A brief history of homophobia in Dewey decimal classification

Libraries in more than 138 countries organise their resources according to Dewey decimal classification, or DDC for short. This proprietary system is the most widely used in the world. The DDC number reflects specific subject areas. Browsing shelves for books on similar topics, grouped together to make them easy to find, is both the beauty of and the frustration with the Dewey decimal system.

Once upon a time and yet not so long ago, LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) topics have variously been assigned to DDC categories such as Abnormal Psychology, Perversion, Derangement, as a Social Problem and even as Medical Disorders. Is it any wonder that someone browsing ‘similar’ library items in this area could feel alienated?

Addressing inclusion and alienation, in June 2015 Linda Rudell-Betts of the Los Angeles Public Libraries wrote a post on making sure its LGBTI Collection was assigned DDC call numbers from the twenty-second edition, so that its users are not confronted with earlier, demeaning classifications:

Dewey decimal classification (DDC) itself would assign lesbians, gay men, bisexual people and transgender people (LGBTI people) to a call number, 301.4157, as a kind of ‘abnormal sexual relations’ (modified fourteenth edition of the DDC).

Admittedly the fourteenth edition of DDC was published in 1942, but nonetheless, the spectre of earlier hurtful classifications can linger even when improved numbers have been assigned.

Dewey numbers for LGBTI topics have been and at times continue to be homophobic, reflecting the society and times in which the numbers are developed, from the nineteenth century to present. Melvil Dewey, a man so obsessed with efficiency he shortened the spelling of his first name and considered spelling his surname as ‘Dui’, invented Dewey decimal classification in 1876. Given the nineteenth century origins of DDC, many have noted the inherent cultural bias including a Christian concentration, racism, sexism and homophobia. After all, systems are affected by the time and place in which they are developed. Dewey lived in a puritanical Victorian time, and so his classification system reflects both his personal prejudices and that of the society in which he lived.

The paper ‘Naming the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name: A Look at How Gays and Lesbians are Classified in the Dewey Decimal Classification’ by Michelle Drumm provides a superb outline of why and how DDC has marginalised and demeaned gays and lesbians up until 2000. She traces how they have been treated in a number of DDC editions.

As she states, the 1930s was the first time homosexuality was even mentioned in DDC – in 1932 to be precise. Problematically, it appeared under either the number 132: Mental Derangements, or under 159.9: Abnormal Psychology, specifically 159.9734746: Sexual Inversion/Homosexuality. Drumm also traced homosexuality classified as a neurological disorder (616.85834) in the seventeenth edition, published in 1965. Perhaps it is of some comfort that these DDC numbers are no longer used. The number 132 is now unassigned and was most recently used in Edition 16 (1959). The number 159 was discontinued in Edition 20 (1989).

Drumm notes that in 1952, in the fifteenth edition, homosexuality is listed in the social sciences, the 300s. The topic is grouped in Sociology as 301.424. This is ‘the study of sexes in society’ which ‘includes variations in sex life.’ Homosexuality was classed here.

By the twentieth edition in 1989, homosexuality was classed under Social Problems – 363.49 – and often interfiled with obscenity and pornography. Unfortunately, the number 363.49 is still used for homosexuality, still in the Social Problems area, and is placed next to ‘controversies related to public morals and customs’, although the latest manual gives the instruction to ‘class interdisciplinary works in 306.766.’

The twenty-first edition of DDC was published in 1996 and places homosexuality in the 306s, instead of the more disturbing 301.424 number. These numbers also reflect the schedule in the twenty-third edition. This is the most recent edition, published in 2011. It states that Gay Liberation Movement, Gays, Homophobia should be classed at the number 306.766. Thus LGBTI – and heterosexuality – topics are now mostly classed at the following numbers:

306.76: Sexual orientation, Asexuality

306.764: Heterosexuality

306.765: Bisexuality

306.766: Homosexuality

306.7662: Male homosexuality (gay men)

306.7663: Lesbianism

306.768: Transgenderism and Transsexualism

306.7685: Intersexuality

That said, these books are still found on the shelves with Prostitution (306.74), although that’s also because the overarching topic for 306.7 is Sexual Relations, and in turn this topic is broadly under Culture and Institutions (306), part of the ‘Specific topics in sociology and anthropology’ (302-307) section.

Generally LGBTI topics are no longer interfiled with Abnormal Psychology (although there is classification in General Psychology, including the number 155.344 addressing the psychology of gays and lesbians) or pathologised in the medical section.

In the medical section, the number 616.8583 represents ‘sexual and gender-identity disorders’. Although the twenty-third edition notes that ‘for sexual practices viewed as medical disorders, see 616.8583,’ the directions stress:

Use 616.8583 for homosexuality only when the work treats homosexuality as a medical disorder, or focuses on arguing against the views of those who consider homosexuality to be a medical disorder. . . . If in doubt, prefer a number other than 616.8583.

