Have you ever wondered where those numbers on the spines of library books come from, the ones you use to find a book on the shelves? (Yes, Virginia, there are still books on shelves; not all of them are downloads.) While indulgently googling my new book, Hustling Hinkler, I chanced upon a reference to it among new acquisitions at the James Cook University (JCU) Library in Townsville, North Queensland. Thanks for buying it, JCU. I was intrigued, however, to see that it is catalogued under ‘Technology (Applied Sciences)’, in the 600-699 range in the Dewey Classification System. But my book is a biography, I thought.
In case you haven’t come across a copy of Hustling Hinkler: the short tumultuous life of a trailblazing aviator, this non-fiction book is about Bert Hinkler, a record-breaking pilot from rural Bundaberg in Queensland whose life ended tragically at the age of 40 on a mountainside in Italy. Here’s the final paragraph from my introduction to the book: ‘I am not a pilot, nor an expert in aviation, but I have tried to portray how Bert Hinkler perceived the world he grew up in and how he attempted to find a place for himself in it. … it’s a fascinating tale of a man in single-minded pursuit of a dream.’ Doesn’t that sound like a life story, and not ‘applied science’’?
I checked what else was new in the Technology list at JCU that week, and found my book’s shelf-mates included Oral and maxillofacial radiology, Evaluation in a nutshell, the Oxford handbook of midwifery, and the Social media marketing book. It seems that reading in the Technology section would not only broaden your mind, but you could also pick up some handy skills.
I scrolled through other possible categories in the Dewey system. ‘Social sciences’ (300-399) looked promising – all that psychology, sociology, concern for the individual in society stuff. Would Bert fit there? After all, in the book I’ve tried to show the trajectory of his life against the backdrop of early 20th century developments, including the Great Depression, not just aviation. Surely Hustling Hinkler would be happier there.
But no: ‘Social sciences’ was broken down into such sub-categories as ‘Social processes’, ‘Civil and political rights’, ‘General statistics’, lots of law and education, and even ‘Etiquette’, as well as economics, sociology and psychology. No place for Bert Hinkler there, although he did flout the law occasionally, and some of his behaviour when he was dodging the press or romancing two women at the same time is certainly worthy of study.
Who decides on how a particular book is classified, I wondered. How did Hustling Hinkler come to be 629.13092 HIN/DYM in the JCU Library? Was this the idiosyncratic decision of a university librarian, or is there some faceless person in a central location somewhere (perhaps Canberra, the nation’s locus of control) daily dishing out these numbers, assigning each book to its place on the shelves? Or, is it all automated, with the Dewey classification linked to the ISBN?
I googled a bit more, and found Hustling Hinkler at the Pakenham Library in Victoria, classified as 629.13092 HIN, the same as in the JCU Library. In Western Australia, Curtin University has also catalogued it at 629.13092 DYM. So from the north of Australia to the south, and across to the west, there appeared to be just one number for Hustling Hinkler. The image in my mind of a central librarian, possibly a robot, spitting out classifications for every book ever published, grew stronger.
To confirm my hypothesis, closer to home I looked up the catalogue for Brisbane City Council Libraries and there was HH in the 600s, but at 629.092 HIN, close to but not identical with the other three. Was this the work of a maverick librarian, challenging the system? Nevertheless, the book is still in ‘Technology’.
Later I happened to be talking to a senior librarian on another matter and took the opportunity to ask her about the classification system. She assured me that each book is classified independently by library staff, according to very strict criteria. ‘That’s why it’s called “Library Science”,’ she said. So much for my robot hypothesis.
Nevertheless, I wondered what these criteria might be that would allow a biography to be classified as technology. It all sounded so scientific, when all I wanted was to show the human side of Bert Hinkler. I went back to scrolling through the Dewey System, and came to the 900s – Geography and History. ‘That’s what my book’s about,’ I said. ‘It’s a history of a person, taking place against the history of the world.’ Surely there’s a place for Bert there!
In the 900 range I found the broad category of ‘History and geography’, and also ancient history, and lots of general histories. I was quite taken by 902: ‘Miscellany’, which reminded me of filing systems I’ve had over the years, and at one point I thought a pioneering aviator might fit into 908: ‘With respect to kinds of persons’, which sounded vague enough to include almost anybody. However, my eyes then settled on the very classification I was looking for: ‘920 Biography, genealogy, insignia’. I’m not too sure about the genealogy and insignia (although there were five children in his family, and he did win a medal in World War I), but surely, at least to my untrained thinking, Bert Hinkler’s life story belongs there.
I fear my cause is already lost, however. Hustling Hinkler is sitting on library shelves across Australia* alongside books about mining, medicine, media and metallurgy. If you’re a librarian (or know a librarian), I’d love to hear what those strict criteria are that condemn this record-breaking pilot to such inhuman company. Alternatively if my book comes across your desk and you’re responsible for classifying it, please be gentle with Bert – he had a short, tumultuous life.
* for which I am very grateful