Origin Myths

I tell my Library Practice students that the Dewey Decimal System was created by a student assistant. In 1876, a 21 year old student helper at the library of Amherst College invented a glorious system for organizing libraries, the whole universe collapsed into a codified wormhole of pure logic. Originally named Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey, he shortened his name as an adult, and for a while spelled his last name D-u-i. Dui was serious about reforming English spelling. He presented some of the early editions of the DDC in simplified spelling, and his original introduction in simplified spelling was reprinted in subsequent editions of the DDC through publication of Edition 18 in 1971.

OG boolean that he was, he needed a classification area for odd items that didn’t quite fit into other categories, and behold, he called it: ”Generalities 000.” So that’s my name for this blog. Generalities is my favorite “class” in the DDC, because that’s where The Dui put Knowledge 001, Research 001.4, Controversial Knowledge 001.9, and in 001.94, Monsters and Related Phenomena / Cryptozoology. So as a librarian 020, I’m in good company on the shelf with Big Foot, Nessie, and the Roswell Greys. Also nearby is the mysterious 040 “Unassigned” division, a kind of Area 51 of the non-fiction section. Astronomers say now that 96% of the universe is made up of “dark matter,” but they don’t know what or where it all is. Mel D. left room for it in 040.

Young (20ish) Dewey must have liked the number 20. 020 for Libraries,120 Epistemology, 220 Bible, and so forth. I don’t think it is by accident that the first syllable of the first class of the DDC is also the first syllable of the Bible. Genesis and Generalities both start with “Gen,” a Latin root meaning “birth” or “kind.” Since this is the first Generalities blog, a genesis of sorts, I want to open here a discussion of our own personal literacy origin myths.

Of course, literacy doesn’t grow from a single seed, but I’ll say my Mrs. Flowers story happened in the sixth grade. We had a blue World Book Encyclopedia in the back of Ms. McCleary’s classroom. Naturally, we had already tried looking up taboo words in the big dictionary, Webster’s Third (now collectible!), and were pleased to find some of them. One spring day I pulled the volume dedicated to the letter S, and soon had a following. The article was about two pages with a few tame anatomical pictures. It was clear, concise, and coupled the physical and emotional aspects of the subject in reassuring matter-of-fact language. As we soberly assimilated our newfound knowledge, some of our hormonal anxiety and confusion dissipated, and I recall that we actually became a calmer and more mature learning community. Research helps like that sometimes, like scratching an itch. Ms. McCleary peered over her pointy glasses at us, from her desk across the room, remotely monitoring our inquiries. I love her for not attempting to censor us. That year, I was elected sixth grade class president and passed flirtatious notes with Edith Lopez. It was a very good year for research.

The printed word was so much a part of my early environment that literacy came about as an unthinking reaction to ever-present stimuli. The world taught me. Now, text is less obtrusive, and instead of bumping into it and grinding through it at every turn, we can just glide around it. We can get at information easily, but the experience is less impactful, and our knowing is ephemeral.

As a recent guest at a church service, I noticed that hymnals are being replaced by captions on a screen, with slideshow pictures. Religious clipart. So you can’t view the whole lyrics, or attempt to follow the musical notes, or browse to another page, or form images in your own mind. It’s all fed to you. I haven't been to church much since I was a child. I found myself remembering the awkward intimacy of physically sharing the hymnal, brushing up against the soft down of Edith Lopez’ forearm.

My mother acquired children’s books and read to me, and took me to the library, a lot more than my three brothers. I suppose she saw or wanted to cultivate something in me. I have a memory of reciting to her from the poetry book, Hailstones and Halibut Bones by Mary O’Neill. Something more than literacy passes along in such an exchange.

Recently, a student who comes to the library almost daily during lunch told me that he’s not really a library person. He wears an army jacket and a watch cap every day. His thing is calligraphy, and he sits practicing his art in a sketchbook and chatting with his guy friends. He works from a few books in our library collection on the subject of calligraphy, and I have ordered a few more updated books on the subject, for him. He’s done a bit if signage for me. He's very talented. I don’t correct him when he says he’s not a library person and thanks me for putting up with him and his rowdy friends. I don’t tell him that he’s exactly why I’m here.

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