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Melvil Dewey: The King of Classification

September 9th, 2010      

Peruse the offerings in any of 200,000 libraries around the world, and you’ll see the footprint of one man: Melvil Dewey. Creator of the Dewey Decimal Classification, Melvil Dewey (1851-1931) was an education reformer, and took it upon himself to codify Francis Bacon’s knowledge structure with a set of numbers, and apply those numbers to Amherst College’s library collection. Dewey was in his twenties when he copyrighted his classification, yet it remains enormously influential today.

Dewey’s system consists of ten classes of knowledge (computer science, information, and general works; philosophy and psychology; religion; social sciences; language; science; technology; arts and recreation; literature; and history, geography, and biography). Each class is divided into ten subcategories, and each of those is divided into ten more categories. In other words, it’s a classic, symmetrical, hierarchy.

Although the Dewey Decimal Classification is widely used, it’s not without flaws. The major drawback is that Dewey didn’t account for the possibility that new classes of knowledge might be uncovered, and thus emerging fields are often hammered into the system like square pegs in round holes.

Like Dewey’s system, SpicyNodes works beautifully for hierarchical classifications. From a home node, parent nodes can be given equal weight, and each parent has its own set of children nodes, which in turn can each have a set of nodes, ad infinitum. This is perfect for allowing users to drill down in a linear fashion to find the information they seek. Yet SpicyNodes goes several steps further, sidestepping the inherent limitations of Dewey’s system. Infinitely flexible, you can always go back and add new parent nodes, expand the number of child nodes, and rearrange the hierarchy as new information becomes available. Moreover, it’s a breeze to link one node (or one nodemap) with another. Dewey wouldn’t need to fret over whether to place Java and Perl in the “computer science” or “language” category. He could link one to the other with a click of his mouse!

Illustration of Mevil Dewey is by Joey Parlett.

One Response

  1. Horace Dediu says:

    Ha. The first MicroVAX computer I was administering (it ran Ultrix) was called Dewey after this man. It was in use in a research library.

    Good times.

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