decimal in Medak, Mars & WHW 2015

andards, reason, and rationality. What first
comes to mind about the revolution will never again
be the return of a planet or a star to the same point
from which it departed. Revolution bootstrapped,
revolved, and hermeneutically circularized itself.
Melvil Dewey was born in the state of New York in
1851.05 His thirst for knowledge was found its satisfaction in libraries. His knowledge about how to
gain knowledge was developed by studying libraries.
Grouping books on library shelves according to the
color of the covers, the size and thickness of the spine,
or by title or author’s name did not satisfy Dewey’s
intention to develop appropriate new epistemologies in the service of the production of knowledge
about knowledge. At the age of twenty-four, he had
already published the first of nineteen editions of
A Classification and Subject Index for Cataloguing
and Arranging the Books and Pamphlets of a Library,06 the classification system that still bears its
author’s name: the Dewey Decimal System. Dewey
had a dream: for his twenty-first birthday he had
announced, “My World Work [will be] Free Schools
and Free Libraries for every soul.”07
05 Richard F. Snow, “Melvil Dewey”, American Heritage 32,
no. 1 (December 1980),
06 Melvil Dewey, A Classification and Subject Index for Cataloguing and Arranging the Books and Pamphlets of a
Library (1876), Project Gutenberg e-book 12513 (2004),
07 Snow, “Melvil Dewey”.

Public library (essay)


His dream came true. Public Library is an entry
in the catalog of History where a fantastic decimal08
describes a category of phenomenon that—together
with free public education, a free public healthcare,
the scientific method, the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights, Wikipedia, and free software, among
others—we, the people, are most proud of.
The public library is a part of these invisible infrastructures that we start to notice only once they
begin to disappear. A utopian dream—about the
place from which every human being will have access to every piece of available knowledge that can
be collected—looked impossible for a long time,
until the egalitarian impetus of social revolutions,
the Enlightment idea of universality of knowledge,
and the expcetional suspenssion of the comercial
barriers to access to knowledge made it possible.
The internet has, as in many other situations, completely changed our expectations and imagination
about what is possible. The dream of a catalogue
of the world — a universal approach to all available
knowledge for every member of society — became
realizable. A question merely of the meeting of
curves on a graph: the point at which the line of
global distribution of personal computers meets
that of the critical mass of people with access to
the internet. Today nobody lacks the imagination
necessary to see public libraries as part of a global infrastructure of universal access to knowledge
for literally every member of society. However, the
08 “Dewey Decimal Classification: 001.”,, 27 October 2014,


M. Mars • M. Zarroug • T. Medak

emergence and development of the internet is taking place precisely at the point at which an institutional crisis—one with traumatic and inconceivable
consequences—has also begun.
The internet is a new challenge, creating experiences commonly proferred as ‘revolutionary’. Yet, a
true revolution of the internet is the universal access
to all knowledge that it makes possible. However,
unlike the new epistemologies developed during
the French revolution the tendency is to keep the
‘old regime’ (of intellectual property rights, market
concentration and control of access). The new possibilities for classification, development of languages,
invention of epistemologies which the internet poses,
and which might launch off into new orbits from
existing classification systems, are being suppressed.
In fact, the reactionary forces of the ‘old

e been devised
since the Middle Ages. The elaboration of grand
systems occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries
and some new ones were added in the 19th century. But when bibliography began to emerge as an
autonomous field of study, it soon began to develop
along the lines of the catalogue of an ideal library
comprising the totality of what had been published.
From this to drawing on library classifications was
but a step, and it was taken under certain conditions
which must be stressed.

Transformations In The Bibliographical
Apparatus Of The Sciences


Up to the present time, 170 different classifications
have been identified. Now, no cooperation is possible if everyone stays shut up in his own system. It
has been necessary, therefore, to choose a universal
classification and to recommend it as such in the
same way that the French Convention recognized
the necessity of a universal system of weights and
measures. In 1895 the first International Conference
of Bibliography chose the Decimal Classification
and adopted a complete plan for its development. In
1904, the edition of the expanded tables appeared. A
new edition was being prepared when the war broke
out Brussels, headquarters of the International Institute of Bibliography, which was doing this work,
was part of the invaded territory.
In its latest state, the Decimal Classification has
become an instrument of great precision which
can meet many needs. The printed tables contain
33,000 divisions and they have an alphabetical index consisting of about 38,000 words. Learning is
here represented in its entire sweep: the encyclopedia of knowledge. Its principle is very simple. The
empiricism of an alphabetical classification by subject-heading cannot meet the need for organising
and systematizing knowledge. There is scattering;
there is also the difficulty of dealing with the complex expressions which one finds in the modern terminology of disciplines like medicine, technology,
and the social sciences. Above all, it is impossible
to achieve any international cooperation on such
a national basis as language. The Decimal Classification is a vast systematization of knowledge, “the
table of contents of the tables of contents” of all


Paul Otlet

treatises. But, as it would be impossible to find a
particular subject’s relative place by reference to
another subject, a system of numbering is needed.
This is decimal, which an example will make clear.
Optical Physiology would be classified thus:
5 th Class
3rd Group
5th Division
7th Sub-division

