Early IP: Dewey Decimal System (and why it’s still relevant today)

Intellectual Property Tags: Dewey Decimal System, Library of Congress, Melville Dewey, Online Computer Library Center

The number of digital-dependents and e-reader apostles is growing to the extent that some argue that the physical book or periodical will soon be obsolete. Librarians and other dedicated lovers of the bound paper manuscript defend the printed publication, as well as its free access, with every fiber of their bones and papercut fingers. This faction might resist using a search algorithm to place literature before it. These are the followers of Dewey: his system provides a path through the stacks until the searcher lays their hand on the correctly numbered spine and slides the treasure out.

According to the National Day Calendar[1], December 10th is Dewey Decimal System Day. So, at a time when the physical and ideological structures of the library seem to be losing ground to the web-based approaches to obtaining information, let’s just take a minute to appreciate a pioneer in organization.

Melville Dewey (1851-1931) was an aggressive intellectual that sought to improve the effectiveness of communication. He was an inventor of spelling reform. In 1886, he founded the Spelling Reform Association with the goal of simplifying and regulating American spelling. His approach was based on phonetics and dropped what he considered superfluous consonants and vowels, sometimes replacing them with letters that produced the more obvious sounds (e.g., “z” for hard-s and “y” for “ie”).

When he was employed at Amherst College in New York as the library manager, following graduation from the same, Melvil Dui (reformed version of the spelling) invented a categorization system for the books. The Amherst Library was organized like many others at that time, by order of incoming pieces: works were shelved in the order in which the library received them. Amherst College tasked Dewey with finding a better way to organize the shelves and make it easier for patrons to find the information they needed.

The main goals for Dewey were to provide correctness and reliability. Thus, in 1873, he innovated the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system for organizing printed volumes. Building on a base of 10 categories, the DDC is a method of “meaningful notation in universally recognized Arabic numerals, well-defined categories, well-developed hierarchies, and a rich network of relationships among topics”[2].

Dewey created an early form of a dynamic database. Each category receives a whole number representation to the hundreds: 000–099, general works; 100–199, philosophy and psychology; 200–299, religion…[3] Using decimal points enabled the assignment of sub-categories and sub-sub-categories. Thus, the system is always developing, allowing the addition of categories with new works. For example, machine learning did not have a place within the DDC in 1880, but it does now. Under a newer classification, 000 Computer science, information, general works, we find: 006.3: Artificial intelligence.[4]

The newly conceived Dewey Decimal Categorization system was intellectual property, and the matter of protection needed to be addressed. Perhaps anticipating its great impact, which could leave ownership and integrity of the system vulnerable, Dewey saw that it received copyright status in 1876. It was published that same year. Today, copyright ownership for the DDC belongs with (ironically enough) the Online Computer Library Center, Inc. (OCLC) [5]. This is a non-profit global library cooperative that “provides shared technology services, original research, and community programs for its membership and the library community at large”[6]. The OCLC publishes and licenses-out the system for a variety of purposes. The organization is responsible for managing and updating the DDC to keep pace with continuously growing knowledge. It published the 23rd Edition in 2011. Copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. It would have expired in 2001 had the OCLC not taken it over. If it had not been protected and had fallen away, we don’t know that we have anything better to take its place.

The DDC is not just for carpeted rooms full of eight-foot high bookshelves anymore — it is also used as a mechanism for users to perform web-based searches. The Library of Congress catalog is one online source that applies the DDC classification codes, among others. With worldwide and multi-platform use, the copyright status to protect Dewey’s original IP is imperative. The OCLC takes great effort and investment to maintain the database while holding the DDC copyright.

From its inception in a college library in 1876, to global applications in both online and brick-and-mortar environments, the Dewey Decimal System continues to hold merit. Its inventor was successful in creating a universal and simple system for organizing works and communicating their locations. Regardless of the fate of the hard-copy versions of our histories and stories, whether the halls of the libraries remain muffled with leather bindings or we see the halls empty and the books appear across our screens, the followers of Dewey will still be able to find them.


[1] https://nationaldaycalendar.com/calendar-at-a-glance/. Accessed 12/5/2018.

[2] https://www.oclc.org/en/dewey/features/summaries.html#hist. Accessed 12/5/2018.

[3] https://www.britannica.com/science/Dewey-Decimal-Classification. Accessed 12/5/2018.

[4] https://www.oclc.org/content/dam/oclc/webdewey/help/000.pdf. Accessed 12/6/2018.

[5] http://staff.oclc.org/~dewey/dewey.htm. Accessed 12/6/2018.

[6] https://www.oclc.org/en/about.html. Accessed 12/6/2018.