Weinberger on Dewey Decimal System (DDC)

I’m just about in the middle of Everything is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger. I’ve enjoyed his other books, and this one perhaps tops them all. Really good read. If you have anything to do with the development, conception, or organization of web sites and web content, get it.

I find myself, however, agreeing with him and disagreeing with at the same time: “Yes, that’s right, but…” For instance, while I’m sure Mr Weinberger knows exactly what the DDC is, I feel he misrepresents it at times. Not that I’m a fan of the DDC nor am I defending it in any way. I’ve never really used it. But it seems he’s attacking some of the wrong aspects of the DDC and in the wrong way.

Of course, seen abstractly–as a second order organization system, to use Weinberger’s term–there are many problems with the DDC. Yes, the geographic splits are very Western-centric. Yes, Christianity gets many divisions while all other religions are lumped together. Those are certainly weakness of the system that shouldn’t be glossed over and will hopefully be corrected.

But the DDC is really about the first order organization of books–how they sit on the shelf. So if you compare its second order arrangement to other second or third order systems, you lose a lot. The DDC is a classification scheme, not a cataloging system. Missing from Everything is Miscellaneous, then, is a discussion of the user experience you have while in the stacks of a DDC library. Namely, the books are arranged by subject. If you find one book on Muslims, others around it are likely to be about Muslims too.

And if you think people don’t look left and right when retrieving a book from a shelf, you’re wrong. They do. It’s an important type of information discovery in physical libraries. Let’s say you go to the stacks for a biography of J.S. Bach. You may then see biographies of C.P.E. Bach and J.C. Bach, perhaps whom you didn’t know much about or even existed. That’s an interesting connection you may not have seen online or in a card catalogue. Or, you may find other novels by Herman Melville near Moby Dick that also interest you. It’s almost like a menu of links for “related products.” Yes, it’s only one dimensional and limited by physics (a book can only be in one place), but it’s a heck of a lot better than no order of books at all.

Also, on page 58 he compares DDC to topics of books on Amazon. This is just wrong. The DDC is a classification scheme, not a list of topics for cataloging books. Comparing the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) to topics on Amazon would have been better, for instance. Of course, you’d find problems with LCSH, but at least the comparison would be accurate.

In other words, a subject heading catalogue is about the second order organization of books–what they are about–, whereas DDC is about the first order organization of books on the shelf. I was missing this in the book, and felt Weinberger’s argument gives readers the wrong impression. He seems to make DDC something it’s not, and sets it up as a paper tiger at times. I agree with many of Weinberger’s conclusions, but how he gets there is problematic, in my opinion.

Note: Rather than a single review of Everything is Miscellaneous, I hope to post more thoughts on individual topics in the future.

About Jim Kalbach

Head of Customer Success at MURAL

2 comments

  1. Pingback: Information Review does not care for it, but Lucy at Over the Backyward eFence does | Everything is Miscellaneous

  2. Pingback: Everything is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger « Kvams

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