Sunday Lowdown #60

Interesting Notes from Class:

This week we were learning about how libraries catalog and shelve their books. The Dewey Decimal System? The Library of Congress? Something else? I was mostly interested in the Dewey information, as my library uses the DDS to shelve nonfiction. Here are some notes from the readings:

As one librarian noted about the Dewey Decimal System: “Gardening books were on one shelf and books about planets several bookcases away with home organization and child care in between — It just didn’t make sense.” — “To Dewey or Not to Dewey: Libraries Go Dewey-free” by Maureen McGrath (peer-reviewed article), p. 29

Changing to a non-Dewey system makes library employees think more about where a book should be based on what a patron is looking for. For example, the book entitled Construction Tools: “On the surface, it looked like it should go under building, architecture, or even hobbies but, after looking at the content, it was much more about the people who use the tools and so we placed in the “Careers” category.” — McGrath, p. 30

Anecdotally, we know that one library saw an increase in non-fiction circulation after they ditched Dewey and chose subject headings like “dinosaurs,” “poetry,” and “transportation.” Fiction had always outpaced non-fiction, but non-fiction circulation increased so fiction/nonfiction was 50/50. — p. McGrath, 32-33

Prior to the Dewey Decimal System, many books were organized by size or location (e.g. third shelf down and on the left) on a shelf. Of course, as new books were added and shuffled around texts on the shelves, the librarians would have to recatalog works in the collection. — “A Lot More to Dewey Than Decimals,” Public Libraries, vol. 57. no 6., Dennis Maurizi, p. 34

Although Dewey helped women become librarians and fought for their right to enter a professional field previously denied to them, he was a notorious sexual harasser, even chasing off his own daughter-in-law. He also founded an academic country club of sorts whose rules were segregationist, eventually leading to his ousting from the American Library Association, which he helped found, and losing his librarian job. — Maurizi, p. 35-36

Because Dewey was a notorious racist and segregationist, his Dewey Decimal System reflected his views. He did not have a category for African Americans, so when W.E.B. Du Bois published his infamous The Souls of Black Folks in 1903, it was categorized under “primitive societies.” — Maurizi, p. 36

No cataloging system is perfect because it reflects the feelings of the person who designed it and the times in which they were living. The Library of Congress system used to catalog homosexuality next to “criminality rather than biology or sexual behavior.” — Maurizi, p. 36

This Week’s Blog Posts:

People’s true feelings about sheep came out after they read my review of Sheepish by Catherine Friend. Ya’ll think sheep are stupid. Sheep are majestic weirdos, dammit. And I’m so glad some of you are now keen on getting a copy of this memoir!

More so than my sheep love, readers here were interested in my thoughts on Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. Thanks to this nuanced novel’s popularity in the bookish community (and maybe a push from yours truly?), several of you want to read the story of Emira and Alix.

Next Week’s Blog Posts:

I’ve been thinking about how much reading can make your body ache and groan. Holding the book, bending your neck, that sort of thing. How do we get over the bookish burn when we can’t put our books down? And then I got thinking about accessibility and reading. How do people with chronic pain and limited mobility navigate the physical challenges associated with reading? Check out Time To Ponder Books: Physical Limitations & Books on Tuesday.

Did I mention reading about sheep was calming? After, I headed for the horses and picked up Half Broke by Ginger Gaffney, a memoir about a prison ranch where the horses are more likely to eat garbage and charge like a pack of wolves than nibble carrots from your hands or prance around the prairie. Review on Thursday.

Book I’m Reading Aloud to My Spouse:

We’re back to Tibetan Peach Pie by Tom Robbins, from which we took a break to read True Grit by Charles Portis and then My Lady’s Choosing by Kitty Curran and Larissa Zageris. Robbins’s memoir is split up into chapters based on theme rather than moving chronologically, so it wasn’t hard to get back into. Here is a quote that just had me dying laughing:

There was major fighting in Laos at the time and the [Times-Dispatch] had been giving in front-page coverage, but the editors were starting to have second thoughts about that level of attention, so I was assigned to telephone Richmond residents at random and ask the question “Do You know where Laos is?” Few did. My favorite response was, “He don’t live here. Try across the street.”

Books Added to the TBR Pile:

Thanks to Bill for his recommendation in line with my recent warm feelings about animal memoirs! I also added the Ada Calhoun book about Generation X after the library I patronize started an online book club that meets over Google every other night. The small group that gathers there is comforting during times like these when the only people I talk to are Nick (my spouse) and Kitty (my cat) in person.


