November 17, 2017

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In Light of Common Core, Seeking Ways to Circumvent Dewey

One of the hottest sessions at the American Library Association’s most recent Midwinter meeting was “Dewey vs. Genre.” The Dewey Decimal System—that sacred cow of library organization—was trotted out in front of a packed room and subjected to intense scrutiny. But in the midst of Common Core (CC), among other pressing issues, is this debate really worth our time?

Photo by Sarah Reid (www.flickr.com/photos/sarahreido).

School librarians remain deeply divided over Dewey, but for most, its staying power is a matter of practicality. While the system is flawed, a complete overhaul of all those call numbers and spine labels is simply impossible. And yet, given CC’s requirements around informational texts, it makes sense for us to consider whether or not our current classification system best serves students’ interests. Dewey’s venerable system has supposedly been updated for our changing times—by adding even more places after the decimal. That’s hardly ideal for helping elementary school students find books. But with some technology and creative problem solving, relabeling an entire collection won’t be necessary.

Beyond Dewey, there are bigger changes afoot. MARC, the structure underlying the library catalog, is being challenged by a new metadata model: the Resource Description Framework (RDF). The scheme promises to provide not only a richer description of content, but also lends greater context to how specific content relates to other pieces of information. To learn more, visit the Library of Congress’s Bibliographic Framework initiative.

Beyond describing what a work is about, RDF and the Bibliographic Framework show users where they can find books and other materials locally. Holdings can have multiple location fields for Dewey, LC, and other classification schemes. Through semantic linking, one could also display the subject terms for a particular Dewey number. So there’s your subject-based cataloging without having to re-catalog.

There’s already a tool you can try that provides the subject-term equivalents for the top 1,100+ DDS numbers: dewey.info, a project of OCLC, steward of the DDS. So rather than chuck Dewey altogether, make use of the well-established subject hierarchy behind the numbers to update your library classification. Label shelf ranges and shelves with subject terms to help browsing students explore their interests without having to recreate every spine label and call number.

In the end, any evolutionary changes to library organization will require the support of industry service providers. Again, time becomes an issue if book jobbers don’t adopt a given system, requiring local processing. It isn’t reasonable to expect jobbers to be able to support a range of classification systems. For any system to be truly effective, it also needs to be supported by the online catalogs used by our students. Therefore it’s critical that AASL (the American Association of School Librarians) works together with vendors to address this issue.

As a wise colleague suggested, perhaps the best way to move forward with this discussion is to put the sacred cows back to pasture and simply sit down and talk about how we can best connect readers with books. No matter what classification system tickles your fancy, as long as we all agree that helping kids find books they love is our shared mission, then we can work together toward a common solution.

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