Classifying autism spectrum disorders in DDC, LCC and NLM

Everyone, justifiably, wants to see themselves reflected in their library’s classifications. But the two major classification systems used in Anglophone libraries—Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) and Library of Congress Classification (LCC)—as well as the (American) National Library of Medicine classification (NLM) have a long history of reflecting the biases, perspectives and limits to knowledge of the times and spaces they were first devised. Sometimes small aspects are updated, but structural biases are baked in, and far harder to fix.

The following outlines the treatment of autism spectrum disorders in these three major classification systems. None of them are sympathetic to the neurodiversity movement, and range from the benign to the downright offensive. It’s an insight into the history of social and medical attitudes toward autism, but a classification system is not the right place to be storing that history. I wish we could move with the times.

Dewey Decimal (DDC)

Works on the medical aspects of autism are classed at 616.85882, under ‘Intellectual disabilities; developmental and learning disorders’. This is how the medical establishment sees us, so therefore this is how Dewey sees us. The broader number 616.8588 sits between factitious disorders (including Munchausen syndrome) and ADHD, and is itself part of a grab-bag of socially-marginalised disorders at 616.858 that also include personality disorders, gender-identity disorders and ‘disorders of impulse control’. Can’t say I love this particularly pathologised perspective—and that’s even after looking the other way at ‘Diseases’!

The scope note reads: ‘Class here comprehensive works on pervasive development disorders’, with a note for PDDs other than autism to be classed at 616.85883. This echoes the DSM-IV and ICD-10 (that is, a previous) approach to autism, which classed autism as one of five pervasive developmental disorders. The DSM-5 and ICD-11 moved to using the term ‘autism spectrum disorder’, encompassing a range of autistic traits and severities, including those previously categorised as Asperger’s syndrome. Asperger’s is classed at 616.858832, but as this term is no longer used, I imagine the call number will eventually fall out of use as well.

WebDewey notes that the class number for autism changed with DDC edition 22, published in 2003. Previously autism was classed at 616.8982, as… a subtype of schizophrenia. I gotta admit, this was news to me too. Autism was once considered a form of childhood schizophrenia; while WebDewey doesn’t tell me when a class number was first introduced, I’m guessing this dates from around the 1960s or 1970s. It could be worse, for sure, but it could be a lot better, too.

A class number for the social aspects of autism was harder to find. WebDewey returned no results in the 300s for the search term ‘autism’, but returned two strong suggestions for the search term ‘developmental disabilities’: 305.9085 for works on autistic people ourselves, and 362.1968 for social services to autistic people. The term ‘developmental disabilities’ doesn’t exactly reflect how I see myself, but I’m very aware these schedules were not designed with low-needs autistic people in mind.

Library of Congress (LCC)

Until recently autism had only one LCC call number: RC553.A88, under ‘Internal medicine—Neurosciences. Biological psychiatry. Neuropsychiatry—Psychiatry—Specific pathological states, A-Z—Autism. Asperger’s syndrome’. I must admit, ‘specific pathological states’ is a more polite descriptor than I had expected to see in LCC—I don’t entirely hate it. Being a straight A to Z list it sits between ‘Auditory hallucinations’ and ‘Cognition disorders’.

Library of Congress cataloguer Netanel Ganin recently wrote about his efforts to address this absence, reinterpreting a call number range in the social sciences, HV1570, to include the social aspects of autism spectrum disorders. This accords with the treatment of other disabilities, such as blindness and deafness, whose medical aspects are classed in R and social aspects in HV.

Netanel notes that the full hierarchy of HV1570 (‘Social pathology. Social and public welfare. Criminology—Protection, assistance and relief—Special classes—People with disabilities—Developmentally disabled’) is not without its problems, as LCC can’t help pathologising autistic people as needing ‘protection, assistance and relief’ and most medical literature regards autistic people as being developmentally disabled, which also explains its preponderance in DDC. This class number is, however, an improvement on LCC medicalising the entirety of the autistic experience.

As an autistic cataloguer I applaud Netanel’s work in this area to help books find their most appropriate home in the LCC schedules, and to make the best of a bad system.

National Library of Medicine (NLM)

Sadly, NLM classification is the worst of the lot. Here, autism doesn’t even warrant listing under its own name, instead being lumped under ‘Pervasive child development disorders’ and classified with ‘Schizophrenia Spectrum and Other Psychotic Disorders’, at WM 203.5. The number for autism sits between schizophrenia and neurocognitive and perceptual disorders.

