History of Book Classification

face of a prisoner

Social structure, cultural conventions, and reading practices shape definitions of book classes. The history of book classes is related to the history of social classes. When most readers of most books were the social and intellectual elite, books were categorized in a division of knowledge. With the development of popular, extensive reading, book subjects and styles diversified. Class divisions in reading became relevant. Audience and literary status became elements of book classification.

Consciously considering classification is important for interpreting book class distribution statistics. Consider, for example, what might be called conduct literature – literature of moral instruction, often with strong appeals to biblical teaching. Conduct literature often takes the form of stories with contemporary, but highly stylized, settings and characters. Conduct literature could be classified with religious books, with fiction, or, in a more recent category, “self-help.” How such books are classified has varied through history. How such books are classified affects aggregate book class distribution statistics.

Book classification schemes prior to the late-nineteenth century differed significantly from later classification schemes. The earlier classification schemes commonly placed theology as the first category. The classification scheme used in the New York Society Library in 1850 was based on that of the French bibliographer Jacques-Charles Brunet:

The overall flow of the main categories suggests a movement downward from the hand of God, to the eternal principles of law, then science, to humanity’s higher aspirations though art and belles lettres (the meeting ground between earth and heaven), then to works of a mundane nature about geography, history, and mere biographical details, and finally to works of only temporal value: various periodicals, transactions, bibliography, and novels^

Thomas Bray’s provincial libraries established in America about 1700 grouped as a book class “mathematics and trade.” That class indicates the commercial significance of numerical calculations. The Apprentices’ Library in New York in 1855 had the subcategory “rhetoric” under “mental and moral sciences.” That’s a classical understanding of verbal skill incorporated into the nineteenth-century concept of science.

In 1876, Melvil Dewey published his Dewey Decimal Classification. Dewey put philosophy at the top of his scheme. Dewey’s classes obscured highly popular nineteenth-century book classes: novels, biography, and voyages and travels. Within the “Associations and Institutions” division, Dewey placed “Prisons” (section 365) among the sections “Charitable,” “Religious,” “Political,” “Reformatory and Sanitary,” “Secret Societies,” “Trades Unions,” and “Insurance.” Punishment is politically legitimate infliction of harm. Prisons could have been placed within the “Administration” division, among the sections “Civil Service,” “Army,” and “Navy.” Dewey’s classification of prisons indicates his view of them as charitable, reformatory institutions rather than punitive institutions.

Other book classification systems were used late in the nineteenth century. The American Library Association (ALA) 1893 Model Catalog, which Dewey played a leading role in creating, included classification on the Cutter Expansive Classification. That is the classification system that the Library of Congress used and continues to use. Dewey and other proponents of his classification system had strong institutional positions and important personal connections. Those factors helped the Dewey Decimal Classification to gain popularity in libraries.^ ^

Dewey Decimal Classification came to be widely used. OCLC, which owns the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC), reported:

In the United States, 95 percent of all public and K-12 school libraries, 25 percent of college and university libraries and 20 percent of special libraries use the DDC. More than 200,000 libraries worldwide in 135 countries count on the DDC to keep their collections organized so that their users can easily locate the resources they need.^

A leading scholar of the DDC has declared:

Because it is probably fair to say that at sometime in their lives a substantial majority of Americans living in the twentieth century have used the DDC, it is probably also fair to say that for the past century the scheme itself has quietly – almost invisibly – occupied an influential position as one of the forces sustaining the discursive formulations of a Eurocentric patriarchy. The extent to which the DDC has as a result disadvantaged other discourses has yet to be analyzed. It is hoped that some scholar with a deep understanding of twentieth-century American intellectual, social, and cultural history will write this much-needed book sometime in the near future.^

Understanding the discursive forces that support mass incarceration seems like a much more important scholarly task.

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