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Naming the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name: A Look at How Gays and Lesbians are Classified in the Dewey Decimal Classification

April 10th, 2000 by chief

This paper was originally submitted to Prof. Charles Seavey to satisfy the course requirements of IRLS 500 at the University of Arizona’s School of Information Resources and Library Science in the Spring of 2000.

It is generally understood that the structure and content of the Dewey Decimal Classification scheme reflect and reveal the deep biases and prejudices held not only by Melvil Dewey himself, but by the society in which he lived and thought. This is almost to be expected. The prejudices of any society are bound to be reflected in the structures and systems of that society. There is also much debate in the field of library and information science as to how the DDC can be modified to reflect more accurately the current society’s needs and tendencies. Grave concern has arisen about the DDC’s inadequacies in classifying knowledge domains pertaining to marginalized populations, as well as about the delicacy or political correctness with which those populations are treated. The ways in which gays and lesbians have been classified within the DDC is one prime example of the deficiencies that have aroused such indignation and concern.

By tracing the changes that have taken place in the DDC since its initial publication in the late 19th century through the present, we can also trace the progress of the gay and lesbian community in gaining the acceptance and understanding of society at large. Specifically speaking, it can be determined that the structure of the DDC still, over a century after its creation, evinces the Anglo- and hetero-centric Protestantism of Melvil Dewey, and also that of the overall social and cultural environment in which he learned to think and the one in which it is currently being revised and utilized. However, we see too that the DDC is in fact adjusting to the changes taking place academically and socially surrounding the gay and lesbian population. This is not, of course, to say that the DDC is at the forefront of cultural change, forging the way for the downtrodden to rise up, but that the editors of the DDC register social changes and eventually incorporate those changes into the form of the classification schedules. Furthermore, it can be understood, through the very nature of how the DDC works and for what it is used, that while it reflects cultural conceptions, it simultaneously validates those conceptions. To understand this reciprocal relationship, it is helpful to invoke the theory of cultural hegemony as put forth by Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci’s understanding of the ways in which the intellectual elite both informs and is informed by the general social climate of its time helps us to understand the greater socio-cultural underpinnings behind the phenomenon at hand.

An extensive exploration of the massive corpus of Gramsci’s writing is beyond the scope of this paper, but it is necessary to highlight one of the more prominent aspects of his work. His writing on cultural hegemony as the driving force in cultural developments has had enormous impact on social theory and is the focus with which a study of classification schemes and their pertinence to a societal record should be primarily concerned. Gramsci’s theory of hegemony is an effort to explain why any capitalist culture functions as it does. He posits that “culture” as such is the result of the power play of sorts with the dominant culture (the elite) gaining consensus from the subaltern masses in order to impose its own prescriptions upon society. In Gramsci’s own words, hegemony is the “…spontaneous ‘consent’ given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is ‘historically’ caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position…” (12). This is not to say that our cultural fate as such is predetermined, nor that it is unaffected by the whims of any individual or individual group. Gramsci’s meaning is much more subtle.

Gramsci’s theory of hegemony is almost a cultural trickle-down in which cultural norms are sent from intellectual centers of power embedded in the dominant culture into the mindset and worldview of the subordinate groups. These are then taken to be the norm by the subordinate culture, which in turn strengthens the dominant culture’s authority based on the confidence that the dominant group has instilled in them. As Raymond Williams puts it, hegemony is not only the articulate upper level of ‘ideology…’ [but it] is a whole body of practices and expectations over the whole of living…. It is a lived system of meanings and values—constitutive and constituting—which as they are experienced as practices appear as reciprocally confirming. It thus constitutes a sense of reality for most people in the society, a sense of absolute because experienced reality beyond which it is very difficult for the members of the society to move, in most areas of their lives. (110)

The implications of this are so vast as to be almost mind-boggling. The concept that every member of a society is consumed and governed by a cultural influence which is so second nature that it goes unnoticed implies generally that all of our actions, and more importantly our thoughts, are created and limited by this hegemony.

