The New York Times reported that an Arizona library had done away with the classic and functional Dewey Decimal System in favor of broad subject browsing groups (as seen at most retail bookstores). How would this new approach work? Instead of going to 917.74 for a travel guide on Michigan, you would go to a large subject collection of travel items and browse for the desired item. That sounds fun and easy but it really doesn't play out in a favorable way. I know I've been consistently frustrated when seeking a particular title in a bookstore--they're not super tight on organization or controlled presentation.
The library that implemented this change is led by Harry Courtright. Mr. Courtright said annual surveys indicated most library users came into the building without a specific title in mind. They just wanted to browse. What about the library users who have a specific title they're after? Wouldn't it be nice for them to be able to find what they're seeking without browsing rows of undesired titles? This isn't the best solution--there's a better way.
Willard Library's new branch has implemented a fine hybrid of old school library ways and contemporary use preferences. When you walk into the Helen Warner Branch, you feel like you're sort of in a bookstore--but not entirely. They've divided the library collection into broad subject groups (travel, cooking, etc.) and then organized books within each subject group by Dewey Decimal classification. It is an ideal combination of organization methods since a user can casually browse a subject area or find a specific title quickly using the Dewey Decimal System. The library system's director, Rick Hulsey, has set a great example by presenting a traditional library classification system in a way that is relevant to today's user.
The article states "Mr. Courtright says most people don't know what the numbers mean anyway." Why should that signal the Dewey Decimal System be deemed irrelevant? Such a revelation about the using public should lead to education about libraries, how they're organized, and what they offer. This education can be directed at all age levels from elementary students to seniors. Could a "crash course in library use" be offered to new library card holders or interested members of the community? Empower library users to get the most out of their library visits and they libraries they fund.
Libraries aren't bookstores. Libraries will be on shaky ground if they attempt to become completely like bookstores. The library community can embrace certain aspects (mainly atmosphere) of bookstores but they can't lose their identity in pursuit of the competition. Instead, libraries need to breath new life into their buildings and into the profession. They need to capitalize on what sets them apart from bookstores by highlighting the many unique and valuable services they provide.
I hope that the demise of the Dewey Decimal System is limited to Mr. Courtright's library. Dewey isn't a perfect system of classification. It has its shortcomings. But it's served library users for generations and is vital in today's quest to connect library users to desired content.