There's Gotta Be Someone Better

A lonely girl hugs her book in a bookstore as other books fly around her like birds.

I browse Reddit, just like several other hundred million people per month will drop in on the site. And by "browse Reddit" I mean I grabbed all the RSS feeds for the subreddits I really want to see, shoved those into my RSS aggregator (currently NetNewsWire), and then I try and stay off the damn site as much as I can. 

Autobot Rewind. Function: Archivist.
Information should be free. It should also be mine.

But there are places where I'll hit up the comments sections either out of interest or self-loathing, and one of those places is r/Libraries, a subreddit about libraries, librarians, and library life. A post about a spring cleaning event on Steam offered a cute little librarian character to help you sort out your games library and, of course, recommend new games. It's a robot looking thing that kind of invokes the offspring of an illicit affair between a clock radio and a Transformer. Fine, fine. There have been librarians in the Transformers universe before, notably Orion Pax (who later became Optimus Prime) and Rewind.

But the folks who created this little virtual robot librarian came up with the most uncreative name for him/her/it.


That's right, Dewey. You know, the name you'd give anything library related.

An ad for Dewey and spring clean up on Steam.
I do kinda dig the house in the forest though.

It's not just the most uncreative name you could use, it's also that they didn't do anything else with it. They could've called the little robot D3W3Y or something, but no. Dewey. Because library.

There's a bigger, underlying problem with this though, and it was brought up by Otterfan:

Kind of sad that the personification of the library will always be named after a guy too creepy and bigoted to hold a job 120 years ago.

That is the bigger problem. Because if you're at all into the history of libraries, you don't have to dig too deep before you find out... Melvil Dewey was a dick. He was a guy who seems to have gotten into library work because that's where the ladies were. He sexually harassed his female colleagues and co-workers. His response to multiple accusations of harassment sounds like something you'd hear from the Wiensteins of today:

I have been very unconventional…as men [are] always who frankly show and speak of their liking of women.
~Melvil Dewey

Almost everyone knows the thing that made Dewey famous: his cataloguing system. What's not so obvious to people outside the library profession is that the Dewey Decimal System is a shite way to organise anything. It's not even a good way to organise numbers, let alone media. It's hard to learn and easy to forget, even for librarians. I worked in a system where they ditched Dewey and, even though I worked with the DDC for ten years previous, by the end of the first year after going Deweyless, I couldn't remember the call number for anything.

Memorability be damned, there are deeper problems still. For example, there are so many religions in the world that you'd expect the Dewey Decimal System to have a place for them in its schema -- and it does. Religious information and texts take up the entirety of the 200s section. Sounds fair, right?

Well it is until you find out that Christianity gets all the numbers between 200 and 289. All of the other religions of the world? 290 to 299. That's why you can wind up with a book on Chinese Zen Buddhism, a mere part of the Buddhist religious story and background, and it'll have a Dewey number of 294.39270951. That's eight digits after the main number; because they need that many to whittle it down and make it fit in. Can you imagine walking down an aisle, finding what you think is the right book, and no.... No this book is 294.39270950. It must be a little further down.

Did a new subject arise? They often do. A new facet of science and mathematics? A new idea in psychology? Yeah, good luck figuring out where that goes. Psychology, broadly, lies from 150 to 159, and that's it. That's what it gets. A new book on new thoughts and new insights into new psychological developments? Good luck figuring out where that goes. Maybe there's room between 154.5547668 and 154.5547786.

Even better, what happens if something changes? Homosexuality as a topic has bounced from 132 (mental derangement) to 159.9 (abnormal psychology). While the newest edition of the DDC manual suggests cataloguing books about homosexuality under 306.766, you can still find them today under 363.49. That's where they catalogue the other books on social problems.

One last fun fact: Did you know that the Dewey Decimal System is a proprietary system, wholly owned and licensed by the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC)? That's right. If a library is using the Dewey Decimal Classification System, someone is paying OCLC to allow it. This is a system that was originally published in 1876. The DDCS is over 140 years old as I write this, but thanks to United States trademark law, OCLC can sue a hotel because they used the system to divide up their rooms. Granted, at that time the DDCS was only 134 years old.

All of that said, using Dewey to represent anything related to libraries strikes me as wildly outdated at best and irresponsible at worst. A serial sexual harasser with a lousy cataloguing system that only now are libraries beginning to abandon for something closer to BISAC, a cataloguing system that actually makes some goddamn sense. It's like using Harvey Weinstein as an icon for Hollywood movies. 

But seriously, with all the talk of open access, freedom of information, freedom of access, and so on... you'd think smarter librarians than me would've seen the need for a fully open source, open access, free as in speech and free as in beer cataloguing system that the people we serve might actually understand. Hell, put the damn thing in git and when someone needs a new subject heading, they can open up a pull request. Who knows? I'm just throwing out ideas and I'm more than willing to admit it probably wouldn't work anyway.

It's easy to predict what happens when you try to replace multiple standards with a single standard.

xkcd Standards comic

But with all of that said... who else could represent the library world in such a way? Ranganathan? Zenodotus? Dorothy Porter? Sarah Byrd Askew? Nadezhda Krupskaya? Sandy Berman? Sarah Bogle? I mean, yeah, these aren't really household names, but neither was Melvil Dewey until librarians made him a household name. It's time for a change, but damned if I can figure out who, or what, to.