Monday, July 16, 2007

Dewey's not dead

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.


Holly Bee said...

I love the Dewey System! America and it's stupid non metric fixation!

I hate Barnes and Noble it's so random, it's impossible to find anything, but not in a fun way, in some mysterious order way.

Brad said...

For further reading on the subject of knowledge and order, I would recommend "Everything is Miscellaneous" by David Weinberger. Baldwin has a copy currently checked out, but it's certainly worth the hold. Weinberger does an excellent job of covering Dewey, as well as a whole bunch of topics of interest to Librarians.

kristinknits said...

I love Dewey! I cannot fathom a good reason to imitate the ordering of books imposed by B&N or Borders. I can never find a darn thing.

Kev said...

I definitely agree with you. Plus I don't think people are totally oblivious to the numbers. As an English major I am frequently going to the 800s in a public library for books on literature and I imagine other users become familiar with where their 'favourites' are located. Also our library has both the numbers and a giant sign on the ceiling saying "LITERATURE" etc. The lack of any system would infuriate me!

Anonymous said...

Did you know that Harry used to run The Library Network here in the Detroit-area? Ask people in TLN about Harry's "escape" and you'll learn something about this skills as an administrator.

Anonymous said...

I am a library science graduate and still can't find my way around the Library of Congress Classification System with any confidence. Does that mean libraries should abandon LCCS because of my shortcomings?

I am comfortable with Dewey. I was raised with it. I can find most anything in a Dewey-classified library without consulting a catalog. How did I learn this?? By the librarians at my public elementary school library.

As librarians, we should support public-access education. It's not hard to teach Dewey to little kids. There are even fun stories that can be used to explain it.

Eva G. said...

I just crossed over from academic to public libraries and I must say - Dewey sucks so bad. (Sorry, I'm LC fo' life.) The only thing worse than Dewey would be to, well, set a library up like a bookstore. I hope that Courtright guy doesn't think he's a pioneer or something.

But you're right we've worked with this [miserable] system for so long and it's done the trick, I guess. And I suppose it's easier to give a crash course on the Dewey lineup then LC.

Monster Library Student said...


I began a project (that I am just now finishing) at my church, reorganizing all of the books in their library. The lady that did it many years ago was an aspiring Librarian and so did everything in Dewey Decimal, which to anyone from outside the library community, can be a little confusing. So, I have spent these last 7 months sorting the books into subcategories under the huge "religion" area. This is no simple task as almost all of the books fall into many of the categories.

I can understand their decision to do what they are doing, and I see this library's choice to become more Borders-ish, as a means to continue to not only make the librarys more accessible, and user friendly.

Thanks for the post!