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Essay on History of the Dewey Decimal Classification System

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A History of the Dewey Decimal System

The history of the Dewey Decimal Classification System (DDC) hearkens back to the very beginning of the modern library movement in the nineteenth century. The classification scheme’s progenitor was a man named Melvil Dewey who was born to a poor family in upstate New York in 1851. 1 His full name was Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey, but he was a man who supported language/spelling reform and had his named shortened to just Melvil Dewey. He even tried to have his family name further shortened to Dui. 2 In this he failed, but this is only one failure amongst his many successes. Dewey had a profound effect on the library movement in America. He originated the DDC in 1873 and had it published and patented in 1876. There has been some speculation that Dewey synthesized ideas from a number of sources and coordinated them into a unified system. There is some evidence to suggest that Dewey may have been introduced to the idea of a decimal classification by a pamphlet written by Nathaniel Shurtlaff in 1856. 3 The DDC may also have been partly adapted from a scheme that William Lorrey Harris had formed from a structure expressed by Sir Francis Bacon, and refined by the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. 4 Regardless of where the scheme emerged from, however, Dewey was the first person to properly expand on and define his ideas concerning a classification that placed books into a relative order based on disciplines rather than an alphabetical order, or one that simply identifies a shelf space for a specific book. The DDC was the first timely modern system that introduced features like relative locations and a relative index. This allowed books to be placed in stacks based on their relationships to one a...


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...n: A Study Manual and Number Building Guide, (Englewood, Colorado: Libraries Unlimited, 1998), 10.

10. Mona L. Scott, Dewey Decimal Classification, 21st Edition: A Study Manual and Number Building Guide, (Englewood, Colorado: Libraries Unlimited, 1998), 29-32.

11. Russell Sweeney, “The International Use of the Dewey Decimal Classification,” International Cataloguing and Bibliographic Control v. 24 (October/December 1995): 61.

12. Forest Press, “About Dewey and OCLC Forest Press,” 2003, (24 March 2003).

13. Forest Press, “Introduction to the Dewey Decimal Classification,” 2003, (24 March 2003).

14. Forest Press, “Introduction to the Dewey Decimal Classification,” 2003, (24 March 2003).


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