The librarian who fought racial bias in the Dewey Decimal System
November 28, 2018 8:39 AM   Subscribe

As some librarians today contemplate ways to decolonize libraries—for example, to make them less reflective of Eurocentric ways of organizing knowledge—it is instructive to look to (Dorothy) Porter as a progenitor of the movement. Starting with little, she used her tenacious curiosity to build one of the world’s leading repositories for black history and culture: Howard’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. But she also brought critical acumen to bear on the way the center’s materials were cataloged, rejecting commonly taught methods as too reflective of the way whites thought of the world.

... Working without a large budget, Porter used unconventional means to build the research center. She developed relationships with other book lovers and remained alert to any opportunity to acquire material. As Porter told Avril Johnson Madison in an oral history interview, “I think one of the best things I could have done was to become friends with book dealers... . I had no money, but I became friendly with them. I got their catalogs, and I remember many of them giving me books, you see. I appealed to publishers, ‘We have no money, but will you give us this book?’”

...Porter was concerned about assigning value to the materials she collected—their intellectual and political value, certainly, but also their monetary value, since at the time other libraries had no expertise in pricing works by black authors. When Spingarn agreed to sell his collection to Howard, the university’s treasurer insisted that it be appraised externally. Since he did not want to rely on her assessment, Porter explained in her oral history, she turned to the Library of Congress’s appraiser. The appraiser took one look and said, “I cannot evaluate the collection. I do not know anything about black books. Will you write the report? . . . I’ll send it back to the treasurer.” The treasurer, thinking it the work of a white colleague, accepted it.
posted by Bella Donna (12 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
Fascinating. Of course the Library of Congress system that predominates in research libraries (including Howard's, with which I'm passingly familiar) has its own problems and assumptions, for instance in the way it divides up world history or for that matter uses the Roman alphabet.

Classification systems probably all have implicit bias - it's interesting how to see how people have tried to deal with this over the years. The Anglo-American cataloging rules have a fairly obvious problem in that regard . . .
posted by aspersioncast at 9:27 AM on November 28, 2018

I only just learned of Dorothy Porter today via TFA and now I have a huge crush on her. (I will acknowledge that this comment adds in no way to MF discourse but I don't care. There, I've said it.)
posted by Bella Donna at 9:32 AM on November 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

I read the title "Remembering the Howard University Librarian Who Decolonized the Way Books Were Catalogued, and thought it was yet another sloppy-minded use of "decolonized." On the contrary. Librarians were actually putting every book in English by a black author under the Dewey number for colonization.

All of the libraries that Porter consulted for guidance relied on the Dewey Decimal Classification. “Now in [that] system, they had one number—326—that meant slavery, and they had one other number—325, as I recall it—that meant colonization,” she explained in her oral history. In many “white libraries,” she continued, “every book, whether it was a book of poems by James Weldon Johnson, who everyone knew was a black poet, went under 325. And that was stupid to me.”

There isn't one right way to shelve these books. It isn't obvious whether to shelve works about Marcus Garvey under Racial, Ethnic and National Groups or under History of North America. You have subject catalogs to get you out of dilemmas like that. There sure are wrong ways to do it, though, and they sure were doing it wrong before Ms. Porter arrived.


Ramble and rant alert

I work as a librarian, and one of the thing that fascinates me is how library classification schema can inform people that there is no place for them here, and how they can scatter, hide, or disguise information. You can see Mary Douglas's theories about how inherited classification systems shape thought written large in any library catalog and on its shelves. My favorite instance mostly passes unnoticed in college libraries. Note the juxtaposition on the shelves:

15 HV -- Social pathology; Social and public welfare; Criminology
16 HX -- Socialism; Communism; Anarchism

The problem is not that classification is intrinsically bad. The problem is bad classification.

Sanford Berman has devoted his life to rooting out pernicious bad classification and subject cataloging. Here are some gross examples, now corrected due to his work, from his 1971 book Prejudices and Antipathies.

JEWISH CRIMINALS and NEGRO CRIMINALS (but not criminals of any other ethnic groups)



. . . and so on. Sorry. I will let go your sleeve and stop spraying spit in your face now.
posted by ckridge at 9:51 AM on November 28, 2018 [22 favorites]

Wesley's excellent Early Negro Writing, 1760-1837 is still in print.

Janet Sims-Woods - another alum of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center - published a book about Wesley's work at Howard in 2014.
posted by ryanshepard at 10:09 AM on November 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

I've read some of Sanford Berman's work. Here's a link to a wikipedia page about him. And he has a website.
posted by mareli at 11:16 AM on November 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

I wonder if anyone has taken up Porter's and Berman's work. One would think that it would have shaped policy at the Library of Congress, but working catalogers are mostly concerned with classifying books, not ideas, and if you give them enough books with "immigrant crime" or "Muslim terrorism" in the titles, they are going to tend to want to put them all together under those headings, because it's easy.
posted by ckridge at 11:43 AM on November 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

True confessions time. I was really interested in classification theory while I was in the master of library and information studies in the early nineties. I saw some wonderful opportunities involving hypertext systems (hello, Yahoo). Nobody was very interested. My classification prof and I did not get along, and I came very close to flunking out.

After graduating, I went to work as the librarian at a right wing newsmagazine. I eventually started writing for them. The editor came up to me one day with a clipping about work my former prof was doing on revising Dewey to be pro-feminist. He asked me to write a piece on the subject, which I did. I thoroughly enjoyed interviewing Berman for the article.

My own interest was in developing systems that would classify works in a way that takes into account the user’s individual priorities and interests.
posted by No Robots at 12:16 PM on November 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm not in a library field but have a lot of friends and relatives who are, and I have often wondered how the classification systems came into being, and who organized them and why they picked the methods they did, so this is really cool to read about! I'm thinking I'll send it to some of my friends who run zine libraries and have to think a lot about this sort of thing.
posted by bile and syntax at 12:42 PM on November 28, 2018

(Is this the right place to recommend the Kitchen Sisters' new podcast series about cultural archivists The Keepers?)
posted by progosk at 1:44 PM on November 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

if you give them enough books with "immigrant crime" or "Muslim terrorism" in the titles, they are going to tend to want to put them all together under those headings

If you have enough of a particular type of book, it's reasonable to make a category for it--but those belong as subsets of "crime" and "terrorism," not as subsets of "immigrants" and "Islam." And to be balanced, you also need categories for "citizen crime" and "Christian terrorism," even if you don't have books in those categories when you start - except, of course you do; those are the defaults, so the adjective gets left off.

(I'd love to see some books about the Crusades categorized under "Christian terrorism.")
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 5:20 PM on November 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

Maybe. I am pretty sure that all the books under BANKS AND BANKING -- JEWS should have been put under ANTI-SEMITISM, and most of the books on immigrant crime under NATIVISM, or possibly XENOPHOBIA.
posted by ckridge at 6:40 PM on November 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

No Robots former classification professor is in some way carrying on Porter's work, but I think that feminist notions that classification schema, logical analysis, and controlled subject vocabularies are intrinsically oppressive will go away when we have more women mathematicians, programmers, logicians, and engineers. I could be wrong, but we won't have to wait long to find out.

That will leave the problem of getting the classification, analyses, and vocabularies right.
posted by ckridge at 6:49 PM on November 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

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