Dewey or LC?

Q. Which is older, the Library of Congress Classification or Dewey? Which is more popular?

A. Quickly, Dewey is older and more popular, depending somewhat on the type of library. But let’s step back to the purposes of a classification system to understand a bit more about classification.

To “catalog” a book or other form of library material involves several interrelated processes which all contribute to the achievement of Charles Ammi Cutter’s “objects” for a catalog:

    * To enable a person to find a book of which the author, title, or subject is known
    * To show what the library has by a given author, on a given subject, or in a given kind of literature, and
    * To assist in the choice of a book.

(Adapted from Rules for a Printed Dictionary Catalogue, by Charles Ammi Cutter, 4th ed., 1904, p. 12.)

Classification is just one piece of the cataloging process. As Hugh Atkinson wrote, “Classification is necessary not just because it puts something in a particular place in the library but also because it demonstrates to the user a relationship of one kind or another.” (p. 1, “Classification of Library Materials,” ed. by Betty Bengston and Janet Swan Hill (Neal-Schuman, 1990) and based on a preconference of the same name held July 4, 1985). And if you’ve ever tried to devise a classification or other system for arranging things, you know that items may have different aspects that may result in alternatives. Do you keep the brown sugar near other baking supplies, or near the oatmeal?

Over the centuries, people have put forth many classification systems. Some were more inventory or shelving schemes, with sequential numbers assigned as books were added. But fixed location systems do not allow for expansion in the number of works on a topic or of knowledge in general, one of the necessities of a robust system. Homegrown classifications worked for small libraries, but it was with the growth in both the number of libraries and the size of libraries in the 19th century that people began casting around for other systems. Homegrown systems also worked while the initial creator, or a knowledgeable protégé, was available to expand the system, a key feature which have made both the Dewey and LC classifications sustainable for over a century.

Melvil Dewey published his decimal classification system as a small pamphlet in 1873, but published a larger expanded version in 1876—the same year as the founding of the American Library Association, another endeavor in which Dewey had a key role. With his major role in the new association, word of his system spread, and it was adopted broadly. Over the next few years, there were additional expansions and revisions, with a popular 14th edition published in 1942, an unpopular 15th in 1951, and a more popular 16th in 1958—just in time for the post-Sputnik explosion in libraries. The process of continuous review and revision continues under the guidance of the Dewey Decimal Classification Editorial Policy Committee. The Dewey Decimal Classification, now in its 23rd edition, is published and maintained by OCLC and is the world’s most popular classification, with the bulk of the libraries using it being public and school libraries.

Meanwhile, at the Library of Congress, work began on a system to classify the materials in the collection in 1897 when the library, then about a million volumes, moved into a new building. The systems devised by Thomas Jefferson for his collection that was LC’s core collection and the various departmental systems no longer worked and a system devised by Cutter that used alpha-numeric notation, and which was in use in several New England libraries, was explored, but in the end the Library of Congress embarked on a new system that was “essentially an independent one moulded around the stock and departmental structure of the library.” (p. 131, Sayers, W. C. Berwick’s A Manual of Classification for Librarians, 4th ed. revised by Arthur Maltby (Deutsch, 1967). The first schedules to be published were E-F, History of the Americas, in 1901, with Z, Bibliography and Library Science, to follow in 1902. The LC system tends to be used in larger libraries, particularly academic libraries.

So, is it necessary to switch from one to the other? Probably not, as the disruption to the user by the process would be severe. The managers for both classification systems work, hard, to incorporate new knowledge and new aspects of older topics, but if your library is using a local system or a classification scheme not maintained and updated, it might be in the interests of your users to align the collection with a system that is maintained.



During my years as a high school librarian, I couldn’t help but be aware of the irony of our college-prep school libraries with their DDS classification. If given the scope to administer a brand new secondary school library collection I might very well buck tradition and opt for the LC system.

I would agree with you that “disruption to the user” is a justification for avoiding a sudden switch from one system to another. It might also justify the use of LC in high school settings to pave the way for a smooth transition of college-bound students to the academic library realm.