June 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Are Dewey’s Days Numbered?: Libraries Nationwide Are Ditching the Old Classification System

Illustration by Victor Juhasz for "Are Dewey's Days Numbered?

Illustration by Victor Juhasz

Join the authors for a Twitter chat, Thursday, October 11, at 9 p.m. EST hashtag: #sljdewey

Pushing between snack time and reading group, Zack, a third-grade boy, ducks into our school library while another class is beginning to check out books. “Sue, do you have anything about making stuff with paper?” asks the third grader.  Around him, a dozen nine-year-olds independently browse different sections that are marked by large, kid-friendly signs, such as “Scary,” “Animals,” and “Adventure.”

With only a moment to spare, the librarian suggests that Zack look above the shelves for the big “Making Stuff” sign, and then search the labels under “P” for paper. A few minutes later, he’s grinning at Sue, holding not only a book about origami, but also one on sewing that he snatched from a nearby shelf. “That was easy!” he boasts. “And I found more things I want to do, too!”

Zack’s “Aha!” moment is the kind of discovery we like to call orchestrated luck—and it’s the inspiration for a unique system that we’ve developed to encourage more independent and empowered seeking in our library. Here at the Ethical Cultural Fieldston School, a private preK–5 school in New York City, we’ve gotten rid of the Dewey decimal system and created a new library system that’s tailored to the needs of our students, staff, and curriculum. Thanks, in part, to whole-word labeling, child-friendly categories, and visually compelling signs, our kids are now amazingly optimistic about finding what they want. In fact, they keep telling us, “Wow, you’ve really organized the library!”

Our post-Dewey system, which we’ve affectionately dubbed Metis (after the clever, crafty mother of the Greek god Athena), puts things together in a way that encourages kids to move easily from one idea to another. Zack’s natural and simple segue from paper craft to sewing would probably never have happened with Dewey: it would have entailed a jump from 735 to 646. That’s a big reason why a small but growing number of school and public libraries—from the Perry Branch Library in Gilbert, AZ; and Burke High School in Omaha, NE; to the newly opened Carmel Elementary School in Clarksville, TN; and Darien Library in Connecticut—have ditched Dewey, or at least have escorted the 136-year-old system partway out the door.

Has Metis made a difference? Absolutely. During the past year, in our middle-grade library (for kids in grades three to five), we’ve seen dramatic increases in circulation—including around 100 percent or more in our “Sports,” “Countries,” “Humor,” and “Mystery” sections, and a spike of 240 percent in “Machines” (which includes the military and transportation). And in those always under-used sections like “Languages” and what we now call “Community” (sections of the 300s in Dewey), we’ve seen a jump of more than 300 percent. The early grades library, for preK through second-grade kids, has seen similar gains in areas such as “Humor” (87 percent), “Scary” (148 percent), and “Adventure” (110 percent).

Students aren’t the only ones who are enjoying the ease of navigating our collection. “I love your new system!” exclaims one of our kindergarten teachers. “I can find what I need for my classes in no time,” says another. And parents are also appreciative. “My child loves choosing a book to read with me every morning,” reports the mother of a young boy. “We usually start in ‘Machines’ and can find what we want without help. He’s even begun to branch out a bit and is asking for books about space now!”

Winter of our discontent

Certainly there was no lack of order back in the old days, in 2010, when we still used the Dewey decimal system: our shelves were labeled and organized; the online catalog was accessible; students were taught the basics of searching from the earliest grades. So what made us switch?

Our discontent with Dewey arose after years of confronting train books in the 380s and transportation items in the 620s; crafts scattered throughout the 600s and 700s; pets stuck next to cooking; and double-digit Dewey numbers for our extensive folktale collection. More important, we had the sense that for all the energy that we and our students were spending on teaching and learning Dewey (all those scavenger hunts and online library games), even our most advanced students still struggled to navigate smoothly from their initial request through the catalog to the item’s correct place on the shelves. So much effort was expended on this process that we felt as if our library was focused on finding materials rather than actually using them, and at odds with the emphasis on inquiry and critical thinking skills found in the American Association of School Librarians’ “Standards for the 21st-Century Learner.”

Once our objections to using Dewey became clear to us, the problems we’d been working around for years became intolerable and we began questioning everything. “Is Dewey and the curriculum focus that it demands leaving us behind in the 20th century?” we asked ourselves. “Why are we using decimals in a children’s library, when they don’t learn that until fourth-grade math? And why are our picture books arranged by author, when most children are more interested in the content than in who wrote the book?” By January 2011, we knew it was time to say good-bye to Dewey.

Ditching Dewey

With a palpable sense of terror and excitement, we set about creating a new system. We knew the task was huge, and we had no idea if we were up to it. The process involved a great deal of thinking, talking, and pushing at one another’s arguments to try to find flaws in them. Questioning our long-held assumptions generated a wave of almost superhuman energy that propelled us into the massive undertaking ahead.

