Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Do we Dewey or don't we?

According to a recent School Library Journal article, "a small but growing number of school and public libraries" have done away with the Dewey Decimal System. The article focuses on one school library, whose staff rearranged its collection according to categories devised with a lot of student input. There's a Making Stuff section, a Countries section, an Adventure section... The idea is that students should get to spend more time engaging with the books than they spend searching.

At first glance, my reaction was, "sounds like a bookstore." The fiction in our kids' section is mostly arranged by reading/listening level; the only exception that I would call strictly fiction is the Fairy Tales/Folk Tales/Mythology section. In particular, our kids' nonfiction section (smaller than that of most libraries, but certainly an active section) is categorized similarly to what the article describes. In fact, we recently rearranged it as a hazing for one of our new children's booksellers. Just as Dewey has logic that made a lot of sense when it was devised and still makes sense in many cases now, our kids' nonfiction section had a logical system, but it seemed wise to look at what books we had now, what requests we were getting now, and go from there. That led to the development of a "Series" subsection, which happened to be logical for us because we had enough Eyewitness and Basher books, and enough requests for them, to make them worth grouping. (Besides, a row of Basher books is a colorful wonder.) Near the end of the reorganization process, the newly devised "Educational Resources" section still had a "Misc" area, but an assessment of what was actually in there revealed that by creatively relocating two or three titles, we could call what was left "Trivia." You know, the "Impress Your Friends with the Weird Stuff You Know" section. It's great, and always has been, to be able to say to customers, "You like sports? Lots of books about them are over here." (We've wrestled with the same question the article mentions: should biographies of athletes go in Biography or Sports? I tend to agree that if a choice must be made, they're more valuable to sports browsers than biography browsers.)

Metis, the system described in the article, sounds wonderful for browsing--for finding the kind of book you want and then stumbling upon the perfect book plus two or three related ones. I wonder, though, if it's disconcerting for patrons who already have a specific book in mind. In fiction, particularly, readers are used to knowing exactly where to go once they know the author's name. But is Spaceheadz humor or sci-fi? Is Inside Out and Back Again historical fiction or poetry? Maybe, though, there's fun in those questions, or in finding new ways to describe your favorite book. I'll admit that I find that aspect of shelving satisfying.

There's also the question of whether the Dewey Decimal System is an important skill for school libraries to teach students so they can use libraries later in life. My tentative answer: maybe students don't need to learn Dewey specifically; what they do need to learn is how to search, how to figure out and navigate a system. (Lots of libraries use the Library of Congress system, anyway.) Maybe learning to search means figuring out the categories on their own. Maybe, and more likely in this day and age, it means using some form of online catalog based on whatever system is in use.

I don't think there are perfect answers (can we put that Jackie Robinson biography in two places)? But I'm very glad that, instead of adhering to a system out of habit, librarians are asking the questions.


  1. Princeton had multiple classification systems, due to previous librarians devising their own (Richardson and somebody else?) and newer (to the library) books being Library of Congress. They were in the midst of switching everything over to LoC when I left.
    The library a capella singing group was still called the Dewey Decibels though.

  2. I hate finding YA books in big bookstores (cough:Barnes and Noble:cough). I never know what's fantasy, what's fantasy/romance, what's historical/fantasy/romance, and what's historical/vampire/fantasy/romance/series. Can't we go back to the good old days of organizing by author?