The Dewey decimal editorial committee has been responsive in the recent past, reclassifying numbers after consultation with experts and members of the public, such as the 2014 ‘Social Sciences 305–306 (Draft for comment)’ discussion paper which discussed preferred numbers and changes for gender identity, homosexuality, transgenderism and intersexuality.

While there is no perfect system, and the Dewey decimal system, like the English language itself, changes and evolves over time, the current set of LGBTI Dewey decimal numbers may be well on the path to classification equality.

Doreen Sullivan

Doreen Sullivan is a librarian who has classified materials using DDC for a long time. She also regularly reviews for and writes about the library industry.

More by Doreen Sullivan ›

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  1. It comes as no surprise. DDC was a crude and reductionist system to begin with. It was an attack on more humane (and human-performed) classifications. Dewey was a time-and-motion man, not a librarian. For the sake of seeming efficiency, things were inappropriately jammed together or excluded altogether. It was strongly resisted by many reference libraries, including, famously, the Library of Congress. Here, librarians were shocked to discover that it had no place for Australian literature, Australian history or even Australian sport. In the 1890s there was a big struggle over its introduction at the State Library of Victoria and Morris Miller later fought it off at the University of Tasmania. DDC heralded the beginning of bloodless information management and has only been made bearable by constant numerical and other extension.

    1. I didn’t know that about the big struggle over the introduction of DDC in the 1890s at the State Library of Victoria and the University of Tasmania. Fascinating.

  2. A very interesting topic–the DDC has been reflective of social norms throughout its history, for good or bad.

    However I think it’s misleading to shorten the heading for the 360s to “Social Problems”, when the correct current heading is “Social Problems & Social Services”. People who don’t regularly use the DDC won’t have access to see that not everything in the 360s is classified as a “social problem”; for example, it includes subjects such as social clubs and the insurance industry. Your abbreviation misrepresents the hierarchy in this area.

    As you said, a lot of work has been done to make the schedules more equitable, while still reflecting the current body of literature (literary warrant). Thanks for the summary!

  3. I never fail to be amazed at the multiple levels at which consciousness raising can occur. Thank you so much for this summary. As a library clerk in the 1970s who had not yet tuned into my lesbian self the DDC was my bread and butter – nothing else. Truly it was so much more! Than you Doreen.

  4. Thank you for writing this article. As a youth services librarian, I find that 306.76 is little-browsed location where catalogers can hide “uncomfortable” works of juvenile nonfiction. Do you think there is any room in the DDC for treating Gay Pride as a festival/holiday — somewhere in the vicinity of 394.25/394.26 — rather than part of the “Gay Liberation Movement”? That’s a high-traffic area, at least in juvenile collections.

  5. Hi Jess, I don’t think there’s a lot of room in DDC for treating Gay Pride as a festival/holiday, i.e. in the 394.25/394.26 area.

    Earlier editions have on occasion added Gay pride celebrations and Gay Pride parades to this area, but even then it was uncommon.

    Maybe another aspect to think about is that Gay Pride is grounded in gay rights, so generally the books would be found in the 306.76s or specifically for gay rights at 323.3/264.

    One way to consider it is whether holidays/festivals are the main topic?

    As an analogy I was thinking of both American and Australian football, with the US Super Bowl and in Australia the Australian Football League (AFL) Grand Final. Both can be considered unofficial holidays, but you’ll still find the topics in the sports/football section and not in the festival/holiday section, even if the relevant resource is focussed exclusively on the final game.

    796.336 Australian-rules football
    796.332648 Super Bowl

    That’s my take on it.

    I can see the appeal of high-traffic browsing though.

    The American Library Association has a Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table (GLBTRT) [http://www.ala.org/glbtrt/glbtrt] that may be helpful too, although there’s not a lot of concentration on Dewey.

    All the best.

  6. It was not just homosexuality that suffered under Dewey. As an assistant librarian in the early 1950s I seem to remember being told at cataloguing and classification evening classes that Mr Dewey put pregnancy as a branch of diseases of women and children. Or have I misremembered?

  7. I believe you have indeed remembered correctly about pregnancy being classified under disease. I’ve had a couple of conversations with people and the pregnancy and disease one seems to top the list, and crop up in some of the literature.

    . . . Hope Olson documents the ways the Dewey Decimal system has historically reflected patterns of knowledge organization that now seem archaic, such as classifying the subject of pregnancy under the heading of disease, and the subject of lynching under the heading of law enforcement (Olson 2002).

    From: Feminism and the Future of Library Discovery in Code4Lib Journal Issue 28, 2015-04-15 <http://journal.code4lib.org/articles/10425>&nbsp;

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