A Reading Note

Melvil Dewey, creator of the eponymous Dewey Decimal system, had a particular vision of libraries:

Dewey saw the catalog, like the library, as in essence a great machine. By standardizing its operations—introducing interchangeable parts, establishing consistent standards and practices, and normalizing variations—he saw the hope for a more perfect system. Catalog cards, like librarians, would function as distributed cogs in a great national system of Dewey’s devising.

Wright, Glut, page 174


In hopes of recruiting more pliant librarians willing to follow directions and conform to his desire for implementing a centralized scheme, Dewey actively encouraged the recruitment of women into the profession. He believed that women were more likely to acquiesce to implementing his system rather than devising their own (Dewey was, by modern standards, an unreconstructed chauvinist). However offensive such statements might strike many of us today, his strategy seems to have worked, at least in part: Today, women make up the overwhelming majority of American librarians.

Wright, Glut, page 174

Perhaps even more offensive than Dewey’s sexism was his depiction of a static library—a library without any need for continued innovation. Dewey assumed that by his time, we had learned everything there was to know about the organization of knowledge, and so had no need to labor in that direction any longer. There’s about as much truth to that assumption as there is in the one that women are more compliant—which is to say, no truth at all.

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Alex Wright

Alex Wright shows the many ways we have endeavored to manage an abundance of information, beginning with libraries and encyclopedias, running through taxonomies and folksonomies, and into networks which both eschew formal organization and evolve governing structures as they mature.