Pull Quote illustrationWith some sleuthing, we discovered the work of Linda Cooper, a professor at New York’s Queens College Graduate School of Library and Information Science, who had researched the way that kids categorize information. Taking a cue from her methodology, we asked our fourth and fifth graders to brainstorm the contents of their ideal library in terms of categories or topics. It was from a request during one of these sessions that we got the idea for and name of our new crafts category, when a student innocently asked, “Can you please make a section on making stuff?” These sessions helped us hone our 26 “main categories,” counterparts to Dewey’s 10 main classes.

We also gave small groups of third and fourth graders carefully selected stacks of books and asked them to organize them in a meaningful way, and then to explain their reasoning. We discovered that many students wanted books on flying animals to be lumped together, and almost everyone wanted items on aquatic animals to be grouped together—penguins with sharks, dolphins, and seashells. Ultimately, after consulting with our science teachers, we decided to adapt their terminology, and we formulated animal subdivisions that approximated scientific classifications, while making some exceptions: “Aquatic Animals,” “Birds,” “Bugs,” “Reptiles,” “Mammals,” and “Prehistoric.”

Our kindergarteners and first graders were asked to make some sophisticated choices about sports biographies and animal books by moving to one side of the room or another in response to specific questions, such as, “Does Derek Jeter belong with famous people or sports?” or “Should this book on whales go with the mammal books or with books about other aquatic animals?” (Jeter sensibly went with sports, and whales with aquatic animals, despite the fact that our students were aware that the Yankees shortstop is famous and that whales are mammals.)

We also measured some of our young library users’ attitudes. We asked our first and fourth graders how they felt while they were searching for a good book, and how they felt when they had trouble finding a title. Our first graders didn’t hold back; their responses were emotional and surprisingly succinct. “When I can’t find what I want, I feel aginy [sic],” wrote one young boy. He wasn’t the only one, affirming that we had to make our students’ library experiences much better.

Articles of belief

As we worked on developing ideas about categories and subcategories, their order, call numbers, and visual labels, we kept a few principles in mind. These principles became our navigational tools. Our system had to be…

Child-centered: it had to start from a student’s point of view and use appropriate language for our users.

Browsable: the order and the sections and subsections had to be clear not only to librarians, but also to students, faculty, and parents.

Flexible: it had to be capable of being adapted for use by a range of ages and be capable of evolving over time, as the world changed and our collection grew.

We also knew that we wanted a system that allowed our students to be as independent as possible—and that meant our spine labels needed a major overhaul. For starters, we wanted to make sure that the labels had a strong visual component, so that students could easily tell what section they were in—this was especially important for our youngest learners who may lack reading skills. To accomplish this, we hired a graphic designer to create a subject label for each main category—for instance, a tennis racket hitting a football for “Sports” and an image of gears for “Machines.” These labels are a huge hit with everyone. They clearly identify what the book is about, and they’re so visually engaging and child-friendly that they’re often the first things our patrons comment on.

We also knew that the use of any kind of code had to be minimal, if at all. Consequently, we decided to use whole language in our call numbers and on our spine labels. So, for instance, instead of 793.57 GUT, a corresponding label now reads “Sports–Baseball,” and 818 HAL has become “Humor–Jokes.”

The grand plan

After several months of dissecting ideas and piling books into groups, we started to see the big picture and established the following plan:

Primarily, we’d use alphabetical order. Although younger students struggle with this, it’s a skill that’s taught in the earliest grades, and reinforced in classrooms, with print dictionaries and encyclopedias.

Because alphabetizing the main classes by name would result in an order that wasn’t very helpful (as in “Adventure,” “Animals,” and “Arts”), we decided to assign a single letter (A-Z) to each of our main categories. This is the only code we use in our system, and it has enabled us to create a flow and logical order for the entire library space, with, for example, “Machines,” then “Science,” leading into “Nature,” then “Animals” and “Pets.”

Pull Quote IllustrationWithin our main categories, we use mostly an alphabetical arrangement for the subcategories, which gives students a clear, intuitive order when browsing, and allows for maximum flexibility and adaptability in terms of future changes to and the expansion of our collection. In a few cases, alphabetical order wasn’t helpful, and we opted to place a number before the subcategory so that the shelves have a logical order. For instance, in “Countries,” we’ve arranged books by eras: “1. Ancient,” “2. Medieval,” and so on.

