Dewey, Weine and Elazar: Classifying Books in the Library

One of the most fascinating challenges facing us with the new Library is choosing a way of classifying our books. Will we use the most recognized classification schemes, the Dewey Decimal Classification or the Library of Congress Classification? Will we instead choose one of the two popular systems devised specifically for Jewish libraries, Weine or Elazar?

For those who don’t know or don’t care, please consider this: These systems are not merely ways of categorizing books; these are systems for categorizing all human knowledge, and in the case of the specialized systems, all Jewish knowledge. When you put it that way, the significance of the choice really stands out.

The oldest and best known library classification is the Dewey Decimal Classification:

The Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system is a general knowledge organization tool that is continuously revised to keep pace with knowledge. The system was conceived by Melvil Dewey in 1873 and first published in 1876…

The DDC is the most widely used classification system in the world. Libraries in more than 135 countries use the DDC to organize and provide access to their collections, and DDC numbers are featured in the national bibliographies of more than 60 countries.

The major competing system is the Library of Congress Classification:

The Library of Congress Classification (LCC) is a classification system that was first developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to organize and arrange the book collections of the Library of Congress. Over the course of the twentieth century, the system was adopted for use by other libraries as well, especially large academic libraries in the United States. It is currently one of the most widely used library classification systems in the world.

Applied to Jewish libraries, these two have shortcomings, particularly Dewey. Dewey assigns religion books to the 200 classification. There, the overwhelming majority of sub-classes are specifically Christian topics. Then there are the classes 290-299:

290 Other religions
291 [Unassigned]
292 Greek & Roman religion
293 Germanic religion
294 Religions of Indic origin
295 Zoroastrianism
296 Judaism
297 Islam, Babism & Bahai Faith
298 (Optional number)
299 Religions not provided for elsewhere

Even setting aside Judaism, this scheme squeezes two-thirds of the religious world into ten-percent of the class (some without even specific names, such as Hinduism and Buddhism).

It is possible to accommodate Jewish collections by subdividing the 296 class into specific topics, simply by adding numbers after the decimal point. But to some this seems an unwieldy adjustment to an essentially unbalanced and arbitrary scheme. Instead, the Weine Classification Scheme was developed:

The Weine Classification Scheme, originally developed by Judaica librarian Mae Weine in the 1960s, is based on the Dewey Decimal Classification system and is intended to assist primarily small Judaica libraries organize their collections. It can be modified or extended by individual libraries to suit their needs.

In some ways, Weine seems a workable middle ground, maintaining the basic Dewey standard, but making room for special characteristics of a strictly Jewish collection. This adaptation was not adequate for some. The result of this dissatisfaction was A Classification System for Libraries of Judaica (3rd edition) by David and Daniel Elazar. The only similarity of the Elazar Classification System to Dewey is that the classes are numbered from 001 to 999. Otherwise, the classes are devoted solely to a logical order of Jewish knowledge:

001-099 Bible and Biblical Studies
100- 199 Classical Judaica; Halakhah and Midrash
200-299 Jewish Observance and Practice
300-399 Jewish Education
400-499 Hebrew, Jewish Languages, and Sciences
500-599 Jewish literature
600-699 The Jewish Community: Society and Arts
700-799 Jewish History, Geography, and Biography
800-899 Israel and Zionism
900-999 General Works

As Library Journal explains about the most recent edition of Elazar:

Librarians organizing large collections on narrow topics not collected by the Library of Congress (LC) and other libraries rarely are satisfied with how their subject is treated by standard classifications. Judaica’s problems are exacerbated by Christian biases in Dewey and LC classifications. This new edition excises the bias, expands subtopics of Judaism, and gives all knowledge a Judaic spin…Originally developed for the United Hebrew Schools of Detroit and circulated informally in 1962, a second edition was published in 1968 by Wayne State University Libraries. This attractive third edition is the most professional-looking. Few numbers have changed, but vocabulary is extensively updated, and additions for new topics are ubiquitous.

There you have it. Except for the now-rarely-used Abraham Freidus Classification Scheme for the Jewish Division of the New York Public Library. Or the Gershom Scholem Classification Scheme for the Jewish National and University Library. Or the Leikind Classification Scheme used in Cleveland, Ohio.

All four systems – Dewey, Library of Congress, Weine and Elazar – are in general use among Jewish libraries, without a clear winner. So for the moment, the issue remains unsettled for our new Library. This choice seems like a great opportunity to think even more deeply about the books and about the scope of Jewish knowledge that the Library was built to contain.

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One thought on “Dewey, Weine and Elazar: Classifying Books in the Library

  1. I am the newly ensconced librarian for the Betty Frances Ginsberg Memorial Library at B’nai Sholom Congregation in Bristol, Tennessee and I was delighted to find such a beautifully written description about classification in Judaica associated libraries.

    Thank you for the piece. I am going to refer to a class I am taking which is considering classification among other things in LIS.

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