Natural Sciences
Optical Physiology

or 535.7
This number 535.7 is called decimal because all
knowledge is taken as one of which each science is
a fraction and each individual subject is a decimal
subdivided to a lesser or greater degree. For the sake
of abbreviation, the zero of the complete number,
which would be 0.5357, has been suppressed because
the zero would be repeated in front of each number.
The numbers 5, 3, 5, 7 (which one could call five hundred and thirty-five point seven and which could
be arranged in blocks of three as for the telephone,
or in groups of twos) form a single number when
the implied words, “class, group, division and subdivision,” are uttered.
The classification is also called decimal because
all subjects are divided into ten classes, then each
of these into at least ten groups, and each group
into at least ten divisions. All that is needed for the
number 535.7 always to have the same meaning is
to translate the tables into all languages. All that is
needed to deal with future scientific developments

Transformations In The Bibliographical
Apparatus Of The Sciences


in optical physiology in all of its ramifications is to
subdivide this number by further decimal numbers
corresponding to the subdivisions of the subject
Finally, all that is needed to ensure that any document or item pertaining to optical physiology finds
its place within the sum total of scientific subjects
is to write this number on it In the alphabetic index
to the tables references are made from each word
to the classification number just as the index of a
book refers to page numbers.
This first remarkable principle of the decimal
classification is generally understood. Its second,
which has been introduced more recently, is less
well known: the combination of various classification numbers whenever there is some utility in expressing a compound or complex heading. In the
social sciences, statistics is 31 and salaries, 331.2. By
a convention these numbers can be joined by the
simple sign : and one may write 31:331.2 statistics
of salaries.01
This indicates a general relationship, but a subject also has its place in space and time. The subject
may be salaries in France limited to a period such as
the 18th century (that is to say, from 1700 to 1799).
01 The first ten divisions are: 0 Generalities, 1 Philosophy, 2
Religion, 3 Social Sciences, 4 Philology, Language, 5 Pure
Sciences, 6 Applied Science, Medicine, 7 Fine Arts, 8 Literature, 9 History and Geography. The Index number 31 is
derived from: 3rd class social sciences, 1st group statistics. The
Index number 331.2 is derived from 3rd class social sciences,

ue de Paris and great
associations such as the Société pour l’encouragement de
l’industrie nationale, l’Association pour l’avancement des
sciences, etc., are affiliated with it.

Transformations In The Bibliographical
Apparatus Of The Sciences


been carried on without relation to other works of
the same kind: it has not recognised the value of a
card repertory or a universal classification. It must
recognise them in the future.03 ❧

03 See Paul Otlet, “La Documentation et I’information au service de I’industrie”, Bulletin de la Société d’encouragement
de l’industrie nationale, June 1917. — La Documentation au
service de l’invention. Euréka, October 1917. — L’Institut
International de Bibliographie, Bibliographie de la France,
21 December 1917. — La Réorganisation du Catalogue international de la littérature scientifique. Revue générale des
sciences, IS February 1918. The publications of the Institute,
especially the expanded tables of the Decimal Classification,
have been deposited at the Bureau Bibliographique de Paris,
44 rue de Rennes at the apartments of the Société de l’encouragement. — See also the report presented by General
Sebert (9] to the Congrès du Génie civil, in March 1918 and
whose conclusions about the creation in Paris of a National
Office of Technical Documentation have been adopted.


Paul Otlet

Editor’s Notes
[1] “Transformations operées dans l’appareil bibliographique
des sciences,” Revue scientifique 58 (1918): 236-241.
[2] The International Catalogue of Scientific Literature, an enormous work, was compiled by a Central Bureau under the
sponsorship of the Royal Society from material sent in from
Regional Bureaus around the world. It was published annually beginning in 1902 in 17 parts each corresponding to
a major subject division and comprising one or more volumes. Publication was effectively suspended in 1914. By the
time war broke out, the Universal Bibliographic Repertory

identifier. With the completion of the Josephinian
catalog in the Viennese court library, every book became compartmentalized according to a systematic
plan of sciences and assigned a unique sequence of
a Roman numeral, a Roman letter and an Arabic
numeral by which it could be tracked down regardless of its physical location.05 The physical location
of the shelves in the library no longer needed to be
reflected in the ordering of the catalog, and the catalog became a symbolic representation of the freely
re-arrangeable library. In the technological lingo of
today, the library required storage, index, search
and address in order to remain navigable. It is this
04 Krajewski, Paper Machines, op. cit., chapter 2.
05 Ibid., 30.

The Future After the Library


formalization of a universal system of classification
of objects in the library with the relative location of
objects and re-arrangeable index that would then in
1876 receive its present standardized form in Melvil
Dewey’s Decimal System.
The development of the library as an institution of
public access and popular literacy did not proceed
apace with the development of its epistemic aspects.
It was only a series of social upheavals and transformations in the course of the 18th and 19th century
that would bring about another flood of books and
political demands, pushing the library to become
embedded in an egalitarian and democratic political culture. The first big step in that direction came
with the decision of the French revolutionary National Assembly from 2 November 1789 to seize all
book collections from the Church and aristocracy.
Million of volumes were transferred to the Bibliothèque Nationale and local libraries across France.
In parallel, particularly in England, capitalism was
on the rise. It massively displaced the impoverished rural population into growing urban centers,
propelled the development of industrial production and, by the mid-19th century, introduced the
steam-powered rotary press into t


Display 200 300 400 500 600 700 800 900 1000 ALL characters around the word.