Dewey vs. the card catalog

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…]

9 Responses

  1. I’ll admit it took me a click to get the joke but I certainly wouldn’t have thought of Dewey. I remember when our public library got a microfilm system that replaced the card cat. Although I may be nostalgic now for the cards, at the time I loved pressing the buttons on the microfilm reader.

  2. I was raised by librarians, and my father had definite opinions on Dewey vs. Library of Congress. There was one particular number in the Dewey system that always made my parents blush, since that was the location (back in the stacks, of course) where they used to go to make out when the senior librarians weren’t looking. πŸ™‚

  3. That is a great story, Anthony! Can you tell us what the Dewey number was?? And which side was your dad on? I’ve worked under both Dewey and LC, and feel that they both have applications.

    Thomas, microfilm… another blast from the past πŸ™‚

    • I remember none of the details at this point. It was a long time ago. I think he favored the Dewey system, but I’m not sure about that and I certainly don’t remember his reasons.

      Oh, and he later sold filing systems for microfilm (or at least microfiche).

      • Just my two cents as a library user and not as liirarban:Maybe I’m just too much of a pattern seeking animal. I get a little irritated when libraries start messing with Dewey. Our county library started splitting out the fiction by different categories; classics, suspense, science fiction, etc. Well if I want to find a book that fits more than one of those categories I have to try to guess how the powers that be decided to label it. Is 1984 under classic of science fiction? You can just imagine how frustrated I get in a book store. Anyway, If I get this frustrated I can only imagine how difficult it would be for some elementary school kids to find a book. Keep the AR books in with the rest.

  4. lol! this is awesome. also: i want that shirt. πŸ™‚

  5. Jairo, I’m not sure they’re actually messing with Dewey when they split out fiction by genre; Dewey really classifies your nonfiction by subject, and leaves fiction in one big section by author, with the option to do that splitting out into genres. And there are certainly folks on both sides of that issue! I can understand your frustration. But may I offer a suggestion: if you’re having trouble, a great way to find what you’re looking for is to ask a librarian for help! That’s what they’re there for.

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