Friday Late Link – Public Library Does Away With Dewey (Fri June 15, 2007)

I had this ready to go yesterday but never got near a computer to post it.  So I'm backdating to Friday and life goes on…

“The Prelinger Library is a small privately owned “public library” in San Francisco with the unique philosophy
that browsing library stacks can reveal new knowledge, if the books are
arranged for browsing. This is counter to most public libraries who
rely on computer terminal searching, databases and the Dewey Decimal
system to atomize books and subjects, with stack browsing a sort of
random after effect. Now a (real) public library in Arizona has joined the revolution
and claims to be the first public library in the nation to drop the
Dewey Decimal system. Instead, books will be shelved by topic, similar
to the way bookstores arrange books. The demise of the century-old
Dewey Decimal system is overdue, county librarians say: “People think
of books by subject. Very few people say, ‘Oh, I know Dewey by heart.’
“”

(via MetaFilter which has some great discussion about the role of classification systems in libraries and bookstores)

Comments 5

  1. Anonymous wrote:

    thank you for posting this. in my special library class, i argued that display should mirror the way books are set up in children's sections of libraries: books on display so you can see the cover. my partners disagreed and the library we designed had the more traditional spine-only view.
    i agree with the main point here: people make connections by browsing that can't do when the organizational tool is counter-intuitive — even if that consists of spine only, bottom most books nobody ever sees.
    -Chris

    Posted 17 Jun 2007 at 1:01 am
  2. Anonymous wrote:

    I'm not sure that Prelinger or Arizona's organization schemes are any more intuitive than Dewey. Don't get me wrong, DDC has a ton of problems, but I'm not convinced that either of these systems address those problems let alone fix them.
    Prelinger is a cool system though. For a smaller, very focussed collection, it appears to be designed to lead the browser through the subject matter thematicially. That's cool. But this is a semi-private library that wears its political leanings on its sleeve (from collection policy/scope rigth up front to the classification scheme). In a larger, public library, I think that most patrons would prefer that some attempt (however futile) at political neutrality in the classification. At the very least, one expects the biases of the public library to be roughly the same as the biases of the predominant culture.
    Arizona's system just seems lazy to me. They've really just pulled back from the collection further than DDC. The granularity of the categories are larger — broader brush-strokes. Does this assist browsing more than smaller granularity? I think that that depends on the specificity of your information needs. The more specific your needs the less useful a larger granularity will be when browsing.
    If you are interested in books on Jazz (any era or type) and the library has a broad “Music” section, with books sub-arranged by Author within that section, then you are going to have to browse a lot of shelves (and read more than a few back covers) to find the sort of works that interest you. A book about jazz by M. Adams will be shelved nowhere near a book about jazz by K. Whitten.
    Well, if you only have a total collection of a few thousand volumes, then sure, spacial distance will be a much more insignificant impediment than the limited scope of the collection. If you have tens of thousands of volumes, or more, then spacial distance will begin to frustrate focussed searches.
    Ironically, this will likely foster a more complete reliance on the OPAC — which seems to be the opposite of some of the stated goals. If your books on specific subjects are spread out over three or four shelving units of a broader topic, it will just be faster to browse the catalogue then go to the shelves to retrieve the ones that seem interesting (from the lovingly detailed descriptive cataloguing).
    It won't do anyone any good to have N. Adams' work on the Sex Pistols, shelved next to M. Adams' work on jazz, unless you are aiming at browsers with no discernable preferences.
    Cheers
    Mike

    Posted 18 Jun 2007 at 6:08 pm
  3. Anonymous wrote:

    I think that Special Libraries could get away with more unique classification/collation schemes than public libraries. When you have the advantage of a smaller, or at least more focussed set of users you can really get creative in serving their needs.
    You are right that displaying front covers is much, much better for browsing than spine only — but who has the space? I think that most places look to balance thematic and timely displays with space-saving arrangements so that the collection is communicated in a number of ways.
    Cheers

    Posted 18 Jun 2007 at 6:17 pm
  4. Anonymous wrote:

    I am a huge fan of displaying books cover out and I'm positive that circulation stats would back me up on how effective this is for making books move (just like CD's in a record store.) There are other innovative ways to help books circulate – have a “Just Returned” cart in each section of the library, have a “Just Arrived” Wall near the front of the library. I'm sure there are others I'm missing.

    Posted 08 Jul 2007 at 4:47 pm
  5. Anonymous wrote:

    Special libraries run into some unique problems – I think Rob Craig who works at London Life and who taught me special libraries said they use an in-house classification system for their books since otherwise, 99% would end up in one of two Dewey sections – technology and/or business resources.

    Posted 08 Jul 2007 at 4:53 pm

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