Cornell librarian slams libraries for ‘racism’, says they have a ‘heavy’ history of hate
A Cornell University librarian claimed that libraries were ‘full of racism’ – and pointed out that their system of classifying books was proof of this fanaticism.
Reanna Esmail, Outreach and Engagement Librarian at Cornell’s Olin Library, spoke during a discussion last Friday aimed at tackling anti-Asian racism.
She said: ‘As a librarian, I see how my profession has the capacity to deal with prejudice and misinformation through the way we approach and teach information and digital literacy.
“Libraries are mostly white fields, and Cornell is no exception in this regard. Libraries themselves also have a long history of complicit in racism and, in some cases, of defending and disseminating racist ideas ”.
Esmail made the comment during a virtual school event on anti-Asian racism on Friday. The librarian said she believes libraries should be held accountable for strengthening white supremacy, even if it’s inadvertent, the Cornell Daily Sun reported.
Esmail used the example of the Dewey decimal system to illustrate his point.
Reanna Esmail, Outreach and Engagement Librarian at Cornell’s Olin Library, said libraries had ‘a long history of complicit in racism and in some cases advocating and disseminating racist ideas’ .
Libraries, like the ones on the Cornell University campus, pictured, have a history rooted in racism starting with the creator of the Dewey Decimal Classification
Esmail made his remarks during a virtual discussion about stopping anti-Asian American hatred. Cornell’s quad is shown, with its Olin bookcase just to the right of the big tree
Protesters take to the streets of Washington DC to demonstrate against anti-Asian racism in Washington DC on March 21, with libraries now in the spotlight
The system, also known as DDC, was designed by my American librarian Melvil Dewey in 1876. It is used to organize books by dividing them all into 10 large sections. They are then further subdivided into these individual sections. The decimal points are then used to further subdivide the sections – 974 is used for New England, with 974.1 for Maine, 974.2 for New Hampshire, and so on.
Esmail accused the DDC of using “outdated” language to refer to Asians. She didn’t elaborate further, but the system gives individual sections to many western nationalities, then refers to Thais as “Tai”, and puts them in the same “miscellaneous” section as the people of Vietnam.
Likewise, the entire African continent appears under one section in the SDC “people” category, which also includes people from Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
DDC has faced similar criticism due to the uneven focus on languages.
Jane Behre, a library science researcher, explained her problem with DDC in a June 2020 article on hacklibraryschool.com.
English, German, and Greek each have eight individual numbered sections dedicated to them, while French, Italian, Spanish, and Latin have seven sections dedicated to each language.
These divide these languages into subjects as varied as etymology, grammar, dictionaries and historical variations.
But nine “other languages”, including those of East and Southeast Asia, as well as African languages, have only one classification code each.
The number 495 is given to classify books on languages about East and Southeast Asia – their only mention in the system. And the number 496 is the only one dedicated to African languages, while the continent has 54 countries and around 2000 languages.
“Western European languages have very specific classifications, while the majority of non-white and non-Western languages are all lumped together; even if they cover an entire continent, ”Behre wrote.
“A similar pattern exists when looking at the Library of Congress’s classifications for languages,” she said.
Similar criticisms have been made of the Dewey system’s representation of religion, with 89 sections devoted to Christianity, but only one assigned to Islam and another to Judaism.
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Homosexuality first appeared in the DDC in sections numbered 132 and 159.9 – devoted to mental disturbances and abnormal psychology.
It has since been moved to section 306.7, which covers sexual relations. The classification system has also been called sexist, having previously placed its section on women close to its “label” section.
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American scholar and librarian Melvil Dewey first invented the Dewey Decimal Classification, also known as the Dewey Decimal System, in 1873.
It was first used publicly in the United States three years later.
Dewey’s invention is intended to help a library user or librarian find and organize books quickly and logically.
The DDC assigns all knowledge in 10 basic groups, each group being assigned 100 numbers.
They are 000–099, general works; 100–199, philosophy and psychology; 200-299, religion; 300–399, social sciences; 400–499, language; 500-599, natural sciences and mathematics; 600–699, technology; 700–799, the arts; 800–899, literature and rhetoric; and 900–999, history, biography and geography.
These 10 main groups are in turn subdivided again and again to provide more specific subject groups within their assigned number range.
For example, the history of Europe is set in the 940s and can be further divided using single digits, or decimal points, as the topic becomes more specialized.
This sees the history of England found under number 942, and the history of the Stuarts at 942.06.
The DDC has been revised several times to follow the evolution of societal attitudes.
Homosexuality has been moved from the “mental disturbance” section to the “sexual relations” section, while the section on women is no longer close to the label, the two topics no longer considered to be related.