Goldsmiths #CritLib Reading Group

1. Anti-neutrality

August 15th marked the inaugural meeting of Goldsmiths Library’s Critical Librarianship (#CritLib) Reading Group. We kicked things off with a discussion of Melissa Adler’s ‘Classification Along the Color Line: Excavating Racism in the Stacks

Libraries tend to think of themselves as neutral and their classification systems as ahistorical but Adler contextualises the creation of the most common classification systems within America during Postbellum (Post Civil War for the non-history graduates) historical period when they were written.

In the 1860s Americans fought a Civil War over slavery, in the 1870s librarians in the same country began to create what they saw as rational and objective classifications. However, Adler points out that any classification schemes reflects its creator’s subjective point of view. These classification systems supported the establishment of the cis, straight white man as the default subject and ‘othered’ those outside the dominant group.

Adler draws clear parallels between the creation of racist classificatory systems in libraries and the systemic racism woven into the fabric of American society. In the UK, most librarians are familiar with American systems like Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress classifications, but not their British contemporaries. It would be interesting to know more about them and how the reflected the Victorian, colonial mind-set.

However, the article isn’t just a damning document, it is a call to arms, appealing to librarians as a profession to provide what Adler calls ‘local reparative taxonomies’ rather than accepting the status quo.

At Goldsmith’s we took up that call, discussing ways we could call out problem areas in our own library, boost Library Search to give prominence to non-Western publications and work with our students to raise awareness and transform the library.

Technology exists which allows us to make our collections usable without a rigid structure. At Sitterwerk Art Library, the collection is organised using a dynamic order structure allowing items to be reshelved anywhere. RFID tags are used to regularly update the library catalogue with the most recent location for all of the books. It’s a small collection, and the system might not yet be practical at a larger university library. That said, it is an excellent example of how technology allows us to disrupt traditional power structures.

Part of the reason American classification systems have become an international standard is the ease with which other libraries were able to adopt them. Technology can give libraries and our users the tools we need to dismantle yet another system which privileges the ‘universal’ white, cis, middle class man.

Libraries often claim we are neutral spaces, but if racism and inequality are an inherent part of our underlying structure, aren’t we exclusionary by default? Instead of claiming a default, passive neutrality, our library is determined to become an actively inclusive service working to promote self-improvement across our profession.

Advertisements

Bad Dewey

Maria O’Hara (Reading List Services Support Co-Ordinator) outlines why we need to question the existing structures of the Library, namely our classification system -Dewey Decimal – a system used in thousands of libraries across the globe.  

Dewey

1. Melvil Dewey. From The Review of Reviews (1891)

The way information is organised can have a profound and often invisible effect on how we think about, and assign value to, information. Both library users and librarians can assume that, because we have a system, our collections are organised in an impartial, logical way. In fact, classification systems, like the Dewey Decimal System we use here at Goldsmiths, are the creation of flawed individuals. Libraries actually arrange themselves around the dated and often offensive worldviews of old, white Victorian men, and are far from impartial.

To understand how our library is organised, we all need to know a bit more about the man who created the system we use, Melvil Dewey 1. A more famous librarian than Giles from Buffy, Dewey co-founded the American Library association and published the Dewey Decimal Classification System in 1876. In 1884 he founded the first institute for the instruction of librarians and insisted that women be admitted. This all seems very positive until you realise that, he also insisted that female applicants supply photos because ‘you can’t polish a pumpkin’ 2.

By 1905 he had been asked to step down from the American Library Association, amid criticism of his refusal to admit Jewish people to a private members’ club he owned and accusations that he had made unwanted advances on 3 female colleagues during a trip to Alaska 3.

So what system did this anti-Semitic, serial harasser bequeath us? A good place to get to grips with some of Dewey Decimals inherent problems is in the 305s – groups of people 4. First let’s look at some ‘good’ Dewey – age groups.

blog1

At the top level of ‘Age Groups’ you have books that cover multiple generations, and then you have sub-fields for young people, adults and older adults. Sensible, right?

Let’s compare that to ‘People by Gender’. At the top level you have interdisciplinary works on all genders and gender identity. You might expect the subcategories to be men, women and intersex – but no. Instead you have men, more about men and employment of men.

blog2

So where have all the non-men gone? Well it turns out women are just too darn special to classify under ‘People by Gender’. Instead, we’ve got a section all to ourselves just below it. And intersexuality? Intersexuality apparently doesn’t come under gender, its classed with LGBT+ headings completely outside the ‘Groups of People’ section.

blog3

Let’s take a brief foray outside the 305s to look at LGBT+ rights and their journey through Dewey 5. LGBT groups of people first made it into the system in 1932 under the straight up offensive ‘abnormal psychology’. By 1989 they had been moved to the differently offensive section for ‘social problems’. So where are they now? The good news is the sections themselves use modern, acceptable terms and they’re found in the section ‘306.7 – Sexual orientation, transgenderism, intersexuality’. The bad news is that 306.7 sandwiches LGBT+ people between prostitution and child trafficking on one side and fetishes and BDSM on the other.

Rather than classifying the LGBT+ community in an area dedicated to sex and surrounded by a whiff of deviancy, I would argue that LGBT+ people should be classed in the 305s as a group of people, because that is what they are.

That brings us to one of Deweys most egregious failings – its marginalisation of most of the world and its legacy of racism6. Entire books have been written about this and I will only be scratching the surface. Melvil Dewey published his classification system in the period immediately after the post-civil war reconstruction in America ended. This context undoubtedly shaped his treatment of African Americans, whom he referred to as “negroes”. They appeared in only two sections – under Biology and Slavery – in a reflection of the United States’ (and indeed the world’s) continuing preoccupation with white supremacy.

blog4

 

No traces of those offensive and problematic sections remain today, but people are still subdivided into groups by race and nationality. You will likely be unsurprised to head that most of these groupings are either European or descended from Europeans. Most of the world is slotted into the final subcategory, which covers entire continents like Africa and Asia. It also includes groups Melvil Dewey probably saw as “others” who were not part of Western Civilisation. These include (but are not limited to) African Americans, Indigenous Peoples and, in a relic that can seem particularly bizarre to modern commentators, the Irish.

The Dewey Decimal System has evolved and improved significantly since its original publication in 1876. While it is a useful tool for efficiently organising libraries, it is also an invisible tool reinforcing social inequalities that place greater value on knowledge produced by, for and about straight white men. Next time you go to find a book, think about where you’re looking, and who created the path to that information.

Kendall J. Melvil Dewey, Compulsive Innovator: The decimal obsessions of an information organizer. American Libraries Magazine [Internet]. 2014; Available from: https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2014/03/24/melvil-dewey-compulsive-innovator/

3 Ford A. Bringing Harassment Out of the History Books: Addressing the troubling aspects of Melvil Dewey’s legacy. American Libraries Magazine [Internet]. 2018; Available from: https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2018/06/01/melvil-dewey-bringing-harassment-out-of-the-history-books/

4 OCLC. 300 [Internet]. Available from: https://www.oclc.org/content/dam/oclc/webdewey/help/300.pdf

5 Sullivan D. A brief history of homophobia in Dewey decimal classification. Overland literary journal [Internet]. 2015; Available from: https://overland.org.au/2015/07/a-brief-history-of-homophobia-in-dewey-decimal-classification/

6 Adler M. Classification Along the Color Line: Excavating Racism in the Stacks. Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies [Internet]. 2017 Jan 29;1(1). Available from: http://libraryjuicepress.com/journals/index.php/jclis/article/view/17/10

– Maria O’Hara (Reading List Services Support Co-Ordinator)