It’s Fine to Drop Dewey

By Michael Casey & Michael Stephens

We think it’s good news that the Rangeview Library District, CO, is experimenting in one of its branches with an alternative to Dewey.

MC: I started highlighting Dewey’s failings when I was helping build and open a new branch library. I asked the many contractors and vendors if they used the library.

Many responded that they had gone as kids but that they never continued use into adulthood. Many said they went to the book superstores but had given upon the library. Why? Coffee, collection, and classification.

Today’s busy, working adults want to find what they want, quickly, and be able to have a latté or iced tea while they browse. And Dewey, no matter how good for librarians needing to locate a book fast, is simply not suited to a popular collection intended more for browsing than research.

Missing the big picture
MS: Recently, while visiting a library in a distant city for a meeting, I entered the building with a librarian who was about to check how series titles were cataloged, saying, “So many libraries do it wrong.” Such granularity of concern among some colleagues bothers me. Some commenters on the Rangeview news story can’t understand why more signage placed on top of the Dewey framework wouldn’t fit the bill. Another suggested that the Rangeview people were just making the library “more confusing.” One person noted this approach had been tried in the 1980s, serving browsers well but not folks seeking a particular item.

MC: Does this mean libraries should become bookstores? Absolutely not. We offer services that bookstores simply cannot. Libraries are nonprofit public service organizations. That doesn’t mean we can’t experiment with ways of providing better access to our materials. Compromises include better subject signage and improved shelving layouts. The West Palm Beach Public Library, FL, is trying something like this with a mix of bookstore categories and Dewey classification.

MS: The response from Rangeview director Pam Sandlian Smith (who used to run West Palm Beach) is spot on, because she recognizes customer convenience and the DIY movement. Amen. User-centered self-service and easy-to-access collections should be the order of the day. It pains me to think we still expect people to come to the librarian behind the reference desk—the gatekeeper of all knowledge—to beg for some snippets of information.

Findability issues
MC: Findability can be complicated; to some it means locating things easily while browsing and to others it means finding things precisely after doing a catalog search. The relationship between shelving style and findability has a lot to do with the size of the collection. Smaller collections (perhaps 100,000 volumes or less) are probably better suited to de-Dewey shelving strategies. Improving findability will not take us closer to becoming bookstores nor will it lead to the “commodification” of libraries in general. It will make access to our materials easier for our users to understand, which will improve use, which will result in happier library customers. And this is what we want, right?

Improving service
MS: Each semester, during an intro class unit on organization of information, we discuss these issues. Dewey designed a system that worked well for its time—and way beyond—but it has deficiencies we’ve tried to cover with Band-Aids, like more signage. We listen to Marshall Shore interviewed on NPR about the original project at Maricopa County Library District’s Perry Branch. Then the students share their views and personal experiences—and many echo what Michael mentioned above.

Smith has an answer: “WordThink allows library staff the freedom and creativity to develop collocation relationships that could never happen in Dewey. [It] allows staff to anticipate customers’ inquiries and shelve items that have natural affinities.”

What a perfect duty for librarians: creating connections among materials to inspire users. To me, this naturally pairs readers’ advisory with the foundations of collection management.

I have no idea where these innovations may lead, but I’m glad others are following the initiative at Maricopa. Isn’t focusing on innovation, creative thinking, th edelivery of intuitive user-focused service, and streamlining workflows a bit more important and timely than worrying if the catalog is perfectly correct?

Michael Casey is Information Technology Division Director, Gwinnett County Public Library, Lawrenceville, CA, and co-author of Library 2.0.

July 2009 Library Journal