Dewey likes Decimals

Systems often seem pre-ordained until you understand your origins. When you find out how something got started, it’s often hard to take it quite so seriously.

Case in point: library classification. The Dewey Decimal system exists, in part, because John Dewey just really liked the number ten:

In March 1873, when he was still an undergraduate, Dewey had his third big idea, inspired by an 1856 pamphlet titled “A Decimal System for the Arrangement and Administration of Libraries”, written by Nathaniel Shurtleff, who worked at the Boston Public Library. As Dewey wrote at the time, “My heart is open to anything that’s either decimal or about libraries”. In fact, fifty years ltaer, Dewey would attribute the idea to order topics by decimal numbers to an epiphany during a Sunday sermon. Dewey was already infatuated with decimals. He wrote a school essay on the metric system when he was sixteen. When he was twenty-five he founded the American Metric Bureau to lobby for the adoption of the metric system within the United States. He even arranged his travel so that he would arrive on the tenth, twentieth or thirtieth day of the month…rationalism crossing over into superstition

[David Weinberger, Everything is Miscellaneous, p53-4]

Suggested music: The New Puritans yelling “what’s your favourite number” again and again. It’s like being accosted in the street by a gang of numerologists

Written on July 5, 2020