In Defence of Dewey ... well sort of!

In Defence of Dewey ... well sort of!
One zinester attacks the Dewey Decimal System
25 July 2011

While on a buying trip for the collection, one of our staff bought an American zine for herself titled, “The Dewey Decimal System is decadent and depraved.” She didn’t buy it for the collection as the National Library generally only collects zines by Australians. She, like every other librarian who has seen it on her desk, was drawn to it a) because librarians are tickled to see that someone is noticing what we do even if they don’t like it and b) because most librarians actually have quite a lot of sympathy for the author’s point of view. The Dewey Decimal System frustrates librarians sometimes too! In the zine, the author, who works shelving books, discovers that although there is an excellent comic/graphic novel section some seminal works are missing from it. He finds Maus : a survivor's tale by Art Spiegelman in the 940s and The New Yorker cartoon collection in the 320s. He speculates that a move away from the 740s indicates some kind of value judgement of the books’ worth. Do only the good comics get moved? Unfortunately the author doesn’t find anyone who is able to explain why all the comics/graphic novels are not grouped together at the same Dewey number. Hopefully my explanation will make it seem less arbitrary and remove any hint of an insult to creators of graphic works. Basically all of Dewey is devoted to non-fiction with the exceptions of the 800s for literature and the comic/graphic novels numbers 741.5 and 741.56. In the past 741.5 and 741.56 were exclusively for fictional works. As most comics/graphic novels were fictional they were placed under these numbers. 741.5 is for comic books, graphic novels, fotonovelas such as Astérix, Fantastic Four, Tintin and Wonder Woman. 741.56 is for cartoons, caricatures and comic strips such as Andy Capp, The Far Side, Garfield and Peanuts. These numbers are in the 740s because they come under Graphic Arts so having graphic novels/comics at these numbers acknowledges the importance of the artwork in them. Other literature is also separated by form into poetry, fiction, drama etc., which is located in the 800s, so the emphasis on form is not only applied to graphic novels.

The graphic novels that ended up at other Dewey numbers were either non-fiction or walked a fine line between fiction and non-fiction. Maus is a description of Art Spiegelman’s father’s life in Poland before and during the Second World War and his later life in New York City. Since it documents the real life experiences of a Holocaust survivor it is placed at a Dewey number for history. Of course there is still the pesky problem of the characters being mice, which really does make it fiction and in some libraries you’ll find it at 741.5. Dewey has recently released its latest edition (23) in which both non-fiction and fiction graphic novels and cartoons can be placed at 741.5 and 741.56. However cartoons created principally to convey a message or persuade an audience with regard to a particular topic will still be placed with that topic so this means The New Yorker cartoon collection would still end up in the 320s.

By the end of the zine, the author concludes that comics/graphic novels should be scattered throughout the collection instead of being contained at one Dewey number which doesn’t reflect their subject matter. I don’t feel frustrated by the limited choice of numbers available for graphic novels/comics since I think most people who are interested in them will appreciate finding them in the same spot in their local library. It would also be quite hard to accurately apply a Dewey number for one subject to a piece of fiction which may explore many subjects in the course of a whole book. Part of the Dewey number for a collection of works of fiction, where the subject matter is more obvious, does include the subject. A book titled, “Australian tales of horror” would have the Dewey A823.08738 with the numbers after the decimal point indicating that the works are short horror stories. Collections of graphic novels/comics can have the same subject additions if they deal very obviously with one genre. What I do find frustrating about Dewey is the world perspective that permeates it. It is hardly surprising that a classification system designed by a 19th century white American man reflects a male white American 19th century world view but this can be a source of some difficulties when assigning numbers to modern books. This is why when I tried to catalogue a collection of stories and poems about erotic love I was given the choice between a number for “Love and marriage” or a number for “Sex.” Apparently sex in marriage was unheard of in the 19th century! Another example of the skewed world of Dewey is found in the number for religion. Dewey numbers for Christianity (including many different denominations) span from 230 to 280 with all “Other religions” lumped under 290. However for all its faults Dewey has been a remarkably successful tool for organising library books to allow readers to browse by subject which is no mean feat!