  1. Glad to be an influence for the good (I hope!).

    That’s astonishing that something as fact based as the DDS can be racist, sexist whatever. Of course it’s obvious on reflection, but if you hadn’t pointed it out I would never have thought to reflect. We are often dismissive about isms, and I am about postmodernism, but deconstruction – looking at ordinary things analytically – has been its one great benefit.

    A propos something or other you wrote up there my favourite horse book, my favourite animal book of all time is Black Beauty.


    • That’s a second vote for Black Beauty! Maybe I’ll have to check it out. When I read the part about Dewey being a racist and sexual harrasser, it made me think about the section in Dr. Jen Gunter’s book The Vagina Bible in which she talks about how some patients refuse to have an exam that uses the speculum because they are under the impression that it was created by a racist. Gunter clears up the misunderstanding, but thinking about the medical tool and a system in libraries that practically everyone uses side by side was interesting. Would people ditch the DDS due to his personal history?


  2. Your point about the physical limitations of reading is an interesting one, and I can’t wait to read that post. This will sound very weird, but every once in a while, I ponder what my life would be like if something really bad happened to me, like, terrible things, but I like to believe that if I could still read, I would get through the other side ok. But, what if I went blind? Or developed terrible chronic headaches that didn’t allow me to read? Would I be able to go on? I just love reading so much, I’m almost dependent on it, in a way…do you know what i mean?


  3. I’m looking forward to your post on physical limitations and books, Melanie. As an able-bodied person I already feel achy sometimes when I read for too long, and I’m quite picky about my reading positions (I need armrests and a footrest, for one, so I barely read outside of the house). I can only imagine how much more challenging it might be for someone with chronic pain or physical limitations.

    Calhoun’s book is also on my radar—I would love to hear your thoughts about it should you review it. 🙂


    • I think I will review Calhoun! I’ve been slowly collecting my thoughts each time the book club meets. I’ve never been in a book club that meets every few chapters (we’re doing it for the social interaction), so the way that I feel about the book changes from meeting to meeting.

      The physical limitations post was really hard because there aren’t nearly as many resources out there as I thought there would be. I do address physical pain for those who are able-bodied but having temporary issues due to reading. I was inspired by this weird hitch on the inside of my elbow!

      Liked by 1 person

      • If that’s the case, I’d also be interested to seeing the shifts in your opinion as you read the book and what influenced those shifts. 🙂 Sometimes I still change my mind after posting a review of something but I can imagine that it can be confusing to change your mind every week.

        Huh… inspiration does come from the weirdest sources. 🤣 I look forward to your post!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I didn’t know any of this about Dewey! I can see why libraries would move away from that system. It doesn’t reflect our current society (and to the extent it does, it shouldn’t!).


    • My immediate thought was “go to the Library of Congress system,” but I have an example of how that is problematic, too. I think having a system that can be changed and is flexible is the most important, and both DDS and LC are updated frequently. The big problem, for me, is the way Dewey’s name is associated with his system, so you’re constantly reminded of him, when in reality the classifications have changed so much from his original vision.


    • The only other Robbins book I’ve read is Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. I need to get to another one. I always feel like I’m in a time warp when I read Robbins; he’s both alive now and was alive in the 1930s, you?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow, Dewey sounds like a piece of work. I *think* my library uses the DDS for nonfiction; I know there are decimals involved and it’s confusing to navigate the categories so I’m assuming so. Generally if I want a book I have to find it by looking up the call number for each specific title, browsing the shelves gets me nowhere.

    Looking forward to your post on physical limitations with reading this week! I love the feel of a book in my hands, but also have to acknowledge that most of my reading time is spent in bed, using pillows to prop up the book and my head because both get surprisingly heavy- I’m sure it must be even more difficult for those with less mobility. It’s a great topic to consider.


    • If your library nonfiction books have three numbers before the first dot, such as 027. or 300. then it’s likely you’re using DDS. The Library of Congress version is more useful for academic libraries and starts with an alphabet letter.

      I hope I wrote my Time to Ponder post well enough. Now I’m getting nervous! So many people have said they’re interested.


  6. Manky old Dewey – ewww. At least people talk about it. I have worked with Cutter numbers and another one I forget the name of now that was created by Ranganathan. I love talking about classification systems!


  7. I think the DDS has flaws, but it’s hard to move away from it when everyone is so familiar with it. I can see school librarians being a little more flexible with their book collections, perhaps, as children might not be so accustomed to where “everything used to be.”


  8. Your info on the Dewey Decimal System is so interesting! I would never have expected a system like that could be racist but of course it makes sense how it could happen.

    I’m interested to hear your thoughts on Why We Can’t Sleep; it’s been very popular at my local bookstore and I’m intrigued about approaching sleep as an issue specifically for women. (Said as a woman who is generally such a good sleeper I regard it as my super power!)


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