries. From the viewpoint of a student of Ecology and the Earth, certain topics would be expected to be found and discussed within the DDC20. On consideration, the following came to mind quite quickly: 'the greenhouse effect', ozone depletion, global warming, acid rain, pesticides, nuclear waste and fallout, slash and burn deforestation, soil erosion, air pollution, animal extinction, loss of agricultural lands through urbanization, and shortage of clean drinking water. Additionally, the history of the environmental movement was expected to be found and a section on environmentalists like Henry David Thoreau, who tried to help humanity realize that there will be future consequences to their actions. The outcome of the examination into DDC20's treatment of the Environment will be discussed in the upcoming paragraphs. The search brought the dual outcomes of surprise and enlightenment.

An Overview

The next step was to look under Environment in the Relative Index in search of confirmation. The first listing had to do with Economics: Natural Resources and Energy at 333.7. The second was Architecture and the Environment at 720.472, where a librarian would class books about 'earth sheltered buildings' and conservation. Environmental Design is found at 711, which can class designs of physical environments for public welfare, convenience, and pleasure. Next came another Economic subdivision with instructions for classes of land use, wilderness areas, parks, and recreational use of water. When thinking about this topic, architecture and economics were not considered, but the notes in the DDC manual were quite extensive, interesting, and helpful.

Environmental Ethics at 179.1 classes ecological ethics under Respect for Life and Nature, and listed under the 200's are entries for Environment and Religion, where one can classify the environmental concerns of particular religions. Neither classification was expected, but they brought some realities to the surface. Already a browser would be experiencing the effects of a scattered subject, with numbers in the 100's, 200's, 300's, and 700's. It did not stop there, with finding Environment versus heredity psychology at 155.234 and a very interesting and lengthy section at 363.7: Environmental Problems and Services. This was the first real sign of recognition for the researcher, finding entries on everything from Sanitation Problems to Acid Precipitation at 363.7386 and Water Pollution at 363.7894. Strangely, this section comes directly after Social Welfare Problems and Services and before Criminology. It is illogically placed, making it quite difficult for a librarian, not to mention a user.

The manual's notes are in-depth and informative on Environmental Social Effects, used to class social consequences of the misuse of Resources and Pollution at 304.28. So were the instructions for Environmental Control on Spacecraft at 629.477 and Ergonomics at 620.82. It was extremely interesting to analyze every category individually. The following synopsis will provide a clear overview of the remaining headings under Environment in the DDC20.

The 300's provided numbers from 324 to 375, listing topics ranging from Environmental Political Parties, International Law and the Environment, Public Administration in specific fields like Environmental Pollution, Environmental Diseases, to Elementary Nature Studies. Numbering in the 500's were Environmental Diseases like Radiation, the Zoology of Animals, the Botany of Plants, Physical Ethnology, and factors in Heredity and Variation at 581.152. And lastly, the 600's gave classifications for Environmental Toxicology, Environmental Medicines, Work Environments, Environmental Health Engineering, Agricultural Injuries, Plant Husbandry, Executive Management and Preservation of the Environment, and finally, Environmental Engineering of Buildings at 696.

In Conclusion

Many observations can be made on the handling of Environment in the DDC20. One thing that is quite striking is the lack of an up-to-date vocabulary. For instance, there is no mention of the 'greenhouse effect', global warming, deforestation, or ozone depiction anywhere in the index, notes, or manual. Also, such topics as 'animal extinction' are not given enough attention, being found low in the hierarchal scheme and subordinate to topics which are not so important. As a result, the DDC20 does not reflect a wholly current view of the Environment, nor is the subject very logically placed within the structure of the scheme, with major sections coming between social problems, like mental retardation and criminology. One also has to wonder if Environment and Religion should be coordinate with Environmental Pollution.

The DDC classes by academic field not subject, and therefore, there is not one single place for any given subject. Consequently, there will always be some scatter in the collection. The Environment is extremely scattered and its various aspects are not arranged in a helpful browsing order for users. Thankfully, there are some redeeming features to be mentioned. The notes and the manual are very interesting and are extremely useful in helping to clarify many aspects of the Environment, even though they need to be updated. The surprising thing was to realize that just as Dewey was caught in a 19th century mode of looking at the world, present day classifiers have their own limitations. This perusal made it clear that the Environment is not just a set of problems that needs to be dealt with by governmental agencies and the public in general. It is a highly sophisticated field covering a wide range of disciplines. The exercise made it abundantly clear that many additional aspects of the environment are as important as this researcher's original ones. In conclusion, there are things that need to be done to make the subject current. An update of the field would be beneficial for both users and librarians, and an overhaul of some of its coordinates would bring it into the 21st century, giving importance to some of the more crucial aspects of the environment, such as the health hazards associated with ozone depletion.

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Reference List

Dewey Decimal Classification Manual, 20th. Ed. Albany, N.Y.: Forest Press, 1989.


Copyright © 2014 Moya K. Mason, All Rights Reserved

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