Helping School Librarians Understand Dewey 900s Countries

Many School Librarians are confused by the organization of Countries in the 900s History & Geography. This School Librarian & former Social Studies teacher explains how Dewey's numbering is assigned geographically rather than politically because a nation's political affiliation may change but it's place on the Earth doesn't. | No Sweat LibraryMany school librarians are confused about the way the countries in 940-999 are organized, so I’d like to rectify that. Drawing on my Social Studies background while studying Dewey Abridged, I’ve discerned somewhat of a pattern to those Dewey number assignments and hope to make it a bit more understandable to school librarians—although some of it is a complete mystery to everyone but folks at OCLC!

According to DDC’s Table 2, each continent and country has a specific number. Depending on a book’s content, you may find your country books divided between 910 Geography and Travel and 940-999 History, but in either case the continent and country numbers are the same. If your school library is like mine, most of the country books are with 940-999 History numbers. In fact, I cleared country books out of the 910 Geography section and redid numbers for History so all our country books would be together.


We know that DDC is Anglocentric, so it’s not surprising that DDC begins with the continent of Europe at 940, then moves to Asia at 950, down to Africa at 960, across the Atlantic to North America at 970 and South America at 980, and across the Pacific to 990 Australia & Oceania.

The arrangement of country numbers within the continents can be confusing. We usually think of countries in terms of political affiliations, but the intent of Dewey numbers in Table 2 is that they are assigned geographically because a location’s political affiliation may change but it’s place on the Earth doesn’t.

Dewey numbers for individual countries are roughly assigned from north to south along longitudinal lines and west to east along latitudinal lines. Numbering begins from a NW or NE coastal country and zig-zags back and forth to cover inland central continental locations. The N→S pattern is more consistent than the W→E one, and rather than true to geography, it appears to me that many numbers are based on historically Anglocentric exploration and conquest of water-accessible locations.


continent EuropeEurope begins in the British Isles at 941 for Scotland and Ireland, moves SE to England and Wales at 942, then moves E to the central European Germanic countries at 943. Numbering goes SW to France at 944, then E to the Italian peninsula at 945, then back SW to the Iberian peninsula at 946. Rather than picking up the rest of the western countries, numbers jump NE to Eastern Europe, including Russia, at 947, and move NW to Scandinavia at 948. The 949 numbers are an odd mish-mash, moving from Iceland SE to the small English Channel countries, over to Switzerland, then to Greece and the Balkans.

950 ASIA

continent AsiaAsia starts on the Pacific Ocean with 951 China/Korea and 952 Japan, then jumps SW to the Arabian peninsula at 953, then back E to India at 954. Numbers next move inland W to 955 Iran, and further W to the Mediterranean for the Middle East at 956. (Evidence of Eurocentrism is that this was originally called the Near East.) Then we go back inland NE to 957 Siberia and 958 Central Asia. The continent finishes, oddly, with Southeast Asia at 959. (Perhaps because those were European colonies and when they become separate countries they couldn’t fit the numbers anywhere else!)


continent AfricaAfrica appears to follow an Anglocentric geo-historical water-access exploration/conquest pattern. It begins on the north-central Mediterranean coast with Tunisia and Libya at 961,  then 962 moves E along the coast to Egypt then S along the Red Sea for Sudan, with 963 continuing S to Eritrea and Ethiopia. Numbers jump across the African continent to NW coastal nations Morocco and Western Sahara for 964 and Algeria for 965.

Going back to the coast for Western Africa at 966, numbers move E from Mauritania to Niger, dropping back SW to the coast for Senegal and moving S and E to finish with Nigeria. The 967 numbers cover Central sub-Saharan Africa, from W to E in a “W” pattern across the continent to the east coast.

968 numbers cover Southern Africa, starting with South Africa and moving inland N to Namibia then E ending with Malawi. Fittingly, 969 is the island of Madagascar, along with other southern Indian Ocean islands.


continent North AmericaFor North America, it’s easy to understand that 971 Canada is first geographically, but, against all reason, 972 Middle America—Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean—is next. (Perhaps because they were explored earlier or because OCLC just wants the U.S. last.) The rest of 970 is the United States, with numbers moving more historically from E to W from 973 to 979. Interestingly, Alaska is included as a U.S. state instead of geographically with Canada, but Hawaii isn’t included at all. (See below.)

