The Internet Needs a Dewey Decimal System

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Long ago, our ancestors lived in caves and devised crude, rough tools to help them get through the day. One of those crude, rough tools was human language. Sure, language gave us such things as civilization (which at times comes in handy), but language is woefully inadequate for many of our modern needs. I can't be the only one repeatedly thinking: “Words fail me. They're not precise enough.”

Here is why. A few months ago I was trying to buy inexpensive USB flash drives that I could make available to low-income youth and adults who use the public library where I work. I was looking for 256MB USB drives that would sell for about $2 each. I'm pretty good at finding merchandise on the Web, but I spent more than an hour fruitlessly looking.

Then all of a sudden the other day--a few months later--I come across this vendor sellling a $2 USB Flash drive.

That's exactly what I want. I need for people to be able to carry to the library the word processing they've done on donated computers to print on our library printers. These $2 flash drives are ideal for that. The fact that these flash drives come with a bootable version of Linux, well, that's even nicer.

What I needed in searching for these flash drives was not the words: “256MB USB flash drive.” Those words failed me. What I needed was a Dewey Decimal code for a 256MB USB flash drive, or even a Dewey Decimal number for the concept: “Flash drive that is small in storage capability and that is very inexpensive.” Vendors selling such flash drives could easily add that numerical code to their product metadata, quickly connecting them with people looking to buy those products.

Similarly, a few years ago I wanted to find an author writing books on using Google SketchUp with elementary school students. It took me six months to locate Bonnie Roskes, who coincidentally lives about 10 miles from where I live. The social bookmarking Website Delicious connected me with Bonnie, but I ought to have been able to search the Web using a “Dewey Decimal number” for "SketchUp book author kids." And when I was looking for such a book author, I didn't care at all whether they had published any books or were simply interested in publishing such books. I wanted to be in touch with them.

As it happens, Bonnie Roskes writes SketchUp books for kids as well as SketchUp books for intermediate and advanced SketchUp users. I spent far too much effort and time tracking her down, though.

Meanwhile, someone in Brazil right now wants to find all Web videos teaching Inkscape in Portuguese. There is no Dewey Decimal code for that, but there ought to be. The more precisely we can describe things, the more precisely people will be able to find what they need. In commerce, in education, in healthcare, the possible benefits are enormous if we had some centralized system for assigning numerical values to products, concepts, ideas, topics, etc.

Who is going to be the entity that creates such a centralized system? I don't know, but the system needs to be participatory and to be continually refined. Maybe the Wikimedia Foundation would be the right people to tackle this task. I would hope that the American Library Association would also have some role in the creation of such a Web resource; and it stands to reason that the Internet Archive, a cherished public treasure, would have some involvement, too.

Who would be able to fund this project? The Gates Foundation is mandated to spend a few billion dollars every year. Such a project might be a worthwhile use of funds.

Do you see how a Dewey Decimal system for the Web would increase the quality of life for large numbers of people on this planet? Simply stated, their information needs would be better met. Commerce, education, health--all would improve. We could use that right about now.

Back in 1998 I was volunteering at the Chevy Chase Neighborhood Library in the District of Columbia and witnessed one of the very smart librarians there, Judith Oliver, answer people's reference queries with the Dewey Decimal numbers of the books they were interested in finding. Judith had pretty much memorized the entire Dewey Decimal system and could cite – even with decimal points – where people could find the books they were looking for. When I saw that amazing feat, I started wondering right then: “Someday there will be a Dewey Decimal number for everything – not just for books.” That day needs to be now. Do you need to find something very specific? Help may be on the way. If words fail you, you can count on numbers.

Phil Shapiro

The blogger is an educator and community builder in the Washington DC-area. He can be reached at and on Twitter at

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