No Dewey Decimals in Dewey Square

Last week, the New York Times visited the book tent at Occupy Boston to learn a bit more about the reading habits of the protesters. Turns out, not only is the Occupy Boston library tent one of the most organized in the country (we do lay claim to being the birthplace of the American library system), there’s a very intricate and unique organizing system in place. That’s in large part because they’ve rejected the Dewey Decimal system in favor of a more free-form approach: Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States is considered a reference book and cannot be borrowed, and the works of Noam Chomsky are collected under the rubric “Papa Noam, etc.”

If you’re thinking: They’re rejecting the Dewey Decimal system in Dewey Square? Isn’t that some kind of bibliophile sacrilege? Fear not. While Melvil Dewey was a prominent Bostonian, founder of the American Library Association, and the man credited with the organizing system that bears his name, he’s not the park’s namesake. That would be Admiral George Dewey, who was originally from Montpelier, Vermont, and became a national hero after overseeing a major victory in Manila during the Spanish American War. He’s still the only person ever to receive the rank of Admiral of the Navy. Despite having few ties to the city, Boston decided to name a square after him in 1898.

Melvil Dewey, aside from his admirable bookish efforts, was actually a pretty huge asshole. He was racist and anti-Semitic, and had a nasty habit of sexually harassing female librarians. For these reasons, he was eventually kicked out of the American Library Association he helped found. And its these same reasons why Occupy Boston have rejected his system in favor of their own.

UPDATE: Tim Devin, an artist, Occupy protester, and librarian, reached out to let me know they’ve been getting some heat, and wanted to clarify that Occupy Boston’s decision not to use the Dewey Decimal system is in no way a rejection of librarians or libraries. Some Occupy folks do take offense at Melvil Dewey’s checkered history, but the main reason why the group didn’t implement the system, Devin says, is they just didn’t have enough books. “We only had a few hundred books to organize,” he wrote me in an email. “And it made more sense just to put up friendly sticky notes instead of using a decimal system.”