980 SOUTH AMERICAcontinent South America

South America is unusual because it follows the coast around the continent, beginning on the east coast with 981 Brazil, then S to Argentina, around W to Chili at 983. Succeeding numbers move N along the Pacific coast—Bolivia at 984, Peru at 985 and Columbia at 986—then back E along the northern coast to Venezuela at 987 and completing the circle with the 3 Guianian countries at 988. Historical latecomers Paraguay & Uruguay finish at 989.


continent Australia & OceaniaThe 990s are very strange. There is no 991 or 992 (because Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines were moved to Asia). Numbers 993-996 is called Australasia (the scientific/tectonic term for the continent) beginning at 993 for New Zealand, then moving W to Australia for 994. The N→S→W→E pattern is abandoned as numbers move into the 3 geo-cultural areas of the Pacific Ocean islandsPacific Islands-Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia—also referred to as Oceania—first N to Melanesia at 995, then E to Polynesia at 996, then back NW to Micronesia at 996.5-996.8.

Curiously, 996.9 is for the Hawaiian Islands, and while they are islands in the middle of the north Pacific, this numbering makes no sense for 3 reasons:

  1. It’s culturally part of Polynesia, not Micronesia.
  2. Dewey numbers for other offshore islands are geographically included with their continent, like the Azores with Europe, the Philippines with Asia, and Madagascar with Africa; even Bermuda is included with North America.
  3. As mentioned above, our U.S. state Alaska is geographically part of Canada, but is included with U.S. Dewey numbers at 979.8.
    (If you have a large U.S. States section, you may, like me, use the open number after Alaska to redo your Hawaii books with 979.9 to keep all U.S. States books together!)

As I said, the 990s are weird, and there is no easy way to understand the last 3 number assignments:

  • 997 is Atlantic Ocean Islands which includes The Falklands off the coast of South America, but it also includes St. Helena off the coast of Africa, which is closer to that continental coast than Europe’s Azores are to its coast—go figure.
  • continent Antarctica998 is for Arctic islands and Greenland, and also for Antarctica, even though they are geographically at opposite ends of the Earth!
  • 999, wonder of all wonders, is Extraterrestrial worlds, clearly having no geographical or historical affiliation to the Earth whatsoever! This number is for books related to extraterrestrial intelligence or civilizations, as opposed to mere extraterrestrial life at 576.8 or UFOs/aliens at 001.94. I can only guess the DDC folks want to include all possible areas of historical human conquest within the 900s, no matter where they might be!


Learn More About Dewey Country Numbers in the School Library - School Librarians can learn more about country organization in DDC and how to use those books to provide a content-based geography lesson for Social Studies students. | No Sweat LibraryIn my post about 590 Animals I offered a hands-on lesson activity with books so students could practice both Dewey and life science’s taxonomic organization. We can offer a similar lesson activity with Social Studies classes studying world geography.

Pull enough country books to put a dozen or so on each table, making sure to have at least one book for each of the 5 multi-country continents. Students use the Dewey numbers to group books by continent. They then use provided sticky notes to write the continent names and main Dewey number of the continent and put on the stack of books.

Here are 2 options to make this a graded review activity:

  • Provide a map worksheet of the continents with country outlines and students record the countries and Dewey number in the proper place on the map. If time permits, students can rotate to different tables and to fill in all the countries on their map.
  • Each student at the table chooses a continent. They go to the bookshelves and find a country book for their continent that isn’t on the table already. When students return, they use their learning about geography to arrange all of the books according to where the country is located on the continent. The teacher & librarian circulate to monitor and perhaps photograph the arrangements for sharing and posting to the library website.

line of books laying down - indicates end of blog article

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2 thoughts on “Helping School Librarians Understand Dewey 900s Countries

  1. I have to admit that the placement of the country books drives me nuts. I’ve been considering moving them all to the geography and travel section, but that would be a LOT of work and I’m not sure it’s the best move. I am at an elementary school where the country books we have include information about how kids dress, go to school, holidays, etc in addition to other facts about countries. These books might have a little history but it’s not the focus. I would like to have a World History section and U.S. history section, but the way it is now books on Australia come after U.S. history so that breaks it up. Did you ever consider doing that? Or is it a bad idea?

    • I actually did a lot of work to break up the countries in order to better align with what our 6th, 7th, and 8th grade social studies courses taught. You can read about it in this blog post: How to Support Social Studies Content Reading in the School Library. I think this would work for you, too. Just determine what is taught for social studies at each grade level and make a special collection where you can have fiction & any Dewey books that include cultural groups or events, natural wonders, and those dress, school, and tradition books. I left the “history” books in their normal place on the country shelves and it really made a difference in circulation. Kids who just wanted information about a country could more easily find it, and the other topical books were all gathered together in one location for the grade level.

      As far as arranging countries, I didn’t mention in the blog post, but I moved the 980 and 990 countries sections to shelves right after 970-972. For my library, this put all the countries except the US on one aisle of shelving! I simply made 2 signs: one between 972 and 980 saying that all 973-979 were “around the corner,” and one at the end of our 976.4 Texas section saying that all 980-999 books were in the previous aisle. Kids don’t keep track of numbers, so they didn’t even notice.

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