It’s Autism Awareness Month, or Autism Acceptance Month if you’re one of us. According to the Dewey Decimal System, I have a disease, but I don’t think of it that way. Sure, I have some real diseases, like Hashimoto’s. My thyroid attacking itself is a disease. But I don’t think of the way my mind works as a disease.
Yet, if I wasn’t afraid of needles, and I was going to get a tattoo, I think it would read “616.85882.” The Dewey Decimal System is part of my identity as a librarian, and 616.85882 is the call number for autism in adults.
The Dewey Decimal System works well with my autistic mind. Indeed, my autistic superpower is that I can remember strings of numbers, manipulate them, and read them back. (It’s called “working memory.”)
The DDC feels, in fact, like something that only an autistic could have come up with. (The question of whether Melvil Dewey was autistic, well, that would require an entire blog post of its own.) It is very literal in the way that it classifies things, and autistics can often take things pretty literally. A picture book about how Harvey Milk and Gilbert Baker invented the Pride flag? The Dewey gods at the Library of Congress’ Dewey Program place it not under civil rights, or flag-making, but under history of California. Because, literally, it’s an event that happened in California. (Contextually, it probably belongs under civil rights.)
Yes, DDC has gone through 22 revisions, but its “original sin” is Dewey himself. Aside from his problematic views on women and minorities, he was first and foremost a man who existed in a different time and place. DDC was born in that time and place; its foundation was in the way that Dewey viewed the world.
As an autistic children’s librarian, the DDC works well for me, and is something that I’m comfortable with. I recognize that no one has come up with a better system to organize nonfiction books in public libraries. (I’m sure we’ve all seen a webinar on how to make your library more like a bookstore, but come on, really?)
I also am somewhat old-fashioned, in that I like to help people find books. So I don’t mind that the typical parent doesn’t know the system, because I know it. I’m old-fashioned. I don’t like to use the self-checkout at CVS, so I imagine that someone coming into a library wants me to actually help them find books. Some may want to ship me out of town and replace me with a volunteer, but I think that reference and reader’s advisory in a children’s room are useful services.
So what’s the answer? Do we blow up Dewey because he was a creep and his system reflected patriarchy, Eurocentrism, etc.? Or do we hope that there are “woke” people plugging away at the Dewey Program who will evolve DDC for the times? I’d lean toward the latter.
I still want that tattoo, and I still dream of the day that books about autistics end up under 323 instead of 616. It’s complicated.
This guest post was written by “Justin Spectrum.” Justin Spectrum is the pseudonym for a youth services librarian in the United States. Read more about his perspectives as an autistic children’s librarian in this previous ALSC Blog piece. All opinions are his alone; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @realjspectrum. Justin would love to hear from you; email him directly or add comments to this post.
Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.
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