Given the fact that Gramsci assigns to the intellectual the role of “deputy” of the hegemony (12), the enforcer of the status quo, we can then begin to bring this discussion of Gramsci’s hegemony into the realm of librarianship in general and classification schemes specifically. Quoting Perry Anderson, Michael Harris writes that the role of the intellectual is to mediate “the hegemony of the ruling classes over the masses by means of the ‘ideological systems of which they were the organizing agents [emphasis added],’” (224-5). Gramsci writes:

Critical self-consciousness means, historically and politically, the creation of an élite of intellectuals. A human mass does not ‘distinguish’ itself, does not become independent in its own right without, in the widest sense, organising itself: and there is no organisation without intellectuals, that is without organisers and leaders….” (334)

The implication here is that intellectuals are the leaders of a society by virtue of their organizing function. From there it can be inferred that the intellectual centers of a culture maintain and mediate hegemony via this organizing function. Hope Olson, in an article entitled “Mapping Beyond Dewey’s Boundaries: Constructing Classificatory Space for Marginalized Knowledge Domains,” even takes this a step further. She asserts that knowledge in fact becomes as it is codified. She writes, “…the representation of reality is the construction of reality” (245). The connection to classification schemes and librarianship should be obvious. Classification schemes attempt to take the whole of knowledge, and break it down and codify it. As Olson points out, no map of knowledge is objective. The power of the elite is found in its ability to classify people and ideas according to predetermined prescriptions, not necessarily according to the objective nature of things.

Harris points out that the social sciences in general have experienced a rude awakening of sorts and that the “value free pretensions of the social sciences have been proven to be mystifications designed to camouflage the extent to which the social scientist is governed by prejudgments and domain assumptions” (221). The simple fact stands that the act of knowing necessarily alters or colors the knowledge itself. Furthermore, Olson asserts that “[t]he problem of bias in classification can be linked to the nature of classification as a social construct. It reflects the same biases as the culture that creates it” (233-4). Let it be said that the DDC could very well be an accurate representation of mainstream America. The issue that Gramsci persistently reminds us of, however, is that such a representation is not innocent or harmless. This representation cyclically is not only created by the socio-cultural forces, but it in turn re-affirms, validates and solidifies those assumptions.

To understand this reciprocation and see Gramsci’s theories in action, we turn to the American socio-historical record pertaining to homosexuality as put forth by the DDC over the twentieth century. Keeping in mind that Melvil Dewey himself was the product of the puritanical social order we have come to call Victorian America, consider what Foucault wrote about sex in general during that priggish era:

Nothing that was not ordered in terms of generation or transfigured by it could expect sanction or protection. Nor did it merit a hearing. It would be driven out, denied, and reduced to silence. Not only did it not exist, it had no right to exist and would be made to disappear upon its least manifestation—whether in acts or in words. (4)

Sexuality of all sorts was being pushed back into the closet, so to speak, unless its solitary purpose was procreation. While it can be said that feelings of homophobia have waxed and waned over the centuries, previous eras were in general more open to the sexual experience than the one in which Dewey found himself. This shift to the prudishness found in the latter half of the nineteenth century has often been tied to the omnipresence of the Protestant work ethic, which urged utility over pleasure in every respect. It is necessary to note that while homosexuality became the prime focus of the hunt for sexual deviants in this Salem-like affair, others were targeted as well, primarily those that indulged in the “solitary pleasure” of masturbation. Of course, young boys who masturbated were doomed, in the Victorian mind, to end up homosexual as well because they were learning to engage in (and even worse, to enjoy) non-reproductive sexual pleasure.

