Dewey Discord in WSJ 2

No Dewey Sticker Distributed at ALA Annual

Fascinating article that features Jessamyn West, Sarah Houghton-Jan, Karen Schneider and Michael Casey and other librarians weighing in on Maricopa County’s Perry Branch Library that opened without using Dewey to organize the collection.

I heart this: “We may want people to spend hours learning our arcane systems, but the reality is they’re going to default to the path of least resistance,” PubLib’s Ms. Schneider said. “We need to be in that path.” Oh yes we do!

But it’s what’s missing from the library that has drawn the most attention: Perry abandoned the Dewey Decimal Classification System for its books, whose spines instead carry labels with plain-English subjects such as “history” and “weddings.” Instead of locating books by the traditional numerical system, patrons use a computerized catalog to find out which subject a book has been filed under, and then follow signs posted throughout the library. Many visitors skip the catalog altogether, and just head for the aisles that interest them.

The discussions over Dewey and Google are similar, said Michael Casey, in that they both relate to serving people who don’t want to learn a complicated system. Mr. Casey, a librarian and information-technology director in Gwinnett, Ga., who writes a blog called LibraryCrunch, said that during a new branch’s recent construction, he began asking plumbers, inspectors and other construction workers whether they used libraries. Most said they couldn’t figure out how to find a book, he said. Although it didn’t give up Dewey classifications, the branch incorporated more subject signs as a result.

“Librarians like to think that we’re indispensable,” he said. “While I think that is true to a point, I don’t think we should continue to propagate the idea that we’re indispensable by keeping a complicated cataloging system.”

I was given a “No Dewey” Sticker at ALA and wore it on my name tag. If anyone asked, I told them about Perry Library and that I was pleased some librarians were questioning how we present ourselves. I think that’s how we’ll learn what works and what doesn’t. We’ll also learn more about presence in our users lives, as Karen and Michael point out. One librarian stopped me on the exhibit floor and got very agitated. “I love Dewey,” she said. “No one needs to change it. It’s perfect.”

This is perfect for discussion here and in the classroom. I tip my bloggers hat to everyone involved with the Perry Library and this high-profile article.

More coverage is below, featuring Marshall Shore, the innovative librarian at Maricopa who “lead the charge” not to use Dewey.

2 thoughts on “Dewey Discord in WSJ

  • Eric

    This news item was featured in Library Link of the Day (a site I recommend) last week. The Perry library is not a big public library. Most libraries in the United States are not big. It may make sense to organize a smaller library collection in this way (like Barnes & Noble, etc.) if the patrons find it is easier to use and it makes the library a more viable information destination.

    However, there are problems with this. Many individual titles could be classified under multiple subjects. If there is no unified system such as Dewey or LC to sort out these problematic titles, the patron will have just as much (more, really) trouble finding a book. The larger the library, the worse this problem will be. If we index books across systems by some other means, such as ISBN, we will need to persuade libraries everywhere to adopt the new indexing system. This will not be as easy for everyone else to do as it was for Perry to simply drop Dewey.

    Personally, I don`t find Dewey especially dificult. It is arbitrary, to be sure, and it takes some effort to look at a chart and deduce the category you are looking for. But it is an attempt at precision, and the broader and deeper your search, the more you will appreciate that precision.
    For that matter, if someone in the Perry library wants to find a title that Perry doesn`t have, a system like Dewey makes it easier to expedite that ILL.

    The Dewey sytem has undergone 21 revisions since Dewey invented it.
    It needs more. But scrapping it altogether without providing a realistic cataloging alternative would be a mistake. In the meantime, brave little libraries like Perry bear watching.

  • Matthew Thomas

    When I first heard about Perry library and even as I started reading this entry, I was appalled. I thought, foolish people, caving in to the people who are just browsing, who are scared of numbers, who don’t want to think when they find a book, who don’t realize that sometimes people need to find the right book and not just A book, etc. These are all still problems I have with removing Dewey in the way that Perry has. And I certainly don’t think that librarians are “saving their jobs” by “keeping a complicated cataloging system”. Dewey is NOT complicated but it certainly could be simpler.

    I think the main problem people have is illustrated perfectly with the image on the WSJ article you’ve linked to above: the inset closeup of the call number labels. They all say “History”. And that’s it. I HOPE those are the only three general history books in the library. I would hate to think that all the history books on specific countries, time periods, and other subtopics are all labelled “History”. How would anybody find anything??? There’s no order! Yes, browsing’s a breeze! You know exactly where all the history books are. But what if you’re only interested in Canadian history? Good luck. All the usual arguments…

    But you hit the nail on the head when you said you were “pleased some librarians were questioning how we present ourselves”. Amen. No, Dewey’s not perfect. No, Perry Library’s way is not perfect. Maybe we combine them: 2 or 3 subject terms, year of publication, or something else to make it somewhat unique? Who knows. We have to meet somewhere in the middle. And it certainly has to start with some questioning of our old ways of thinking. Good start Perry library! Thanks Marshall Shore! And thanks Michael Stevens! With enough of us out there, we’ll get it right some day! LOL

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