Black History 365: Dorothy B. Porter

We are highlighting examples of Black excellence throughout the year! Feel free to send us suggestions!

Dewey Decimal Decolonizer

In 1932, Dorothy Porter earned an M.S. in library science from Columbia University and became their library school’s first black graduate. However, she may be best known as the librarian who changed how works by black writers are classified. Overall, Porter’s classification method challenged the inherent racism and colonial gatekeeping of knowledge within the Dewey Decimal System.

Most of Porter’s library career was spent building the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University into a world-class research collection on Black/Africana history and culture. A substantial portion of the library’s collection was gifted by Howard alumnus, Reverend Jesse E. Moorland and NAACP’s legal committee chairman Arthur B. Spingarn. These acquisitions were the backbone of the university’s library. Porter was concerned with assigning proper value and classification to the collection. However, at the time of acquisition, no other library in the country had expertise in properly classifying works by black authors.

Every library Porter consulted for classification guidance relied solely on the Dewey Decimal Classification. In that system, black scholarly work was classified using either the number 326 that meant slavery or the number 325 for colonization. For Porter, it became necessary to develop a satisfactory classification workaround for this collection that did not reimpose stereotypes of black culture that prevailed within the Dewey Decimal System. Porter classified works within the collection by genre and author in order to highlight the role of black people in all subject areas like art, education, history, medicine, music, and even literature. This approach helped to combat racist stereotypes and false narratives while celebrating black self-representation.

During her over 40-year library career, Dorothy Porter devoted herself to developing a modern research library at Howard University. Not only did she build a world-renowned library for special collections of the global black experience, she also became a pioneer in the field of library science through her challenge of the racial bias within the Dewey Decimal System.