Thursday 10 September 2009

the Dewey Dewey fog

I was thinking about the Dewey system the other day. As you do, you know.

And if you don't know, the Dewey decimal classification system is that set of numbers you find at the bottom of the spine on a library book, which defines where it lives on a shelf and who its neighbours are going to be.

Down at Bristol Central Library not long ago, I noticed that Becoming Drusilla, that lively tale of an expedition across Wales undertaken by Richard Beard and me (but with some biography thrown in) was jostling between Sexual Metamorphosis- an anthology of TS memoirs, and The Phallus Palace. Strange bedfellows, perhaps, particularly in the latter case. It got me wondering.

In Bristol's libraries, Becoming Drusilla has the Dewey number

the 300's are Social Sciences
306 gives us Culture and Institutions

and then it gets interesting; we find that the Dewey people have been tinkering with terms, and what was formerly Transsexuality is now something rich and strange- and a bit of a minefield.

306.768 Transsexuality Transgenderism and intersexuality
Standard subdivisions are added for transgenderism
and intersexuality together, for transgenderism alone
Including female-to-male transgendered people,
male-to-female transgendered people, intersex people
Class here transsexuality; transgendered people
(cross-dressers, transgenderists, transsexuals)
Class practices associated with transgenderism
and intersexuality in 306.77

Crikey! It's either a travel book or a biography, for goodness sake!

OK, I am being a little disingenuous; I am a transsexual woman, after all; but the book seems to have been ghettoised. There is more to life - my life - than that.

A little test. Think of famous person who was gay. Noel Coward. Right. Look in library catalogue. There. The Life of Noel Coward, by Lesley Cole. Dewey number 792.028

700's are The Arts

792 is Stage Presentations

How odd. So the library does not define Noel Coward by his homosexuality....

On the other hand, we seem to have got off lightly in comparison with Jan Morris' autobiography Conundrum. Jan Morris is of course a travel writer and historian, with a transsexual past. Her Dewey number in Bristol Library has been assigned as 616.8583

Now anything in the 600's is Technology.

616 narrows it down to Diseases.

The 8 after the decimal point puts us in Mental Health,

and to round it off, 858 is Personality Disorders.

The book is sandwiched between Treating Child Sex Offenders and Victims: a practical guide and The Courage To Heal Workbook: for women and men survivors of child abuse.

Very cheerful making.

And this isn't just Bristol Library; checking the British Library catalogue shows that these classifications are the standard ones.

I wonder what Jan would think?


  1. We learnt the Dewey system when I was at school. Mr Windsor was the librarian and was exactly as a librarian should be, moustache, leather elbow patches, smelt of pipe smoke and the arms of his jacket were too long. Thanks to him we could arrange ourselves in alphabetical order very quickly.
    (Thanks for awakening those memories)

    It was thanks to my Norwegian librairian blogging friends that I found out more about Mr Dewey.

    If you visit another library would you find yourself classified in a different section?

  2. I wish I was more familiar with the other system in use here, the Library of Congress numbers, to see how they might play this out!

    Interesting choices they seem to be making, for sure!


  3. The book is lent out so I can't check but does the publisher not give out suggestions so the dimwits out there do not have to let their prejudices show?

    Caroline x

  4. I randomly checked a couple of other online library catalogues, Anji, and they seem to use the same categories. Though I think that librarians at least used to be able to decide independently; I've just read the autobiog of my old english teacher, who trained as a librarian in the 1950s, and described her introduction to the system.

    I must have a look at that system, Alan. Does America just not use Dewey, then? Sounds like UNC v BSF again...

    Mine is lent out too, Caroline. Conundrum, that is. Checking Becoming Drusilla on the British Library website, it is classed as "Sex change- Great Britain" and "Male to female transsexuals- Great Britain - Biography"

    The BL classes Conundrum as 616.8/583 18 and 616.85/83 19, so Jan is indeed down among the child molesters.

  5. I had a similar brush with Mr Dewey a couple of years ago:

    I imagine there are as yet no classmarks for "Straight Studies" or "Cissexuality"?

  6. Blimey, Charlie! They are a bit of a dog's breakfast, aren't they? -though the problem in this case is not so much the categories themselves, as the choice of the categories for assigning the books... but you knew that...

  7. From what I can tell, most of the "public" libraries use Dewey and universities the Library of Congress numbers. I spent a lot of time in the main KU library while my son was there and came to love it. Going to a shelf for one thing I'd written down a number for would bring an armload of interesting companions to explore...


  8. It's a dangerous business, shelf-wandering, isn't it?

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