In a rare act of classificatory transparency, NLM schedules are full of ‘[This number not used]’ where a call number has been removed and its subject classified elsewhere – unfortunately, between the Cutter number and the see reference text, one can often surmise which archaic or offensive words or concepts were previously listed.

Unlike DDC, NLM continues to encode the discredited view of autism as a form of childhood schizophrenia by choosing WM 203.5, instead of an unused number in the WM 200s. Yet as medical understandings of autism spectrum disorders have grown and improved, their classification here remains stuck in the 1950s. It’s also very strange that a call number relating to child development disorders, a diagnosis typically made in, you know, childhood, is specified for works relating to adults only.

Adding ‘spectrum’ to the broader category doesn’t change which individual disorders are collocated with each other. Nor does it change the overall message that sends. Am I supposed to be grateful that autism isn’t classed as a mental illness, or an intellectual disability? I would have expected NLM to be more in line with the classification decisions made by the DSM and ICD, but instead they’ve changed a dressing instead of closing an open wound. I hope they will reconsider this classification in future.

Classifying works on Indigenous Australian languages in DDC, UDC, LCC and Bliss

Wiradjuri to English dictionary

It’s no secret that the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) is racist, sexist, classist and every other -ist under the sun. I can’t truly say it’s of its time, because it’s still in wide use. Libraries around the world use DDC as their main classification system for physical materials. Aren’t we supposed to be better than that?

As a former local history librarian, our collecting remit naturally included materials by, for and about the various Aboriginal nations on whose land our city was built. In particular, my former workplace has a modest collection of works about local Aboriginal languages, both in-language and in English. Unfortunately they are a DDC library, and so these materials are all classified with the same call number. In a bigger library with materials on many different Indigenous languages, this would render the call number virtually useless.

In the interests of advocating for a better solution (not just for me personally but for other DDC libraries), I thought it might be interesting to briefly compare and contrast how Indigenous Australian languages are treated by four widely used general classification systems Dewey Decimal (DDC), Universal Decimal (UDC), Library of Congress (LCC) and Bliss. (Okay, so Bliss isn’t as widely used, but it deserves some attention.)

DDC: 499.15 (source: DDC 22, hardcopy)
– Treated as an afterthought. After devoting the majority of the 400s and Table 4 to Romance languages, the rest of the world is unceremoniously shoved in the 490s at the end of the schedule. The entirety of Indigenous Australian languages are accorded /9915 in Table 4. Clearly inadequate to describe the language diversity of an entire continent

UDC: 811.72 (source)
– UDC is broadly based on DDC but with a few major structural changes; here, languages and literature are co-located, and the 4XX schedule is not used.
– ‘Australian languages’ more clearly integrated into Table 1c, but again there is no subdivision or faceting for any individual regions or languages

LCC: PL7001-7101 (source, p. 324)
– PL LANGUAGES OF EASTERN ASIA, AFRICA, OCEANIA > Languages of Oceania > Austronesian, Papuan, and Australian languages > Australian languages
– This schedule is a bit better thought out, and less squashed. Also specifically lists about three dozen individual languages (though not my local ones, sigh)
– Individual languages are cuttered, not classified by any real measure—still essentially lumping all Australian languages together as one entity, which taxonomically isn’t much better than DDC / UDC, but if you needed to create a local cutter for a particular language that wouldn’t be difficult

Bliss: XJE (source, p. 43)
– X classification is still in draft (after all these years) so I will give the authors a pass on this, but just FYI: ‘Austronesian languages’ ≠ ‘Australian languages’. The former refers to a language family roughly around the Mekong Delta.
– Astonishingly—and I was really not expecting to see this in Bliss, of all places—the authors have actually properly classified individual languages! It’s a bit piecemeal, to be sure: initially a prefixing / suffixing divide, then the prefixed ones by multiple, dual or non-classifying (in a linguistic sense), followed by suffixing languages by geographic region. It is… idiosyncratic, but it’s a damn sight better than anything the other three came up with. I appreciate that this was given serious thought

In summary, it looks like Bliss is your best bet for classifying materials related to Aboriginal Australian languages. But if you’re in a position to create a local, culturally appropriate classification system (as is being done up in Galiwin’ku), totally go for it!