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Monday, January 23, 2012

Creating Our New System

We began working on creating a new classification system with a palpable sense of terror and excitement. We knew the task was huge. We had no idea if we were up to it. We began at the beginning. The process involved a great deal of thinking, talking and pushing at each other's arguments to try to find the flaws, book and online research, anecdotal research on our students, and experimenting with sections of our collection.
Although we had no idea yet of the details, we were clear about our objectives. Our new system had to include the following characteristics:
  • It had to be child-friendly. By that we meant that it had to begin with the thought categories and language used by children of various ages.
  • It had to encourage browsing. That meant that the order and the sections and sub-sections had to be clear not only to the librarians, but also to the students who were using the library.
  • It had to be flexible. By this we meant that it had to be capable of being used or adapted for use by a range of ages (4 through 11); it had to be capable of growing as time went on, as the world changed and as our collection grew. In addition, we knew that the idea that we were going to devise a universal scheme with everything already included in it, as Dewey had done, was not at all what we had in mind. We would tailor our scheme for our collection and for our users, and do our best to leave options open for change in the future.

In order to ensure that we met these requirements, we came up with the following ideas that informed our subsequent work:
  • We needed a strong central visual component, especially for the younger students, but also to help orient older students, so that it was clear with or without reading skills which section students were browsing in.
  • Our use of code had to be minimal, if we used it at all, i.e. we had to use whole language in our call numbers and on our spine labels.
  • Our order had to be simple and clear.

We settled on the following general plan:
  • We would use primarily alphabetical order. While younger students struggle with this, it is a skill which is taught beginning with the alphabet in the earliest grades, so that the rudiments would be present even for the youngest students. It is a skill that is still used in classrooms, with print dictionary and encyclopedia use. Where alphabetical order was not possible or would be confusing, we would use a straight number order.
  • Because alphabetical order of the main classes would result in an unhelpful overall order, we decided on a single piece of code: each main class or category would be given a letter of the alphabet. That letter would be the ordering device for the main categories. This would allow us to put related main categories together, regardless of their position in the alphabet.
  • Within main categories we would use primarily alphabetical order for the sub-categories. This would give students a clear order when browsing, and allow for maximum flexibility and adaptability in terms of future changes and expansion. In a few cases this order was unhelpful, and in these cases we opted for a straight numerical order.
  • Each category would have a visual symbol or image associated with it, which would appear on the spine label, as well as on posters and signage.
  • We decided, and this turned out to be a crucial decision, that we would give up the idea of a system which classified books in as specific a way as possible. Instead, we opted for something we have called "categorization," based on some of the ideas in a system in the East Sussex Public Libraries in the UK in the 1980s: we would put books in helpful categories, and dispense with author cutters except where helpful (fiction and poetry). Overall, this meant that many times there would be more books with the same call number than with Dewey. Our job would be to keep those categories manageable and of a helpful size.
  • Particularly in the lower grades library (PreK-2) we decided on another crucial principle: we would mix fiction and nonfiction in categories, identify whether they were fiction or nonfiction on the spine, but interfile them on the shelves. That would mean that a kindergartner looking for a book about dogs would find both fiction and nonfiction in the "Dogs" section, but would be able to see which books were fiction from the spine label.

So far so good. But what were the main classes to be, and how would we figure them out? Stay tuned for the next installment.

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