July 22, 2024
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July 22, 2024
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Palisades Park—In a letter to JLBC, Palisades Park resident Robin Katz was offended when said she visited the library to find that the sign designating the religious section seemed to be heavily weighted in favor of Christianity and discriminated against other religions. It turned out she was not wrong.

Katz first brought the sign to the attention of the library last spring, but wasn’t taken seriously until she contacted the local ADL to complain about the permanent Santa Claus mural, Christmas trees on the lawn and the religion sign. The ADL could do nothing about Santa and the Yule trees because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Santa Claus is a secular symbol of the winter solstice, as are the trees. The sign in the religion section of the library, however, was a different kettle of fish.

In the Dewey Decimal System classification method, 60 percent of the religion section is devoted to Christianity and its nuances and denominations while only one percent is devoted to Judaism. There is a U.S. Dewey Decimal System and a Dewey Decimal System from other countries. Susan Kumar at the Palisades Park Library told JLBC: “We use the DDC (U.S. Dewey Decimal Classification) for all English language materials. We use the KDC or Korean Decimal System for the Korean language books, as per our library consortium’s requirement.”

Originally, Katz met with the library board, and her complaints were rejected out of hand. She approached Rabbi Salkin, who brought the issue to the attention of both the president of the library board and the library director. Only then did they agree that the sign was an issue and promised to make the change. As of last week, the sign was changed to reflect just the number 200 and the word Religion. (The Christmas trees flanking a monument to Korean Comfort Women on the library’s lawn were also removed in recent weeks, although Santa Claus and a Christmas tree still decorate the walls of the children’s section.)

“The old sign sent a message that the default religion of America is Christianity,” ADL Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin said.

Salkin also told JLBC that the Dewey Decimal System, which is celebrating its 140th anniversary this year, is hardly user-friendly for any ethnic group other than white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. He noted that Dewey was an antisemite and that “the system was constructed for an America in which Christianity was the default setting.”

“As a library patron they didn’t take me too seriously, but they did take the ADL seriously,” Katz said about the library leadership.

Robert White at BCCLS said that the specific problem in Palisades Park is the collision of Korean Dewey and U.S. Dewey systems.

The ten subheadings in the Religion section of Dewey are: Religion, Natural Theology, Bible, Christian Theology, Christian Moral and Devotional Theology, Christian Orders and Local Church, Christian Social Theology, Christian Church History, Christian Denominations and Sects and Other and Comparative Religions.

The other section includes, but is not limited to, Classical religion in addition to Germanic, Indian, Islam and Jewish faiths. As of 2009 this system was used in 200,000 libraries—including Yeshiva University libraries—in 135 countries according to the Online Computer Library Center OCLC).

“Systems that were devised in countries that were predominantly Christian countries tend to reflect that perspective, which would be what one would expect,” said a librarian who wished to remain anonymous.

OCLC, which maintains the classification system and deals with updates, has been expanding in the last three editions according to Libbie Crawford, an OCLC employee.

“We’re seeing more and more libraries pull out things that are non-Christian and using that as the focus of the display,” Crawford said.

Complaints about the Judeo-Christian bias in the Dewey system have existed for quite some time, Crawford said, but revamping the system to give “equal time to everything” would cause havoc in libraries across the world.

“Historically the people who own Dewey were less about keeping up with the times,” White said about the classification system. He noted that it lumps many areas of studies together while giving much more expansive attention to others.

Some libraries in the Bergen County system are relabeling their sections in order to better market their collections to patrons as part of an access issue, according to Mary Riskind, director of the Bergenfield library.

“It’s the right of every library to put whatever call number they want on a book,” White said.

At the end of the day, even with the sign change, Robin Katz does not feel welcome in the Palisades Park library and would like to seek full library membership elsewhere. But as she has discovered, library patrons have no ombudsman or other government group to put their concerns first. “Why should I be contributing taxes to a library that I feel discriminates against me?” she asks. In the meantime, she has stopped using the public library system in Bergen County. And with the Christmas tree and Santa Claus is still painted on the wall, secular or not, she still finds them offensive.

By Aliza Chasan

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