Friday, October 9, 2009

Dewey(less) in the News Again

The October 1 issue of Library Journal contains an article about the newly re-opened Darien CT library and how they have modified the Dewey Decimal System in classifying their materials. More and more libraries are taking a new look at the organization of their materials as they try to provide a “positive experience” and ensure their libraries are “user friendly”. I think we can all agree that satisfied customers are a very good thing.

As a cataloger, however, I hope we’re not rushing too far in the Deweyless direction without taking a careful look at the entire picture. In reading the article (which I absolutely recommend – it is thoughtful and thorough) note Table 1: Why patrons have trouble finding non-fiction. These are the results of a survey by Barbara Fister, author of the LJ article. The reason with the highest percentage (68.4) is that patrons have “Trouble understanding the online catalog”. The catalog is not the classification system and I suspect this response is related to reason #3 below. The second reason (63.3 %) is that patrons “Feel intimidated by a classification system they don’t understand well.”

I won’t argue that DDC is far from ideal, but before discarding it altogether, look at the third reason. Patrons “Want to go straight to the right shelf without having to look anything up.” I can sympathize with that feeling every time I go into a new and/or large store. Where is that one little thing I’m looking for? And that patron who knows just where the knitting or car repair books are in one library, will have to start from scratch in a different library. I think the classification system is less important than good signs - and attentive staff on the lookout for confused patrons.

It’s not just a matter of whether to use Dewey or BISAC. If the patron can’t find what he/she is looking for, does the library not own it? It is checked out to another patron? Is there something available at another library? One hopes these questions can be answered via the catalog.

The staff at Darien are making a serious effort at reorganizing their library to be more useful to patrons who want to browse but not ignoring the scholar looking for a specific title. Their system of “glades” looks promising.

As you consider re-organizing your library’s collection, remember
· DDC was developed in 1873 for an academic library. It’s not as much “broken” as we’re trying to make it do something different.
· The DDC in the bibliographic record is not mandatory; you do *not* have to use that number if it doesn’t make sense for your library.
· Public libraries have already made a lot of modifications to DDC such as organizing fiction by the author’s last name and having a separate biography section.
· DDC is an “expansive” system and the numbers can get very long. Use the shortest number you can without combining disparate topics.
· If a subject seems to have two (or more) numbers (weight lifting is a good example: 613.713 and 796.41), choose one number and put all items there.
· General classification schemes do not work well for a focused collection such as Local History, and specific schemes have been developed such as NLM (National Library of Medicine).

Libraries are evolving organisms. Things change. I still see a lot of use for the Dewey Decimal System in the small to medium public library, but I’m open to modifications, adaptations and changes.

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