Should I Kill Dewey in My Library?

After twelve years in the same K-12 school library, I am ready for change! Oh, I’ve moved things around and redecorated the eight bulletin boards hundreds of times. Technology has taken its toll on the nonfiction while opening exciting doors for research, but I am really ready for a big change. I am seriously considering facilitating the demiseOK…killing the Dewey Decimal System in my library.

Library Map from the Nellie A. Thornton High School

Reactionary? Maybe. Original? I’m about to find out. Public libraries are moving to the ‘Neighbourhood’ system all over the place. The Spruce Grove Public Library here in Alberta has combined “… the ease of bookstore browsing by topics and the structure of the traditional Dewey Decimal classification system”. I plan to visit this library as soon as possible and speak to the people who spearheaded and implemented the concept. I’d like to ask them what was involved in their plan of action and also why they held on to Dewey?

I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t like the Dewey Decimal System. I have been a librarian for a long time. The necessarily persnickety part of me has thoroughly enjoyed spending hours of my over-committed time moving books from one section to another and fine-tuning the collection for better access and stricter conformation to the rules. It’s an incredibly efficient system. But is it the best way to connect kids and books?

My library really needs updating. In spite of the small and large changes I’ve made over the years, former students have commented that it’s still “the same”. Although they are often speaking positively and I hope they are referring to the welcoming atmosphere rather than the age of the layout and shelving, I feel that the ‘look’ of my library is dated. More importantly, current students are finding fewer and fewer reasons to visit the stacks, especially nonfiction.

When I first introduce the Easy Nonfiction section to my primary students they behave as if I’ve just given them a new toy. They crowd the ‘Question Line’ and the short stacks excited to find the books on horses or monster trucks. This thrill continues through when they are old (and tall) enough to venture into the General nonfiction to discover books about dragons and knights, crafts and ghosts.

Because of the nature of my job description I have little time for library class preparation but I do still teach elementary students the basics of arrangement and how to find a book from the call number in the online catalogue. Most will understand that the nonfiction section is arranged by subject using the Dewey Decimal System, but even when the specifics of the system were taught by my predecessor, a teacher librarian, few students retained the classification details. Beyond understanding the library’s basic layout and numerical order, they knew they could go to the catalogue and locate the book on the shelf, some without but many still with assistance. University libraries generally employ the Library of Congress system and many public libraries are converting to the bookstore model. With or without Dewey, the concept of books arranged by subject is the same.

A Popular Book

My dilemma is that, although a student who knows what they’re looking for can go to the catalogue and find a book on castles in the 728’s, another on knights in the 940’s and one on dragons on the 398’s; those who are not so directed can wander the stacks for a full quarter of an hour and not find anything to strike their interest. This is in spite of my attempts to keep attractive books on display face-out at the end of each shelf. In a very interesting article and one of the few I’ve found so far on the subject, Roger Green states that “…it is ultimately the signage in the bookstore model of the library that allows one to find the books”. But would a bookstore not also think it advantageous to place the books on castles, knights and dragons together?

In many ways, keeping classic nonfiction and reference collections current is a waste of money. There are superior and current reference materials in databases and even on the open web. Using the print collection for research in middle and high school serves little other purpose than to teach the use of library arrangement and index skills. Note-taking, skimming and scanning must now be taught with the ability of copy-paste and ‘Find’ techniques in mind. In any case, junior and senior high teachers are not often requiring print references in their assignments.

Nonfiction collections must now be developed with the mind-set of the seller. Students are still enthusiastic about books and possibly even more so since they are seldom associated with the dreaded “Assignment” as they may have been in the past. New nonfiction is attractive, colourful and full of strong images for this extremely visual generation. Whether they are reading the biography of a famous hockey star or browsing the illustrations in a history of war ships, they are broadening their minds and their general experience. They are internalizing the unique feeling of holding and interacting with the physical tome and most importantly, they are developing and honing language literacy.

Students in my library reading together

You will find from my About page that I am not a ‘professional’ librarian. I have no degree and little formal schooling in the field. I beg you, however not to dismiss my questions because of this. Ideally, in my opinion, all school libraries would be staffed by teacher-librarians with full-time assistance but that is not the reality here in Alberta. I was charged with the management of this library because of my experience and my non-professional grid-placement. It is a challenge that I must make the best of and I continue to fine-tune my job description to provide services and collections that support teachers and encourage students to develop a love for the written word.

I cannot find another school library anywhere that has converted to the ‘bookstore model’, with or without maintaining current cataloguing regimens. I need feedback desperately! Resources are scarce. There’s a good, Public Library related article from 2004 by Chris Rippel here, and I’ve just borrowed Creating the Customer-Driven Library: Building on the Bookstore Model by Jeanette Woodward (ALA 2005).

Our wonderful parent fundraising group is raising money for new shelving for the general fiction and nonfiction sections. In order to convert to the bookstore model with or without Dewey, I would have to find the funds for signage at least. To completely revamp the arrangement I will have to obtain permission to work over the summer, for which time I currently am not paid. Please share your expertise and opinions with me to help me to decide whether or not to even approach my boss with this.


Filed under Rethinking My Library

5 responses to “Should I Kill Dewey in My Library?

  1. I replied to your comment on my blog, but I wholly support your decision to revamp your classification system!

    The Anythink website has a lot of resources that might help:

    Go down to “Anythink resource kit.”

  2. Thank you so much, Susan. You have given me a lot to read and think about and I really appreciate it. I had a quick peek at the links you have generously shared with me and I think they might be just what I’m looking for. I’m thinking I might be doing some kind of combination system. Keeping the Dewey (because I won’t be there forever, and it is an experiment after all), but also re-labeling with a system like Anythinks as if the books are on permanent display. I need to combine the kids’ need to succeed with browsing and my need to find and shelve the books easily. Of course, it will totally depend on whether or not our school has the funds to allow me to log summer hours. If not, it’s moot. There’s no way I’ll be able to re-catalogue the collection otherwise. A collective vision would be nice, but I’m afraid it’s just me, although I do have my principal’s support – in principle.

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