Saturday, September 22, 2012

Rant: The Dewey Decimal System

I recently read a post on the digital shift (via 100 Scope Notes) about a librarian who recataloged his library using a made-up system.  Interesting stuff, although I've already read similar posts on METIS or the lovely glades at the Darien Public Library.*  What really got me was the comments.  I cannot stop thinking about the comments!  I'd comment myself, but the post is a bit old and the author hasn't weighed in again, so I'm just going to rant here instead.

A few of the comments ask the author what he uses for call numbers, which is something I'd like to know myself.  But many of the comments take the author to task for being idiotic and vain.  These Dewey defenders seem to think that if they just explain the system, we'll all be like, "The gods of the library have revealed to me the truth: the system is perfect!"

Now, it's impossible to take a cataloging class and not be kind of impressed by the DDC, because it's so darn comprehensive.  You can shoe-horn just about any text into its numerical system.

But that's not the same as saying it's a natural fit for all libraries.  In fact, I don't think it's a good fit at all for children's libraries.  So, with respect to the brilliance of the original concept, here are my three reasons not to worship Dewey (if you're a children's librarian), plus a rebuttal to one of the aforementioned commenters' points.

  1. It's built around adult disciplines.  The way children categorize information is different, and the curricula at our school reflect this.  Try explaining to kids why the human body books aren't in the science section.  They learn about the digestive system in science class, right? 
  2. It's proprietary.  I really hate that.  Libraries are all about the free flow of information and we can't freely distribute our own organization system.  We have to pay OCLC hundreds of dollars to get access to the information we need to use the system properly.  I refuse. 
  3. Changes in technology are quickly making it irrelevant.  That's right.  I said it.  Dewey may govern what books are next to each other on the shelves, but ebooks don't need shelves.  And even if we're talking physical books, shelving isn't the primary way we highlight relationships between books.  It's all about links and tags and keyword searches (and subject headings--still love those).  Oh, and algorithms that recommend similar books.

That said, I don't hate Dewey.  I still use it in my library for parts of my collection.  However, I obviously don't use it for the same reasons as some of the commenters.  One person writes:
when one of my students go to another school, they will know how to find books at the new library… unless that idiot librarian has made up her own system of shelving. Then the student is only confused.
I don't want my students to memorize Dewey.  I want them to be able to use a call number to locate a physical book, because that's a useful skill.  But mostly I want them to look for patterns, make connections, and discover the logic of systems around them.  I'm pretty sure that if I succeed, then they'll be able to transfer those skills to lots of situations, including libraries with different organization systems. 

I just hate this idea that we have to teach kids Dewey so they won't be lost in another library.  You know what I teach my students?  If you're lost in a library, ask a librarian.

I guess I just have to cross my fingers that the librarian they ask isn't one of the people who made a condescending comment on that post. 

*There's also a ton of links here.


  1. Emily, I love this post (it's thoughtfully expressed, well-reasoned, and -- my favorite part about it -- constructively confrontational). I agree with your reasons for your position. I wonder how many of our colleagues both in and outside of the state would agree? I wonder how we'd ever break the Dewey cycle? (Just some rhetorical questions....)

  2. True. I think the fact that Dewey is so widespread makes people reluctant to abandon it. Dewey makes it easy to copy catalog or to have vendors provide us with processed books. Certainly, we would have to spend more time on cataloging if we didn't use Dewey, and some librarians might question if that was the best use of our time. Personally, I think cataloging--not using a specific system, but really thinking about how we organize materials--should not be a lost art of librarianship! We should dedicate time to it. But then we'd have to take time away from something else, so it's definitely something we have to consider in the context of our mission.

  3. Well put. I see this as an area where some real leadership needs to emerge. There's a real "show me how it's done, and done well" opportunity to be leveraged. We'll see what the future holds! Thanks for your comment and your post.