Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Monday, January 23, 2012
- 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.
- 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 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.
Thursday, January 12, 2012
When we four librarians gathered in the library office just over a year ago to watch the Darien Public Library's Powerpoint about their new system for their preschool section, it didn't take long for us to make the leap to deciding that we wanted to do something similar, but for PreK-5th grade. For anyone watching, their reaction might have been surprise at our willingness, scratch that: enthusiasm, in dispensing with the Dewey Decimal Classification System with such rapidity. The truth is that we, like many librarians, had been dissatisfied with Dewey for many years.
What was it that we disliked so much? Even if we disliked it, surely a system which has been tried and tested, is almost universally used in school libraries, and is seen as an essential part of running a library in a professional way, would be preferable to anything that we could come up with. Not so, we were quick to argue.
The purpose of the Dewey system is to pinpoint as closely as possible the subject or topic covered by the book. The number generated, combined with the “cutter,” (usually the first three letters of the author’s last name), provides an almost unique call number, which enables the person searching for a particular book to identify the book quickly, assuming that you first searched the catalog and found the call number, then were able to located that call number’s place in the sequence of books on the shelves and third, that the book was in the correct place in the sequence. These are pretty big assumptions, especially when the majority of your users are in the second grade or below.
PROBLEM 1: Division by Discipline. Dewey divides the universe of knowledge into ten main classes. This division is predominantly by discipline. You can see the division by discipline clearly in the 300s, the Social Sciences main class. For example, 306 is the number for Culture and Institutions. Under this one finds all kinds of institutions, including religious institutions, political institutions, family, sexual relationships, etc. When last did an 8-year-old show an interest in “institutions” as a topic? Maybe it doesn’t matter too much if you’re only interested in providing access through specific catalog searches, and all of your users are going to be looking for books with a call number in hand. The truth is that most of our users are browsing: looking along the shelves for interesting or useful books. That means that we want to put related books together as much as possible. This simply isn’t served by putting books about political institutions next to books about family structures on the one hand, but separating books about kids’ feelings about their families in one main class from the books about family structures in another.
Dewey simply doesn’t group books on related topics from a child’s point of view. For example, non-domestic animals and pets are separated on the shelves by the topics of: inventors; the human body and medicine; engineering; various kinds of transportation, including space travel; robots; and gardening and farming. As another example, sewing and knitting are in different main classes. I could go on and on.
PROBLEM 2: Bias. The Dewey system was invented by an American steeped in the Western intellectual and cultural assumptions of the 19th century. Despite many changes and updates, the basic structure remains. For example, Christianity takes up no less than 70% of the 200s Religion main class, leaving Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism all with numbers on the far side of the decimal point.
PROBLEM 3: Numerical Code. For children, this may be the biggest barrier to access caused by Dewey.
First, the code is opaque and far too complex to teach in detail to students. We teach that the 700s are Arts and Recreation, including sports, and then we expect students to find baseball books at 796.357, or football books at 796.334.
Second, while some numbers are fairly short (3 or 4 digits), most are longer. A book on lions has a number that is 7 digits long (599.7442); a book of folk tales from Vietnam, if one has a substantial collection and subdivides by country, has a 9 digit number, almost a phone number and area code (398.209597).
Third, there’s the decimal aspect, which is there, it seems, simply because Melvil Dewey loved decimals. Students learn about decimals in math only in third or fourth grade, i.e. more than half of our students have not learned about decimals.
Fourth, to add insult to injury, in order to find a book on the shelf students must be able to put decimal numbers of up to 6 numbers to the right of the decimal point IN ORDER. Or, rather, be able to insert a decimal number on a slip of paper in their hand into the order on the shelves. Libraries are the only place in the universe that I’m aware of that require this particular skill. Enough said.
All in all, we had become convinced over the years that Dewey, rather than enabling our students to find what they needed, created barriers for them. It sometimes seemed that our students found what they wanted despite Dewey rather than because of it. We wanted to believe that it was possible to do better.
When we saw the inspiring example of the librarians in Darien creating a system with preschool children and their needs at its center, we began to believe for the first time that we could do something similar for our students.
Tuesday, January 10, 2012
Friday, January 6, 2012
Part of the joy of being an Assistant Librarian here at Ethical is I get to act like I’m not listening to idle conversation while checking out books to the students.
A kindergartener chose to take a Miami Dolphins football book yesterday, and proudly exclaimed his love for the team. The girl behind him chimed in, “My dad likes the Dolphins too, but he loves the Yankees: but not more than he loves me and my sister. First he loves me and my sister, then he loves the Yankees, then he loves chocolate ice cream.” She seemed to pause and reflect deeply for a moment and with deep conviction she corrected her statement. “No wait! Wait. First he loves me and my sister and my mom. Then he loves the Yankees. And then he loves chocolate ice cream.”
Tuesday, January 3, 2012
Perhaps your family saw the film Hugo during the vacation and were wonderstruck. Prolong the wonder with Brian Selznick's new illustrated novel, Wonderstruck and explore the additional resources listed below to deepen your understanding and enjoyment.
The Panorama of the City of New York is amazing, and it's one of the real locations you can visit. Constructed for the 1964 World’s Fair, this architectural model includes every single building in all five boroughs, and it's still being updated! Walk up the ramp around this landmark and see if you can find your home. I found the Ethical Culture building and my apartment building.
Until January 15th, 2012, if you take a trip to the Queens Museum of Art where the panorama is found, you can see an exhibit of Selznick’s drawings and sketches for Wonderstruck. Additionally, the links below offer a virtual field-trip and other resources to add to your enjoyment of the book.
If you comment on any entry in our blog by the end of January, you will be entered in a drawing to win a copy of the book.
Detail of Selznick's sketch of the Museum, from Wonderstruck, photographed 12/2011 by J. Still.