I just need to interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to clear up what appears to be a common misconception.
I have this shirt.
Pretty rad, right? It totally draws conversation, and has resulted in me meeting a few very cool fellow librarians when out on the town, too. (Hi, Rob & Shannon!) But it also tends to expose people’s misunderstandings about what’s pictured there.
The picture in that image above is of a card catalog, y’all. It’s a card filing system, and it contains (or contained) cards, on which were printed information about items in a library’s collection. The joke on the t-shirt – “never forget” – is a reference to the fact that card catalogs are pretty much dead. Gone. We now have electronic catalogs that have the same library function: to find what books we have by title, author, and more bibliographic attributes, as well as by subject. Card catalogs. Gone.
But I keep hearing people mention Dewey when they see this shirt. There is no Dewey on this shirt, folks. Let me help.
The Dewey decimal system is a classification system, meaning a way of classifying books (or other items) by subject, and coding subjects, in this case, by a series of numbers. We group books together by subject, so that if you find the one book you want, you can find a bunch of other similar books parked next to it on the shelf. In this way, 796.63 stands for “Mountain biking (All-terrain cycling).” 636.76 stands for toy dogs, including the chihuahua. This classification system does not need cards, or a card catalog. It is alive and well in many libraries today, including the one I work in. We use an electronic catalog, not a card catalog, but Dewey, all the same. My books on true crime [homicide] sit happily together at 364.152. Right now. Dewey. Not Gone.
See the difference?
If your eyes aren’t glazed over yet, I’ll tell you that when I couldn’t find a print copy anywhere of Irrepressible Reformer: a biography of Melvil Dewey, I started reading it through Google Books. (This book’s Dewey number, by the way, is 020.92. You’re welcome.) I didn’t get to finish, because Google Books offers only a preview, which turned out to be something like 100 pages, if memory serves. But I read enough to tell you that Dewey, creator of the system, was a fascinating character. He was a reformer and an innovator of a number of systems, not only classification of books but library practices generally, the metric system, spelling, higher education, and library schools. He’s also a pretty controversial figure, having used very questionable business practices and even in the most generous of light, taken advantage of his benefactors. (For example, he set up various organizations and bureaus in pursuit of his various causes, but they all shared one money pool, so that donors to one cause often ended up funding an entirely different one.) As part of his crusade for simplified spellings (thru for through, etc.), he changed his name from Melville Louis Dewey to Melvil Dui. That Melvil was an interesting guy.
All right, hope you’re still with me. Let’s review. Card catalog:
A physical thing. Large. Heavy. Cumbersome. Mostly dead and gone. [Also, I want to own one of these very badly.]
A system of categorizing and organizing books. The catalog that leads a person to a book using Dewey can be electronic, and today, almost certainly is. Not dead and gone. [Although if you tempt me I may tell you about the Library of Congress's alternative classification system...]