How Melville Dewey Invented the Dewey Decimal

How Melvil Dewey Invented the
Dewey Decimal System in Just One Day
Retold and Adapted by Kate Stirk from a
Telling She Heard at a Conference,
and Fiddled with some More by Judy Freeman,
and Fiddled with some more by Freida Headrick
Melvil Dewey was always in a hurry.
He loved taking shortcuts, cutting corners,
and shortchanging Father Time.
In 1876, when he was a student at Amherst
College in Massachusetts, he created the
Dewey Decimal System for libraries in ONE
Here’s how he decided what numbers went
with each subject or category.
Melvil had lots of books:
Books by his chair,
Books in the kitchen,
Books in the bedroom,
Books in the living room,
Books in the attic,
Books in the basement, and
Books even in the bathroom.
His friends said,
“Mel, look at this mess. How do you
ever find the books you want?”
Well, Melvil pondered this. He went to bed thinking
about how he could arrange his books so he could
find them.
“Oh, oh, oh,” he said as he went
to bed.
“I have books on every subject.
My biggest books are my
encyclopedias, and they’re filled
with everything: people, places,
and things. I know. I’ll put them
and all my books of general
knowledge in the 000’s !”
And he fell fast asleep with his
arms above his head, dreaming
of BOOKS. (What else?)
Early the next morning he woke up still thinking
and worrying about his problem, when a light
bulb went off in his head.
“I’ve got it! I’ll put the
thinking books in the
And that’s where he put
the books about thinking
and the great thought –
the philosophy books,
and books about feelings
and emotions – the
psychology books.
He was so excited that he had begun to figure
out how to sort his books that he hollered,
“Praise God,”
and raised his
hands in the air,
which lead him
to put the
religion books
in the 200’s.
Melvil was so delighted, he ran across the street to
tell his friends the tale of book sorting, and they all
“Melvil, are you making that
He said, “No. This is no
fairy tale. This is a story for
all people to hear!”
And then he decided to put
all the folk and fairy tales
and all the books about
people and the way they
live - what we call social
sciences – in the 300’s.
While he was telling his friends his tale, he
thought about all those words in his books.
Words, words, and more words.
He said, “All those words are
just fine for Me! People are
talking in the north, south,
east, and west – in all four
corners of the earth! I’ll put all
the language books in the
And that’s where you’ll find
all those books that talk: the
dictionaries, thesauruses, and
books on languages: French,
Spanish, Chinese, Italian, and
even sign language.
He ran home and started
sorting his books.
There were hundreds of
books, thousands of books,
millions and billions and
trillions of books!
After getting half of his books
put away, he took a walk to
stretch his legs and air the
cobwebs from his brain.
As he strolled down the street
it started to rain. The thunder
rumbled, louder and louder,
once, twice, three, four, FIVE
A flash of lightning struck a
tree and it caught on fire.
Pure science! He raced
home, dried himself off, and
counted his fingers and toes.
There were still five on each
hand, and five on each foot..
So he made 500 the number
for all books about pure
science: outer space, the
planet earth, and all the
animals on the earth.
Watching that tree burn reminded him he was
hungry. Danger does give you an appetite!
“I need to fix some
lunch!” he exclaimed.
So he threw six hot
dogs in a frying pan
over a hot flame, and
then he put all his
Applied Science books
- that is, science that
people have developedin the 600’s.
600’s: Books about
And the most delicious of all
Applied Sciences, Cooking.
How Melville would have loved to have a
computer to help him sort out his books, but
computers hadn’t been invented yet.
After lunch he was still hungry.
He looked in the
cupboards, but they were
empty. He said, Hmm.
What I’d really like to do
is relax and go fishing.
He got out his rod and
reel, jogged down to the
pond – the rain had
stopped, of course – and
sang himself a song while
he tried to catch a fish.
While he was casting his rod
and reel, he said,
“Hmm. This is so
much fun. I wish I
could relax like this
every day of the
So he put all the fine
arts and recreation
books, including art,
music, dance, and all
sports, including
fishing, in the 700’s
for the seven days of
the week.
Melvil sat on the bank of the
pond and said . . . .
“Oh, how I want And how I
I could catch a giant fish.
I’d catch four,
No, I’d catch eight.
For I think that fish are great!”
POETRY! All the poetry
books went into the
800’s, along with plays
and other literature.
As he trudged home, he said,
“I think I’ve made
history. I’ll travel
around the world from
now until I’m ninetynine and let everyone
know how to arrange
their libraries.”
He put all the history,
geography, and
travel books in the
And from that day to this,
people have used
Mr. Dewey’s
classification system
of ten hundreds
from 000- 999,
with one hundred for
each subject, to
arrange their
Go in any library . . .
from Florida to
from California
to Kansas
from Alaska to
And you’ll see that
031 means encyclopedias,
398.2 means fairy tales,
419 means sign language,
551.5 is for weather,
641.5 is for cooking,
799.1 is fishing,
811 stands for poetry,
And if you look for 973,
you’ll find books about the
history of the United
Dewey Decimal System
000 – Generalities, encyclopedias
100 – Philosophy and Psychology
200 – Religion
300 – Social Sciences
400 – Language-dictionaries, etc.
500 – Natural Science and Math
600 – (Applied Sciences)
700 – Arts, Sports, Entertainment
800 – Literature, poetry, plays
900 – Geography and History
Melvil Dewey
Is this story True?
Did Mr. Dewey really think up ten
categories to arrange his books?
Did he invent his system in one day?
Well, parts of the story are definitely
And other parts?
We just call them Fiction. But that’s a
story for another day.
Let’s see what you know.
* Can You Do the Dewey?
Let’s Do Dewey.
Test your knowledge of the DDC.
Let’s Do the DDC.
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