There is little doubt in current scholarship that humans have engaged in homosexual behavior for as long as they have been engaging in sexual behavior at all. In fact, it is a recent notion that sexuality be considered a source of identity. Previously, sexuality was primarily a performative issue, not an inherent and identifying one. As Foucault writes,

As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the juridical subject of them. The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. (43)

Writings on what was then regularly called “sexual inversion” or “psychic hermaphrodism” were abounding with the strange dual nature of public discourse on sex. It appears that in polite society and public discourse, discussion of sex—especially sexual aberrations—was taboo, “reduced to silence.” But in the field of psychology, it was a main focus of attention.

Over the course of the nineteenth century the medical profession became obsessed with homosexual behavior and made many bizarre, and often cruel, attempts to cure it. To give an indication as to the vehemence with which 19th century homophobes (Dewey’s peers, mentors, supporters) felt their self-righteous indignation, consider the example that Colin Spencer gives of a doctor who champions castration as a way of dealing with this plague upon his own Victorian morality. In his exhaustive work Homosexuality in History, Spencer writes that this doctor “lumps together as perversions, alcoholism, insanity, criminal tendencies, rape, sodomy, masturbation and pederasty. These, he says, ‘are shocking to every sense of decency, disgusting and revolting’” (293). Indeed the doctor, and others, may have found this behavior repugnant, but the fact remains that these self-same moral folks were practicing some twisted academic voyeurism in their obsessions. One might reasonably suggest that since these people were allowed less and less sexual license, the only thing that could be done was to talk about it. And talk about it they did—at length. Looking to the DDC what we find seems to reflect this.

In the first twelve editions of the DDC, there is no mention of homosexuality (or any euphemism in its stead) at all. With Gramsci in mind, we can infer from this that while the intellectual centers were aware of and openly discussing homosexual behavior, the masses had yet to join in on the conversation. Furthermore, it has been noted by many that the terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual” both came into use in the late nineteenth century, and, interestingly, in that order. As the homosexual person—as distinct from the homosexual act—emerged as a socio-cultural being, it became necessary to name that person. Borrowing from the literature of feminism, Olson asserts that the process of naming gives rhetorical space—that is, a place where that which is named can exist in discourse—where heretofore there was no such space (233-4). However, that name did not make it into the pages of the DDC. We see, then, that while academics were giving attention to homosexuality, it was still relegated to a shadow realm, allowed only to exist, as Foucault suggests, in brothels and mental hospitals (6). Per the Victorians, these were the places in which such deviance, such flagrant indulgence in purposeless pleasure, was allowable. However, it would not be too long before that which was once confined to the psychiatric realm (or, often, the psychiatric ward) should make its way out of the purely academic realm and into the libraries of the land.

It is in 1932 that we find homosexuality’s debut appearance in the index of the DDC. The entry reads as follows:

Homosexuality ment. der. 132.7546

or 159.9734846

Referring back to the schedules we find the 130s to refer to “Mind and body Philosofic anthropology” and the breakdown as

132 Mental Derangements
.7 Derangements leading to vice
.75 Sexual manias and abberations
.754 Sexual perversions
.7546 Homosexuality

and 150 to refer to general psychology and the breakdown as

159.9 Psychology (Alternativ scheme) (This was, presumably, an alternative for the 130s table for libraries who preferred to “use a scheme based on current lines of thought”)
159.97 Abnormal psychology
.9734 Moral imbecility or insanity
.97348 Sexual manias and aberrations
.9734846 Sexual inversion/Homosexuality

The inference we can make here is that publication of these materials had become wide-spread enough to merit inclusion into the “universe of knowledge,” as the DDC is thought to encompass (more so then than now). Not only that, but we can also assert with some confidence that non-medical and non-psychiatric conversation could now address sexuality. However the public conception was still that homosexuality was a behavior to be discouraged and about which little was known or understood. It is interesting to note as well that the editors of the DDC viewed themselves as somewhat cutting edge at the time. The inclusion of an “Alterntiv” table to mirror contemporary scholarship reveals this, but from the similarities between the two schedules, we come to understand that contemporary scholarship was not making much headway.

