Heresy!

Now that I’m a real librarian, I feel like I should be able to post with some authority on the Dewey Decimal System! I know you’ve all been expecting it, and even though I’m a Library of Congress Classification System loyalist and know relatively little about the DDC, I’ll give it a shot. It’s long and a bit rant-y. But I’m sure you’ll enjoy it…

Stacy brought this to my attention earlier this week in a comment here, and then posted a little about it on her own blog, and another library school friend just sent me a link to an NPR story on the topic. The story is this: a Gilbert, Arizona, branch of the Maricopa County Library has decided to throw out the Dewey Decimal System and organize its books like a bookstore. Apparently the Dewey Decimal System is not user-friendly, and library official Marshall Shore wants to try something new. As I mentioned earlier in the week, I have some issues with this.

Dewey was a bit of a weirdo — I won’t deny that. He had some controversial views on spelling and women. Apparently we can thank him for our American spelling of catalog (as opposed to the British catalogue). And his system is far from perfect — there are ten classes (000, 100, 200, and so on), each divided into ten divisions (310, 320, 330, etc.), each of which are further divided into ten sections (331, 332, 333, etc.). Each section is assigned a topic ( 331 = Labor economics, 332 = Financial economics, 333 = Land economics, etc.). What about the decimals? Each section can be broken down even further into subtopics: 133 = parapsychology occultism; 133.3244 = fortune telling with tea or coffee. (And no, I don’t know all of this off the top of my head — you can see the basic structure here.) The problem: some sections may not have even existed when the DDC was created, and now are huge, like computer science. This makes for some really long numbers because what was once a small-ish, new category is now highly subdivided. Other sections aren’t relevant anymore. There are currently 89 unused sections that can be assigned topics at some point, but they’re not always in quite the right places. And reclassifying topics is a gigantic undertaking at pretty much any library, involving changing locations, catalog records, and labels on the books.

So, no, the Dewey Decimal System is not perfect. But is the bookstore model? When we go to a library to find books, how do we do that best? Some of us want to browse, which makes it important for books to be collocated according to subject. Some of us know exactly what we want, and we should be able to pinpoint its exact location. How do you think the library staff shelves the books? It’s not by guessing.

All they’re doing in Arizona is getting rid of something that isn’t perfect, but functions, and replacing it with something similar that is more nebulous. Where are your resume books? Over in that area. Where in that area is this particular one on cover letters for marketing jobs? Oh, you’ll just have to browse around for it. They talk about books that could be shelved in more than one category under the Dewey Decimal System, and bringing those together — fine, but unless you have multiple copies of a book, as long as you’re categorizing them, there will be the possibility that they could fit into more than one group. It’s just the nature of the beast.

I hate to get all didactic and “eat-your-peas-y” here, but people need to learn how to find information! I’m not saying it needs to be difficult for them, or unpleasant in any way, but if we can design systems that work (like an online catalog and call numbers), as long as there are enough access points (keywords, book information) for patrons to find what they need, they’ll find what they need.

Another option is the closed stack — a patron tells you what they want or need, and the library staff retrieves the item. This was how things were done until not very long ago, and still are in some special libraries. Other libraries are shifting back toward this method, only automating the process. I don’t really agree with this, either, but they’ve taken subject classification out of the picture completely in their physical collection — this information is only in the catalog, and the user never has to know anything about where the item is located. I can find the record for my George Bush book under politics and psychology and biography, and it won’t matter to me where it’s actually located.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens in Arizona. I think that as much as we want people to come in and love us, we’re not bookstores. The things we do that differentiate us, such as the classification and cataloging, are strengths if our users know how to use them.

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2 Comments

Filed under Current Reading, Information Science

2 responses to “Heresy!

  1. The bookstore model is arbitrary. When we let big stores dictate our library system we are getting ready for Al Qaeda.

  2. 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.

    Read my full response at Detroit Leaning: http://detroitleaning.blogspot.com/2007/07/deweys-not-dead.html

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