Frank L. Thompson

A Dewey Decimal System for Masonic Libraries

Frank_Thompson_System_of_Card_Membership Even if you're not much of a library user, you've still heard of the Dewey Decimal system. Chances are, you probably haven't thought much about what it is or who chooses/creates the call numbers for the books in the library (hint: librarians; more specifically: catalogers). You probably haven't thought too much about what the alternatives are to Dewey either. (Unless, like me, you're a librarian.)

Most public libraries in the United States use the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system, while most academic libraries use the Library of Congress (LC) classification system. Many specialized library collections, however, use other classification systems. The Van Gorden-Williams Library & Archives, for example, uses the LC system for its American history collection, but we use the "Boyden system" for our Masonic book collection. Yet the Boyden system is not the only classification scheme devised for Masonic libraries.

In the early twentieth century, at least two classification systems specific to Masonic collections were created. In 1908, A System of Card Membership Record for Masonic Bodies and A Scheme of Classification for Masonic Books, Being an Extension of the Dewey Decimal System (left) was developed by Frank J. Thompson, who served in many Masonic capacities in North Dakota, including Grand Librarian of the Grand Lodge of North Dakota. Thompson was also director of the Fargo Public Library, which started in the Masonic Temple in Fargo. Thompson’s classification scheme is simply an expansion of the Dewey classification number 366.1, used for Freemasonry. That is, Thompson was still using the DDC, but he used the pre-existing class and provided instruction on how to expand upon it. (In Thompson's system, for example, call number for Proceedings of Scottish Rite Supreme Councils would begin 366.1-8994.)

Seven years later, in 1915, William L. Boyden, Librarian for the Scottish Rite’s Southern Jurisdiction in Washington, DC, published Classification of the Literature of Freemasonry and Related Societies (below). Thompson and Boyden were both prompted to create their schemes Classification_of_the_literature_of_freemasonry because, as Boyden writes in the preface to his pamphlet, "[the Dewey Decimal System] provides no classification of freemasonry, assigning one class only to the subject, which class is practically incapable of subdivision. The scheme which I have devised...provides for nearly four hundred classes and sub-classes." Where Thompson simply extended the 366.1 Dewey class, Boyden created a whole new classification system. In the same way Melvil Dewey attempted to divide the world into ten broad classes, Boyden divided the Masonic world into ten major classes, as seen through Boyden's eyes in 1915.

Is it possible to wax poetic about the classification of Masonic libraries? Perhaps. Boyden’s colleague and friend, J. Hugo Tatsch, addressed the topic of classification at the 1932 Conference of Masonic Students and Librarians at the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia, stating, "The importance of a Masonic classification list cannot be over-estimated. It is the framework about which your library is built. It is the anatomical structure through which the card catalog, the soul of the library, expresses itself."