Many may associate school and public libraries with the Dewey Decimal System, but that pervasive underpinning is giving way as librarians seek to foster more user-centered collections. At a virtual Twitter gathering last week, school and public librarians all over the country debated whether Dewey makes finding materials too difficult for young users, and what they are doing about it. The SLJ Twitter chat on Thursday October 11, hosted by Darien Library head of children’s services Kiera Parrott, featured librarians Sue Giffard, Tali Balas Kaplan, Andrea Dolloff, and Jennifer Still-Schiff of the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York. The story of their reorganization of their library to be more intuitive and child-centered, using a system that they call Metis, was SLJ’s October cover story. They and other librarians (using the #sljdewey hashtag) responded to questions about Dewey’s flaws, its relevance in today’s world, and the best ways to encourage library usage among patrons.
Some questioned the decision to throw out Dewey entirely instead of just adjusting it to user needs. Though Liz Burns (@LizB), a librarian at the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, who blogs at SLJ’s A Chair, a Fireplace & A Tea Cozy, remained wary of wholeheartedly embracing Metis, she appreciated the concept of “librarians using MLS skills to totally customize to community.”
Similarly, Stacy Dillon (@mytweendom), an elementary school librarian at Little Red School House, relayed how she relies upon a customized version of Dewey that uses separate sections for biographies and graphic novels. Nevertheless, Kaplan argued that Dewey is too flawed, stating that simply tweaking it would be, “like taking a size 6 dress and cutting it down. Better to start with a new pattern.”
Participants responded to criticisms that abandoning Dewey means oversimplifying the library experience. Melissa Techman (@mtechman), a K-5 school librarian in Charlottesville, VA, tweeted that it is “not dumbing down to consider usability.” She later mentioned that, for example, patrons often find it frustrating that books on mummies are not categorized next to those on Ancient Egypt.
Still-Schiff also disagreed with claims that jettisoning Dewey is anti-intellectual. Because Metis’s structure is so child-centered, she believes that it encourages more rigorous thinking. (For example, students themselves engaged in the decision-making; they made the choice to group materials on whales with those about aquatic animals rather than with those about mammals and to put books about athletes with other sports titles instead of with biographies.) Still-Schiff wrote: “Hierarchical thinking isn’t dumbing down; it is higher order work than memorizing or writing numbers.”
Several librarians praised the use of Dewey for its teachable moments. Dillon said that instructing students in how to use the traditional system “gets kids thinking about organization.” Similarly, KarinLibrarian (@KPerry) advocated teaching students better search skills and said that learning Dewey “isn’t just a library skill. Math teaches decimals too. Part of life.”
However, Giffard finds teaching a numerically based approach to young children with limited math and reading skills to be counterproductive. Kaplan raised the point that Metis is a superior tool for teaching categorization because its structure is much more logical. In reference to domestic animals being classified under the Dewey class 600 (applied sciences) rather than 500 (science and animals), she quipped, “Try telling someone that dogs belong in Technology.”
Some librarians are also considering revamping their fiction collections, by grouping books according to genre instead of by author. Techman finds that students are more likely to find new books using this system, and Tamara Cox (@coxtl) likes it because “she can SEE what shelves are empty (popular) and order more to meet demand.”
Though Dewey still has its supporters (with Burns lamenting that many librarians’ Dewey Decimal call number tattoos may soon become irrelevant), overall most were open-minded about the possibilities of evolving newer library systems. Cox (@coxtl) encouraged other librarians “to at least THINK about our sacred cows and make sure we’re serving our kids, not tradition.”
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