Who Invented the Dewey Decimal System? It Wasn’t Who You Think It Was

Library: The medicine chest of the soul.

Photo by Susan Yin on Unsplash

I love my library. I love the people in my library. I love the books in my library. I love the audiobooks in my library. I love the magazines. I love the movies, the services, the access to Internet.

I love the way that when you want a book and they don’t have it, they reach out to other libraries to see if it is available. I live in Duluth, but sometimes I have borrowed a book that was originally in Louisiana.

Andrew Carnegie built 65 public libraries in Minnesota at the turn of the last century up through World War I. Ours was begun in 1899. What a great gift to any community.

Information is power, but if you can’t find the info you’re looking for you’re pretty powerless. This is why the Dewey Decimal System was created.

Did you know the Dewey Decimal System was not created by John Dewey? For some reason I’d always assumed it was John Dewey because he was an influential progressive involved in educational and social reform during the first half of the 20th century. And, of course, because his name was Dewey.

The correct answer is Melvil Dewey (1851–1931). Melvil (birth name Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey; the shorter version became his nickname) was a librarian, hence his commitment to organizing the contents of libraries. He not only created this system for organizing libraries, he patented it in 1876 after writing a book detailing his ideas. In the acknowledgements he credits Francis Bacon and a classification system developed by Italian philosopher Natale Battezzati.

Very early in my elementary school years I remember being taught how to use the card catalog. That is, every single book in the library was represented by a 3x5 manila card which had the title and where it was located in the library. These cards were kept in narrow drawers in one section of the library. It was called the card catalog.

The cards are long gone, but the organizational system remains. Nowadays we search on a computer database for the books we want. Each is book is still shelved according to its classification. The main classifications are these.

000 — Computer Science, Information and General Works
100 — Philosophy and Psychology
200 — Religion
300 — Social Science
400 — Language
500 — Science
600 — Technology
700 — Arts and Recreation
800 — Literature
900 — History and Geography

I remember learning to memorize this chart above, though the full system goes into much greater depth. Under each major heading are subheadings (or subcategories.) For example, under the History and Geography heading you will find the following breakdown:

900 History
910 Geography & travel
920 Biography & genealogy
930 History of ancient world (to ca. 499)
940 History of Europe
950 History of Asia
960 History of Africa
970 History of North America
980 History of South America
990 History of other areas

In the 920s you will find the 921 sub-section, which in most libraries contains more books than any of the other non-fiction sections.

Very early in life, maybe around fourth grade, I discovered that all the biographies were in 921 so I gravitated to the 921s for years. I loved reading about explorers, inventors, presidents and other famous people.

You can find the full breakdown of Dewey’s classifications here .

All this is apart from the whole Fiction section of the library, organized alphabetically by author’s last name. Everything is laid out for maximum ease of use by you, the library patron.

And as if this weren’t enough, they always have a reference desk where reference librarians exist for the sole purpose of answering questions and helping patrons.

Before the existence of Google, I used to have the reference librarians phone number pinned on the wall next to my phone. As a writer I was in constant need of a detail, or some fact checking. I would call this number and they would do everything in their power to answer. Fortunately, they are still there answering questions, though I’m certain the phones don’t ring as much as they used to.


A couple weeks ago our local library announced a new initiative that was actually quite bold. No more late fees. Also included in this initiative was the absolution of all past fines.

One of the key features of a public library is that it is intended to be for everyone. It was discovered that many people, especially the poor, were no longer utilizing the library because of their debts. Hooray for amnesty.

Our local Duluth library (and many others) have wonderful Children’s Library sections. I’ve often seen people checking out whole bags of books for their kids. This is great! Reading skills are 140.6* times better than television viewing skills in terms of preparing children for life.

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson released the news at an early September press conference. The Duluth News Tribune article went on to point out that, “In some of Duluth’s lowest-income neighborhoods, large numbers of children have lost their library privileges due to unpaid fines. In Duluth’s downtown and Central Hillside neighborhoods, three in every 10 children have lost the ability to check out materials. And in Lincoln Park, four in 10 children have been similarly affected.”

It should be noted that the achievements of Melvil Dewey not only led to his becoming head librarian at Columbia University and the New York State Library System, he even became head of the American Library Association, which ultimately resulted in his becoming a Hall of Fame librarian of such stature that a medal was named after him. Until 2019.

This summer, the American Library Association Council voted to remove Dewey’s name from its top honor, the Melvil Dewey Medal. The resolution cited Dewey’s history of racism, anti-Semitism and sexual harassment. The resolution was passed overwhelmingly with no debate.

Much more can be said, but this is enough for now. If you’re not a regular at your local libraries, it’s a great habit to cultivate, especially if you have young children. I remember the libraries of every place I’ve ever lived. Thanks, Mom!

*140.6 is obviously a bogus number, but it’s probably close

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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