Challenging DDC – an introduction

In my last post I talked about subject headings and why Library of Congress Subject Headings should be used with caution. This time, I’m going to turn to the behemoth that is the Dewey Decimal Classification. Another disclaimer – this one’s going to have a lot of my original research as my dissertation might be now complete (phew) but it’s still sticking in my head!

DDC is based on Melvil Dewey’s conception of a neat, orderly desk with ten pigeonholes, in which all human knowledge could be neatly stored. As a lot of critics point out, Dewey was far more concerned with the structure than the substance of this knowledge. The classification is hierarchical and works along a strict idea of a universal language, which should create a one-to-one relationship between a subject and the DDC number, but this one-to-one relationship allows for very little creative interpretation of the classification. Theoretically, this leads to less confusion and a standard interpretation of subjects that is the same in each library using DDC, but only if your library has a ‘standard’ collection – and when’s the last time you saw one of those?

I looked at DDC in relation to Women’s Studies and feminism, and there’s one overarching problem. Material on women is filed under 305.42, the ‘role and social status of women’, under social sciences, but material on feminism is also filed here. While feminism is of course ultimately about the role and social status of women, it is also a political movement, personal ideology, and form of criticism, as well as many other things. By running this into ‘women’ DDC devalues both feminism and women, seemingly treating both subjects as though they are one and the same and not important enough for further subdivision. We see this again in 207.082, the number under which the cataloguer is instructed to file material on Christian feminism. The massive problem with this is that this is also the place for material on women and Christianity, and for a lot of the material concerning Christian views on women – three radically different topics uneasily existing next to each other, both ideologically and physically, on the shelves of our libraries.

Similarly, adding -082 to a DDC number is given as the way to indicate something is of a feminist slant. However, the direction to add -082 to a number also applies when the cataloguer needs to denote that this topic concerns women especially. It bears repeating – a subject and women is not the same as a feminist slant on a topic. The fact that feminist criticism of subjects would also come under this number makes it even more inappropriate as it makes the number a poorly thought out mix of ‘this topic plus women and women related topics’.

One problem identified by a lot of critics of DDC is that it creates a binary of ‘ghetto and diaspora’, either clustering all material relating to a topic in a single, over burdened DDC number (like women) or scatters them so far across the classification that the library user can’t find material easily. Adding -082 to a number might denote a focus on women but it doesn’t move it closer to other material on women, and there’s a strict limit on how many expansions you can add.

Sometimes the language used affects the number, even subconsciously. The 360s are labelled as ‘social problems’, which is bad enough, but consider the number for birth control – 363.96, which is filed under 363.9 – ‘population problems’. There is no reason for this sort of language anymore, and it insults librarians and library users.

There’s also another key problem – sometimes, while the DDC number itself is accurate, reasonable, and using appropriate language, it may be placed amongst radically different material. The section on family ethics contains material about both abortion and infanticide – not ideal and potentially politically charged.

Intersectionality is, like with LCSH, largely ignored. The fact that our users are multi-faceted individuals who want to find themselves in our collections is not being heard by the compilers of monolithic structures like DDC. Internal policies might improve matters – like allowing multiple extensions on the end, showing that material is about, for example, women of colour – but ultimately the ideological underpinnings of DDC will prevent this. As with LCSH, it’s up to the cataloguer to pay attention and challenge DDC to improve.

The resources I recommended last time are also worth a re-read bearing in mind Dewey’s unique characteristics, but I’d also recommend the following:

Drabinski, Emily. “Teaching the Radical Catalog.” In Radical Cataloging: Essays at the Front, edited by K R Roberto, 198–205. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc, 2008.

Kublik, Angela, Virginia Clevette, Dennis Ward, and Hope A. Olson. “Adapting Dominant Classifications to Particular Contexts.” Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 37, no. 1–2 (July 23, 2003): 13–31.

Olson, Hope A., The Power to Name: Locating the Limits of Subject Representation in Libraries. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publisher, 2002

Palmer, Carole L., and Cheryl Knott Malone. “Elaborate Isolation: Metastructures of Knowledge about Women.” The Information Society 17, no. 3 (July 29, 2006): 179–94.

Satija, M.P. The Theory and Practice of the Dewey Decimal Classification System. Oxford: Chandos Publishing, 2007.

10 replies

  1. Hi Sarah,

    Let me first tell you that I appreciate this post very much. I’m at the total opposite of you, second year MLIS taking a beginning cataloging and classification course. DDC is driving me bonkers!


  2. Sarah, are you wiling/able to share your dissertation? I’m writing a paper about cataloging right now and I’m taking a cataloging class in the spring so I’m really interested to read it.


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