On the abandonment of the Dewey Decimal System

Gone are the days of the card catalog. Is Dewey next? [Princeton University Archives]

While many public libraries stopped using the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system to group fiction books long ago, the last five years have seen an emerging trend of libraries choosing to go “Dewey Free” for non-fiction books as well. In lieu of the industry standard system, these libraries are utilizing more so-called, “user-friendly” bookstore-style layouts. The 3,000 categories in this bookstore system model, Book Industry Standards and Communications (BISAC), are far less expansive and specific when compared to the 27,000 categories used to classify books with Dewey. The main features of BISAC include displaying books by their covers whenever possible, utilizing signage to spotlight current popular categories and grouping books by subject alphabetically instead of by number. The library that pioneered the use of the BISAC system was the opening of the Perry Branch Library, Gilbert, in Maricopa County, Arizona in 2007. With the success the Perry Branch has had, Maricopa has begun to go Dewey-less at all of its 18 system libraries. Additionally, after a presentation by Maricopa about their success at the Public Library Association national conference in 2008, they have inspired numerous other libraries to follow in their footsteps.

However, some libraries that appreciate this new approach are not so quick to give up on Dewey completely. Many of them have opted instead to use a “de-emphasized” or “mash-up” system in which, like BISAC, books are grouped by category with appropriate signage but still filed within each category by the DDC numbers on their spines. For instance, Kate Sheehan, librarian at the Darien Library in Connecticut, explained their system in an article in Library Journal (LJ) in 2009:

“We clumped similar areas of Dewey together in eight broad categories, which we call glades…we made each glade a location in our ILS, and we bought stickers the same width as our spine labels, with the glade names. We went through the stacks in the old library and marked off ranges of Dewey by glade. Every book got a glade sticker above the call number. We changed the locations by call number.”

Another approach by the Anna Porter Public Library (APPL) in Gatlinburg, Tennessee was to split up and move DDC numbers while attempting to retain both its precision and its ability to identify a specific shelf location. After visiting many bookstores, APPL director Kenton Temple mimicked their subject placements and, if necessary, reassigned DDC numbers to get books shelved where they would “sell” better without simply dropping Dewey altogether.

Of course, re-classifying the entire collection of any library—no matter how small—is an enormous undertaking. So why go to all this trouble, and what prompted such a drastic change? There is no simple right answer to this question; rather, the fashionable argument for these DDC alternative systems is their ease of use with library patrons. According to many of the libraries making this transition, users are often intimidated by and/or do not understand the DDC numbers. For instance, Marshall Shore, a former consultant with the Perry Branch Library, summed it up in 2009 when he told LJ, “The goal of having a BISAC-based scheme is to put customers at ease and help them become more self-sufficient and comfortable using the library.” Furthermore, in the same LJ article Perry Branch Manager, Jennifer Miele, brought up another pro-BISAC argument that was prompted by the library’s annual surveys stating, “Over 75 percent of our customers stated that they go to the library to ‘browse’ for materials.”

In addition to these user-centered reasons to forgo the use of DDC, are criticisms about it having the bias of Melvil Dewey’s 19th century U.S. outlook. Many would assert that despite its 23 revisions, Dewey’s classification system reflects a distinctly white, male, Anglo-Saxon Christian view of the universe. For instance, of the 100 numbers reserved for religions, Christianity gets 88 of them; Jews and Muslims get just one each. Moreover, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains all have to share one decimal point. It should come as no surprise then, that it is widely accepted that Dewey was a racist and an anti-Semite. Nor is it surprising that many institutions would want a classification system with a larger worldview. As far as issues with the DDC system itself, this is just the tip of the iceberg and is worthy of a post all its own.

Despite all of the DDC’s negative qualities, there are also a multitude of reasons why it has continued to serve libraries for over a century and remains by far the most widely used method of organizing books worldwide. One of its main features is that DDC provides an easy way to introduce new subjects. Since Dewey divided knowledge into nine very broad classes (plus one “Miscellaneous” class), it is easy to add new subjects by dividing the original categories into finer and finer gradations. For example, obviously computers had not yet been invented at the time of the DDC’s creation (1876), yet this huge subject area has been fairly easily accommodated for into this system. Again, this is just the tip of the iceberg; the rationale for the longevity of the DDC is also worthy of a post all its own.

Historically, whenever there is a movement to change the traditional way that things are done, there has always been an emotional backlash. This is no exception. After the Perry Branch opened, one blogger titled her post “Heresy!” while others called it part of the “dumbing down of our society.” The satirical online “faux-magazine,” The Cronk of Higher Education, even poked fun at the trend in 2010 with their article titled, Librarians Abandon Dewey Decimal System in Favor of Netflix Categories. On a more serious note, however, many in the library field have pointed out that these new BISAC-inspired classification systems have only been implemented in small branches. Therefore they question their effectiveness with larger collections that have a much greater subject range. Of course, there are also the traditionalists who simply believe that libraries are already doing it better than bookstores because of the level of granulation DDC allows in subject areas.

I must admit that I approached this topic with a bias similar to those traditionalists previously mentioned. However, after researching the subject a bit further, I am now becoming a believer in developing a more modern system based on DDC much like the one implemented at the Darien Library. Although I still have two main concerns. First, with the adoption of broad bookstore categories and their emphasis on signage, I worry about issues of multilingualism. How will non-English speakers be affected by this change? Although this may not be much an issue in a small town like Darien, it is certain to arise in other communities. Second, I worry about consistency between libraries. One of the great things about Dewey was that any library using the system was set up in almost the same way. If libraries continue to develop their own unique methods of classification, how will this affect users as they go from one library to the next? Furthermore, I worry that this will negatively impact the image of libraries as a whole. Despite all that, as more and more libraries make the transition from DDC into new or hybrid systems, there will [hopefully] be more discussion about developing a unified system from larger associations such as the ALA. The Dewey Decimal system has served us well for over a century. Nevertheless thanks to the growing popularity of e-books, as libraries continue to evolve into less of a repository for physical books and more into a place that serves the various needs of a community, it only seems natural to adopt a system that is not based on a book’s shelf location.

Additional References:

Casey, M. Spine labels and De-Dewefication.

Courtright, H. R. “The national impact of the Dewey-less library.” Public Libraries.

Herzog, B. Organizing books by subjects, part I & II.

Lynch, S. & Mulero, E. Dewey? At this library with a very different outlook, they don’t.

McCoppin, R. Who’s killing the Dewey Decimal System?

Rice, M., & Kolendo, J. “Transition & reflection: Frankfort Public Library District’s decision to go Dewey free.” Illinois Library Association Reporter.

Weinberger, D. Why Dewey’s Decimal System is prejudiced.

Zotti, E. (Editor). What’s so great about the Dewey Decimal System?  

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