As we move further into the twentieth century, we see a gradual evolution. By the time the 15th edition of the DDC is printed in 1952, homosexuality has made it beyond the limiting classification at 132 (though it is still there, as well) and into the social sciences at 301.424—“The study of sexes in society”—which, we are told “Includes variations in sex life,” among which we find homosexuality. It would appear that in those twenty years a major ideological shift had occurred, allowing something that had been totally on the fringe previously to begin to be incorporated by the mainstream. This is not to say, by any means, that homosexuality was understood, much less condoned. However, it was being acknowledged as something beyond an illness. It had taken up its place in the world of sociology, in the interactions of ‘normal’ people, in ‘normal’ society.

To understand this phenomenon, it might help to look at the circumstances in which many men and women found themselves during the second world war. It is generally understood that World War II was when America at large began coming out of the closet. Young men and women from all over the country came together either in military training centers or the industry factories in larger cities. Here it was that rural deviants, per se, found others like themselves, and found that a subculture had begun to form in places such as New York and Chicago. Spencer pointedly, and horrifically, delineates the brutalities experienced by homosexual GIs in America during this time, but he also points out that with these men and women coming together in “sex-segregated and non-familial” contexts

[f]or the first time in their lives, many homosexuals realised they were not alone, and they could begin to articulate a homosexual identity which was shared with others. For the first time in history since the ancient world, homosexuals had a network which they could use, a new life offering them a dramatic alternative to years of isolation. Homosocial groups grew up quickly which were never to fade away. Support groups rallied when injustice was done, even though there was at first little that could be done publicly. (351)

This realization of a larger community empowered gays and lesbians. Furthermore, the amount of study that had been done over the preceding decades by staunch Victorian psychologists and psychoanalysts gave homosexuals a vocabulary for addressing their sexual “otherness.” As Foucault puts it, “…homosexuality began to speak in its own behalf, to demand that its legitimacy or ‘naturality’ be acknowledged, often in the same vocabulary, using the same categories by which it was medically disqualified” (101). The rhetorical space which Olson reminds us of was beginning to be created. By giving space to homosexuals in the schedules of the DDC, in effect space is being given them in public discourse in which they are not being discussed purely on the basis of their mental abnormalities.

Of course, changing the mindset of an entire culture is a process that moves as quickly as glaciers. We see in 1965, when the 17th edition was published, homosexuality still shows up under abnormal psychology, in 157.734 as a subclass of “Disorders of character and personality,” as well as neurological disorders (616.858 34). Here too we find “homosexuality and other perversions” indexed in the social sciences under 301.415, “Sex life outside of marriage,” along with prostitution and concubinage. Despite the call to arms for the homosexual community that was the Stonewall Riots of 1969, things were much the same in 1971 when the DDC 18 made its appearance. In a characteristic fit of outrage, Sanford Berman wrote in early 1979, prior to the publication of the DDC 19, “…there’s still only one five digit notation specified for nearly all material on Homosexuality, Gay men, and Lesbians!” (111). Berman recognizes that the DDC is under-representing the gay and lesbian population, but as usual does not address the insidious social and cultural underpinnings that have led to the current situation. It isn’t until a decade after Stonewall that in 1979, in the DDC 19, homosexuality is no longer simply classified under “sex life outside of marriage,” but has now gained the status of institution in the DDC. The classification 306.7 covers all “Institutions pertaining to the relations of the sexes” with the exception of marriage. Homosexuality is still classed with prostitution, incest and extramarital relations, but has moved away from being pointedly something ‘other’ than legally and socially sanctioned marriage.

