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September 18, 2014

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Taking it to Twitter: Librarians Debate the Demise of Dewey

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.

while i still am team dewey, i embrace almost every other thing about metis. this in nutshell is my eternal problem, wanting both #sljdewey
slj 2 normal Taking it to Twitter: Librarians Debate the Demise of Dewey
@LizB
Liz Burns

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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Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is an Associate Editor for School Library Journal, and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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Comments

  1. Laura Shea-Clark says:

    I’m in favor of real word structures, but I would like to point out that Dewey is designed to keep like things together but only if one uses the full number. We lose this if we artificially chop off the number after a particular number of digits.

  2. Jamie Prince says:

    I am new to librarianship, and find the amount of individualism expressed in school libraries confusing – many libraries using Dewey modify it to pull out early reader books by level, or series. Is there any solid research out there to suggest that Metis is superior to Dewey? or to defend Dewey? I tend to be on the side of the patrons in term of organization, but we also need to have standards across elementary school libaries or we will have the same anarchy that existed pre-Dewey.

    • Sue Giffard says:

      Librarians have traditionally opted for consistency and neatness over other ways of operating. Traditionally, the needs of our users have not been at the top of our priority list. I believe that if libraries and librarianship as a profession are to survive into the future, we need to turn things around and put our users’ needs at the top of our priorities. The standard that we used when designing Metis reflected that. We asked a number of questions. Are we serving the needs of our child users with our mode of organization? Can we do it better? Can we make our library’s organizational method reflect children’s thinking more clearly, in the way that the organization found in a kindergarten or third grade classroom reflects children’s thinking and their mode of being? Can we increase children’s success in simple library searches? Can we help to increase their joy in the library? These questions led us to abandon Dewey and design something else. There is no solid research that shows that Metis is superior to Dewey in an elementary school library; we implemented it only a year ago. However, our anecdotal experience every day in our library with our students shows its value. In my third grade classes I no longer have to show or remind students where the dog books or the magic books or the airplane books are. They are able to do these searches on their own after the first couple of sessions in my room. I find myself able to talk to students looking for “a good book” who are unsure of what they might enjoy. That alone is an amazing gift to me as a librarian deeply committed to helping students find books that they might enjoy or love.

  3. Expiring tatoos aside, Dewey works! Especially when the full number is used to keep subjects together so hungry sharks are not found free-ranging among the fishies. Dewey works because a student learns one system and can walk into (almost) any library and be at home. Dewey numbers too difficult? Nonsense! Our 3rd graders have no problem finding their book among approx. 15,000 items by it’s Dewey call number. As to ordering fiction by genre, it works until someone else catalogs the books. One local public library has genre-ized their adult fiction, and it’s frustrating to look for a book’s sequel and find that it’s not in fiction but over in mystery, or sci-fi/fantasy. It’s frustrating to want to read an author’s body of work and have to trek from genre section to genre section if that author has challenged him/herself to write other things. Parting thought, ala Andy Rooney: have you ever wondered who has the kind of time to reorganize their collection??

    • I think Dewey number tattoos on a librarian are pretty awesome. What I don’t like is how DDC makes so many obstacles for young children to overcome. Our pre-readers and K-2 students don’t feel at home with Dewey. Maybe they memorize where the “dogs” books are, so they successfully check out a book each library class. But are they finding what really interests them, new things to light them up?

      And you know what else bothers me? The way most libraries separate out fiction and non-fiction for children. Does a child who loves trucks have to read only facts? How about truck stories? Like The Village Garage or I Stink? What if she could find those without needing a grownup to intercede?

      Dewey works fine for adults. We’re not satisfied with “fine,” and that’s one of the reasons we moved to Metis. We think it removes barriers for kids to have great moments of discovery at the library.
      You wonder who has the time to reorganize their library? I’d have to say that only a deeply reflective and passionate group of people would give up their summer vacation to try something new. Well, we did it and we think it works better in our library. Come take a look.

  4. In our library system, we’ve reorganized the picture books into glades similar to Darien’s but haven’t ventured into changing any nonfiction, although I’d be willing to think about this. We have the picture books divided into subject areas (glades), and shelved alphabetically by author within the glades. Our children’s librarians tell me this is improving their circulation; I’m eager to compare stats in the spring.

  5. I work in a public library (where there is no such thing as a summer vacation to reorganize…) I’m intrigued by a lot of the ideas in the article and it was definitely thought provoking. We currently do more genre-izing for fiction. In children’s we have a regular fiction section, with fantasy & scifi and mysteries separated out. In our picture books, we’ve added stickers for topics like ‘things that go,’ ‘fairies and princesses,’ seasons, pirates, look & find, alphabet, counting, etc. All fiction is still arranged by author’s name, but this helps with browsing and readers advisory – well worth the effort! The chapter books have been separated as long as I’ve been coming to this library, but most of the picture book stickers were added in the last few years and are the kind of thing that can be done gradually without drastically rearranging or necessitating new call numbers.

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