Nothing in this post is intended to speak for my employer; this is a personal reflection on my own approach to my work.
On June 18, 2018, I began working as one of the editors of the Dewey Decimal Classification.
Two years later: I still haven’t fixed Dewey, sorry, folks. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
The most common response to people hearing my job title is still: “somebody does that??”; it’s unsurprising hearing from non-library folks, but it’s kind of a bummer coming from library workers. The editors who have come before me have poured their heart and soul into making the system better, and they’ve done terrific work that deserves to be recognized outside of niche academic circles. The Dewey editors have been talking to the library world for years (the Dewey blog is 15 years old!), but the library world hasn’t always been listening. I’d like to think my enthusiasm and platform have been helpful in bridging that gap to some extent. I see the meta work of making the work we do transparent and understandable as integral to efforts to make the system more equitable. The webinars, the posts to email lists, sharing via Twitter and Facebook: that’s all part of inviting people into the conversation. As of February 2019, the proposals to revise Dewey are shared publicly (oc.lc/deweyexhibits) before they are discussed and voted on by the international Editorial Policy Committee. The focus of my work in the past two years has been to encourage everyone who is interested to be a part of the revision process, by reviewing proposals in progress, helping with research, or submitting proposals of their own (see oc.lc/deweycontributors for more info).
I’ve struggled to check my ego as an “expert” over this time, even though I still have much more to learn about the complexities of the DDC from the editorial perspective. I am thrilled when people bring up cataloging/classification ethics in discussions, and when the conversation turns to Dewey, I’m grateful to know that word is continuing to get around to library and non-library folks alike that Melvil was not a person to admire (spread the word! Read the book!). I can’t wait for the day no one names their library pets or library podcasts after him. I’m also sincerely glad when people bring up that the DDC is part of Melvil’s heritage; despite more than 140 years’ worth of revisions, the classification is inextricably tied to his worldview.
It takes more self-discipline than I have sometimes to separate my work trying to improve the classification from criticisms of the classification. I work hard at it, though. I know that if I am defensive about criticism, that defensiveness shuts down the invitations we’ve extended to the library community to be a part of the conversation about classification. I have a difficult time when people say inaccurate things about the DDC in their criticism, because I think we need to get the facts right to have constructive conversations; at the same time, I don’t want to derail important conversations. I’ll continue to walk that line as best as I can.
I want to be honest that I struggle with the awareness that I’m supporting an oppressive structure. If anyone out there has thought that I was a hypocrite for supposedly caring about equity and justice while working within this system, you’ll be glad to know that’s what keeps me up at night. My hope is that I can continue to bring transparency into library classification, especially pointing out that while it’s easy to criticize (and fun too!), there are legitimate concerns that the field of librarianship must grapple with. Our classification standards are primarily based on literary warrant—if we don’t like the results we get from that, what warrant should we use instead? In multicultural societies, how do we choose whose worldview is represented in our systems? Are the trade-offs we make by using worldwide classification standards acceptable? Should ease of finding materials take precedence over other concerns (like equity in representation)? Who should make decisions about our standards? Who should pay for the creation and maintenance of our standards? Given limited funding, should addressing inequality in classification be a primary priority for libraries?
I hope you’ll continue joining me in these conversations. I hope you’ll call me in when I fail. Please check out my SoundCloud.