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The Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system has nine main categories, each with 10 major-category slots available to the left of the decimal point. Of the 100 major slots available, why then are 88 of them given over to Christian topics, with one each for Jews and Moslems? Why are Buddhists and Hindus confined to the right of the decimal point? Dewey guy must have been a bigot, and the Online Computer Library Center that owns the DDC must be some right-wing Christian evangelist group.

Not at all. The OCLC is a dedicated bunch of open-minded professionals and Melvil Dewey (1851-1931) himself was a progressive on social issues. For example, he hired seven women at the Columbia University library--a radical action at the time--and even set up a library school that admitted women.

No, the DDC is skewed toward Christianity because Dewey intended it to be universal. It has stayed skewed because the DDC is aimed at classifying real books in the real world.

Melvil was a believer in the power of reason. This is reflected in his use of numbers to arrange books and his interest in spelling simplification: He started out as Melville Dewey and for a while went by Melvil Dui. But, most of all, his rationalism is reflected in his belief that the structure of libraries ought to reflect the structure of knowledge. Your local library's geography should be a microcosm of knowledge's own geography.

What does knowledge look like? Francis Bacon said it divides into history, philosophy and literature: What's actually happened, what explains what's happened, and how we reflect on it. Dewey was influenced by William Torrey Harris who took Hegel's suggestion and put philosophy first because, according to Hegel, history is the unfolding of the principles of philosophy. So, after putting some miscellaneous stuff into the 000s, Dewey's system begins with Philosophy, then Religion, Social Science, Language, Natural Science and Mathematics, Applied Sciences, Arts, Literature, and finally Geography and History.

Wayne A. Wiegand has argued that when it came time to subdivide each of the nine major categories, Dewey--who created the DDC when he was in his early 20s--was strongly influenced by his undergraduate education. For example, the nine divisions of the natural science Dewey proposed mirror the nine chapters in the text book he'd used as a student. And, his apportionment of the 10 categories of Religion reflects his small orthodox college's assumption that truth finds its ultimate expression in Christianity.

In the modern world, we no longer make that assumption. At the very least, we take seriously the claims of competing religions. (Do religions engage in competition?) So, why hasn't the DDC been updated?

In fact, it is updated, just about every week. But presumably a large-scale, two-digit change would wreak havoc in the 95% of school libraries and 20% of private institutions that use the DDC. The change would require massive amounts of physical work: scraping off existing numbers, painting in new ones, updating millions of library cards. In the interim, the library system wouldn't be a system at all. And, then you'd have endless arguments over how to redo. Do Scientologists deserve their own left-of-the-decimal spot? Where do you put Jews for Jesus? How about Wicca? It'd be an ugly can of worms to open.

And this highlights two ways our taxonomies are changing now that we're shaking off the physical and moving to the electronic. First, the physical world is so hard to change that a taxonomy that's offensive in its inherent values--and all taxonomies have values baked into them--may be worth maintaining simply because having no taxonomy is worse than having an offensive one. Second, the most important job of the new generation of librarians is to build into information objects sufficient metadata that any organization can create its own taxonomy. Taxonomies are tools, so there's no such thing as the One Right Taxonomy, just as can openers aren't more right than asphalt spreaders. By building in sufficient metadata--no easy task--diverse groups now and forever can build taxonomies that suit their needs.

It means giving up the dream of Universal Reason. But we were due to wake from that dream a long time ago.


David Weinberger edits "The Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization", e-mail self@evident.com.

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