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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Why We Don't Dewey

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.

Here’s why.

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.

1 comment:

The Short Stack Librarian said...

I am in love with your passion and ideas! It feels like you've crawled in my head and seen my inner struggle!