October 14

Dewey Is Dead (Sort Of)

The Dewey Decimal System, designed to categorize all the various topics of human knowledge into a numerical outline, was an amazing innovation. Through this system, a person can walk into a library and within minutes find the books that relate to a specific field of information. Developed by Melvil Dewey, and based on the classification of knowledge proposed by Francis Bacon, the comprehensiveness of the system is seen in the fact that, though the computer had not been invented yet, information about computers, computer programming and computer science fit easily into the system. While many libraries now use an alternate system developed by the Library of Congress, Dewey is still in widespread use.

Then the Internet came along.

A writer trying to do research used to have to learn Dewey’s system, but not anymore. With the development of keyword searching, Bacon’s classification of knowledge and Dewey’s numerical system appear to be obsolete. To obtain information, we no longer have to find a certain book on a certain shelf, but we can simply browse the web with a keyword. End of story, right?

Wrong.  Anyone who has used keyword searches to any degree realizes that such a search has drastic limitations. If I do a search for a particular word I may find little or no useful information, but if I use a synonym I can find a great volume of material. If I am searching in a field of knowledge in which I am unfamiliar, I may not know the right keywords to use. And of course, the same word may have several definitions, so that along with the correct information I can get a flood of material on various other topics.

None of that, however, addresses the most problematic issue with keyword searches on the web. Unlike traditional research, search engines are frequently slanted away from the most useful information and toward the websites and blogs of those who know how to turn the system in their favor. If you search for a  particular medication, for example, the top hits may not be an authoritative and unbiased presentation of the drug and its uses, side effects, and so on. The first hit on the list may be an ad for Canadian drugs, or a website that opposes the use of the medication! Many people are too lazy to scroll down, and they read the first entry as if it were fact, when it could merely be a rant from someone with no medical knowledge at all!

So by all means use the web, but be discerning and willing to scroll down until you find the best, most balanced information. And don’t give up on your local library. I guess Dewey isn’t dead after all.

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Posted October 14, 2011 by Dave Fessenden in category "Uncategorized


  1. By Jeannette Case Schlicher on

    Interestingly, Melville Dewey was in church when he first conceived the idea for his classification system. The unanswered question: Did God inspire him…or was his mind wandering from the sermon?

    After college, I went on to graduate school for library science, but didn’t complete that particular degree because my seeming inability to wrap my mind around one foundational course–cataloging–completely discouraged me. Now, however, the Internet, specifically LibraryThing.com, has pretty much eliminated even the NEED for such a course (except for those who actually work for LibraryThing, that is)!

  2. By Dave Fessenden (Post author) on

    I understand Melvil (that’s the way he insisted on spelling it) was rather hard to get along with. Maybe the sermon was on “live peaceably with all men.”

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