Dewey decimal system

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The JC pontificates about technology
An occasional series.
That’s 001.9 at the top, obviously.

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The Dewey decimal system divides the universe, known and unknown[1] into a subdivisions of 1,000. In its way, it offers infinite particularity, but only by subdivision of ten major categories:

  • 000: General Reference
  • 100: Philosophy
  • 200: Religion
  • 300: Social Sciences
  • 400 Language
  • 500 Natural Science
  • 600 Applied Science
  • 700 Arts & Recreation
  • 800 Literature
  • 900 History

As with all taxonomies, these major categories carve nature in an idiosyncratic way — not to get all post-structuralist on you, but a way that is inevitably rooted in the western intellectual tradition in which Dewey, universities and their libraries operate. They produce arbitrary dis-juxtapositions: Why is Logic (part of Philosophy) nowhere near Mathematics (a part of Natural Science) or even Language? Why do Religion and Philosophy — intimately connected in many ways — have two categories, but all of Natural Science only one? And so on.

But we have to physically arrange our libraries somehow, and that forced Dewey into an intellectual commitment to some kind of order, privileged over all the others. But in our crazy, sugar-coated post-modern world, that’s not really how we see things any more. To taxonomise is to narratise, is to commit to a certain paradigm. To narratise is, arbitrarily, to prefer one story over all others, with no logical grounds for doing so.[2]

This has a consequent effect on how one thinks about the world: if you want to find the book you’re looking for, you must accept the prevailing taxonomy (what good is using another taxonomy, however suitable, if it means never being able to find the book you are after?)

But we are in the information age now. Since the need for physical book storage has changed — we can now enforce a Cartesian split between the book as intellectual concept and as physical artefact, and the physical artefact isn’t the interesting bit — the Dewey decimal system has more or less disappeared from use. Boolean search means you can search on any keyword you fancy.

A Boolean methodology does not require any such juxtaposition. It is open-ended and infinite, and agnostic to rules where in the same way that a full-blown taxonomy is closed-ended and finite.

Entertainingly, courtesy of some well-meaning rube, the Dewey decimal system limped on in the information age, in the shape of webdewey. This may be the librarian’s equivalent of the Lehmans online Amish supplies store[3].

See also


  1. 001.9, as any fule kno.
  2. Paradigms are incommensurable, in other words: you cannot judge one in terms of another, and nor are there naturally-occurring “neutral” criteria independent of both by which they may be compared: all criteria for any judgment are a product of some paradigm or other.
  3. It’s Lehman, not Lehmans. Well, it was, any rate. Who knew that an online store for people living off the grid would outlive a Wall Street behemoth?