By the time DDC 20 was published ten years later in 1989, we can see that gays and lesbians had indeed come a long way. Out of the civil rights movement of the sixties was born the gay rights movement. That coupled with the sexual liberalism of the sixties and seventies, made possible the great changes that began to develop to the benefit of the inclusiveness of the DDC’s treatment of gays and lesbians. However, and as Olson so clearly suggests, “…any system or structure has limits, and … replacing one system with another will simply define different limits rather than being all inclusive” (235). Of course, in 1989 gays and lesbians are still a marginalized group, and though in the DDC 20 homosexuals are given their own classification as a social group rather than having homosexuality itself looming, disembodied, there remain certain gaping silences and odd turns of phrase in popular discourse regarding this population. One sees, for example, that homophobia does not appear per se in the DDC 20 index. One finds instead that in the index homosexuality has an entry under “social problems” (363.49) which one can easily read to imply that homosexuality itself is a social problem. However, in the breakdown, with 363 being social problems in general, we eventually find that 363.49 reads as follows:

363.4 Controversies related to public morals and customs
.49 Homosexuality
Class interdisciplinary works in 306.766, homosexuality as a crime in 364.1536

Other headings under 363.4 include abortion, drug trafficking, obscenity and pornography, and pre- and extramarital relations. What is interesting about this is that homophobia is not recognized as a prejudice issue, as racism for example is, where it is classed in 305.8 according to the ethnic group in question. Here homosexuality is relegated to the realm of a moral issue, enforcing the conception that homosexuality is a choice for those who practice it as opposed to a naturally occurring area of “difference” such as is ethnicity. Surely, and as any search through a periodical database will confirm, in 1989 many thinkers had transcended this archaic presumption and open discussions of homophobia were taking place. The fact stands, however, that the editors of the DDC chose to exclude this classification for prejudice against gays and lesbians, which at the same time served to reinforce the popular conceptions of the that era’s mainstream thought.

When we look to the most recent edition of the DDC, we see that gays and lesbians have arrived as a fully established cultural grouping with listings in the DDC similar to those of African Americans and other traditionally marginalized groups, groups whose areas of difference have always been understood to be naturally occurring, and not necessarily indicative of mental derangement. Under the heading of homosexuality in the index of the DDC 21 we find subheadings of ethics, arts, literature, as well as, and perhaps most tellingly, homosexual marriage. The number for the last heading is 306.848, 306 being culture and institutions and the decimal representing

306.8 Marriage and Family
.84 Types of marriage
.848 Gay Marriage

In the DDC20, gay marriage made an appearance, but it was then under the heading of “Institutions pertaining to the relations of the sexes” and not under the morally affirming heading of “Marriage and Family.” Academics and activists have been debating the gay marriage issue for decades, but only in the past several years has this issue come to the forefront of American politics. In fact, it was only Tuesday, April 25, 2000 that Vermont became the first state to approve gay marriage. The DDC has made the leap and has seemingly sanctioned gay marriages before the courts.

This is not to say that little or no change is left to be made to ensure equitable treatment of gays and lesbians in the DDC. We see, for example, that homophobia is still classed under social problems related to public morals, and not in the 306s themselves, which would facilitate location of texts for most library patrons. There is a myriad of problems with the current edition of the DDC. We find that as American society evolved from its puritanical origins into a society obsessed with discussing our sexuality, the systems of our culture have responded in kind. One must then consider the classification scheme as a mapping agent and as a system of signifiers. Just as language creates and limits our capacity to make connections and to comprehend the universe of knowledge, so too does a system such as the DDC. Generally speaking, if we cannot name an idea, it does not exist; it does not have rhetorical space of its own. In a similar manner the limitations of the DDC reflect and restrict our understanding of knowledge. Therefore, when a system such as the DDC mirrors the status quo, and keeps less mainstream concepts out of its pages, an affirmation is given of the dominant culture’s hegemony and the power relations involved therein. Foucault suggests that by keeping the sexually deviant members of a society relegated to a realm of medical and psychological darkness, we thereby perpetuate typical modes of (re)production.

The purpose of the DDC is to locate in fluid space similar titles in an effort to make it possible to locate specific titles as well as to browse texts with similar content. To understand the reciprocal relationship the classification scheme has with the knowledge it classifies, consider the following scenario. A library patron looks up “homosexuality” in the catalog. Potentially, the patron could end up finding a wealth of books on the rich cultural and social history and contributions of gays and lesbians. Another possibility is that he would end up surrounded by books that delineate the exact neurological irregularities that could lead to such a disorder. Needless to say, the patron’s own intellectual level and understanding of library systems will have an influence as to what impact this may have on him or her. The point is that should this person be predisposed to homophobia, ending up in the 306 stacks might influence him to begin to evaluate his prejudices, just as if he ended up in the 616 stacks, he might feel validated in his distaste for an entire group. As an example of the alternative situation, consider the following story related by lesbian librarian, Barbara Gittings. After realizing that she was “one of those,” and in an effort to learn what that meant (not an easy task in 1949), she went, of course, to the library. She writes, “I flunked out of college at the end of my freshman year because I had stopped going to classes in order to run around to libraries and spend my time reading—reading about myself in categories such as ‘Sexual Perversions’—and wondering and worrying” (11). Gittings got lucky in that she eventually discovered the gay literature of the time, and later such prominent gay writers as Havelock Ellis. But the main concern is what about those gays and lesbians with less diligence, those that settled with the label of “Pervert”?

If we understand that cultural hegemony, per Gramsci, delineates social parameters that define what is allowable in any culture, then we understand the power of our knowledge systems as they choose to reflect, or not, the prejudices and predilections of the society in which they function. In the case of the DDC, it is this same society that it is meant to serve. Because culture is in a constant state of flux, so too are the prejudices of any culture. It is not plausible that a classification scheme such as the DDC could accommodate all viewpoints nor is it reasonable to want such a thing. If what we are looking for is a manageable tool to organize our libraries, we must assume that it will be just as imperfect as the population that creates it and which it serves. Perhaps in a utopian library, no class, no race, no populations whatsoever would be marginalized by such a scheme. However, because human beings themselves are imperfect, so too will be our systems. The best we can hope for then, is that through more constant use of resources such as libraries, the patron population will gradually turn from prejudice, rendering such classifications and omissions unnecessary because they will signify nothing.

Works Cited

Berman, Sanford. The Joy of Cataloging. Phoenix: The Oryx Press, 1981.

Dewey, Melville. Decimal Clasification and Relativ Index. Ed. Dorkas Fellows. 13th ed. Essex, NY: Lake Placid Club, 1932.

—. Decimal Classification. Ed. Milton James Ferguson. 15th ed. New York: Forest Press Inc., 1951.

—. Dewey Decimal Classification and Relative Index.17th ed. New York: Forest Press Inc., 1965

—. Dewey Decimal Classification and Relative Index. 18th ed. New York: Forest Press. 1971.

—. Dewey Decimal Classification and Relative Index. Ed. Benjamin A. Custer. 19th ed. Albany: Forest Press, 1979.

—. Dewey Decimal Classification and Relative Index. Ed. John P. Comaromi. 20th ed. Albany: Forest Press, 1989.

—. Dewey Decimal Classification and Relative Index. Ed. Joan S. Mitchell. 21st ed. Albany: Forest press, 1996.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.

Gittings, Barbara. “Gays in Libraryland: The Gay and Lesbian Task Force of the American Library Association; the First Sixteen Years.” Alternative Library Literature, 1990/1991: 11-17.

Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Trans. and ed. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers, 1971.

Harris, Michael. “State, Class, and Cultural Reproduction: Toward a Theory of Library Science in the United States.” Advances in Librarianship 14 (1986): 211-52.

Olson, Hope. Mapping Beyond Dewey’s Boundaries: Constructing Classificatory Space for Marginalized Knowledge Domains.” Library Trends 47, no. 2 (1998): 233-54.

Osborn, Jeanne. Dewey Decimal Classification, 20th Edition: A Study Manual. Englewood: Libraries Unlimited, Inc., 1991.

Spencer, Colin. Homosexuality in History. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1995

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

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