Fairly early on, we made the crucial decision to give up the idea of creating a system that classifies books as precisely as Dewey does. Instead, we opted for something we call “categorization,” based on some of the ideas developed by England’s East Sussex County Library in the 1980s. We’d put books in helpful categories, like “Languages” or “Mystery,” and dispense with author Cutters on the spines. After all, most students don’t care who wrote a book on volcanoes, they just want to find the topic, so the writer’s name isn’t especially helpful. (Putting the first three letters of the author’s surname on the call number is useful if you want to know exactly where a book is on the shelf, but it’s unnecessary if you keep your subcategories browsable.) Overall, this meant that many times we’d have more books—say, 15 books in “Nature-Disasters”—with the same call numbers than we did with Dewey. We figured it was our job to keep those categories manageable and of a helpful size. We did use author Cutters in “Picture Stories,” “Fiction,” and “Verse,” where subcategories are larger or the author’s name is an important factor in selecting a book, especially for students and teachers in the upper grades.

While we were at it, we also decided we’d break some rules when it came to dealing with fiction and nonfiction. Since we often talk to our students about evaluating online information and critical thinking, we thought that mixing together fiction and nonfiction titles would lead to some interesting teaching opportunities and conversations about books. In addition, it would help us categorize the growing number of books that occupy that grey area between the two. (For years, we’d been trying to explain to kids why the “Magic School Bus” series was in nonfiction when it’s obvious to any five-year-old that Ms. Frizzle isn’t real.) We decided that, particularly in the lower-grades library, we’d interfile fiction and nonfiction, and clearly indicate the difference on the spine by using a red dot for “imagination” or a blue dot for “information”—our terms for fiction and nonfiction. A lot of students, who love being able to find all sorts of items on the same shelf, also urged us to add a purple dot to identify books that straddle both categories, but so far, we’ve resisted that temptation.

Springing forward

Over the next several months, we had time to test, ruminate, and get a good feeling for what would work as separate categories. We consulted with the science department about our animal classifications and with the guidance department about the best word to represent learning differences, as well as disabilities such as blindness, so that our terminology aligned with our curriculum. With summer 2011 rapidly approaching, we decided to test some of our theories while we still had a captive audience.

We put “Holiday” picture books and nonfiction books together and every title we found that fit the notion of “Scary” into separately labeled areas. (This arrangement turned out to be a huge kid-magnet, and we couldn’t keep those shelves filled.) In the upper-grades library, we already had our Dewey fiction area labeled by genre, but now we separated the titles into smaller sections, such as “Adventure,” “Fantasy,” and “Sci-fi.” Kids who’d previously had trouble choosing a book for independent or pleasure reading loved this new and easier-to-navigate arrangement.

During spring break, we tore apart the nonfiction sections (300s, 600s, and 700s) and worked on creating subcategories for “Machines,” “Community,” “Ourselves,” and “Making Stuff,” putting stacks of books on carts, and reorganizing the shelves in a rough way. Some of the first categories we worked on were synthetic, in that they gathered together books from various parts of Dewey. The “Mystery” category, for example, includes books about spies (327), puzzles (793.7), crime (360), the unexplained (001.9), and codes (650), and “Making Stuff” features books on models from the 620s, cookbooks from 640, books from many sections of the 700s, and guides for writing poetry from 808. Our circulation immediately soared, especially in the noncurricular areas, such as “Making Stuff.” And even with the old Dewey labels still on our books and rough signs on shelves, one of our third graders, who’d asked for help in the last few moments of class, had no trouble finding a magic book, because she understood how to look under “M” for magic in the “Making Stuff” section. “That was so easy,” she declared, “I don’t know why I even needed to ask for help.”

Summer of love

The end of the 2010–2011 school year found us pulling apart the shelves. With our alphabet floor mats strewn across the rug, we began piling up picture books in the lower-grades library, and dissolving what remained of the Dewey order in our upper-grades room. We ordered custom picture labels for each category and laid in a stockpile of dots, stars, and spine-label protectors. Book by book, we determined whether it was fiction or nonfiction. We wrestled with the problems inherent in making some of the longer whole-word designations (such as “USA–African Americans–Civil Rights”) fit on a spine label. Then, after the books had been assigned to their new categories, it was time to reassign call numbers in the catalog, print labels, and relabel every single item in the library. We sorted all day and reclassified all night, getting the next section ready for relabeling.

Fortunately, we had a lot of help from our community. Several high school students came back to work on our assembly lines, stopping briefly, every now and then, as they came across one of their old favorite novels. More than three dozen volunteers, including parents, faculty, administrators, and kids, helped out. They joined our family members and a few stalwart friends in removing old layers of labels bearing years of Dewey workarounds. It took us six weeks to tackle our 20,000-volume collection, but it was truly a cleansing experience for all of us.

A new beginning

Pull Quote IllustrationAs September 2011 approached, we made posters using our subject-picture labels, put up shelf signs, introduced our faculty to the new system, and got ready to roll it out to our students. Some teachers preferred just a printed outline, while others worked with us to get a feel for the new sections. In our introductory student sessions, we encouraged kids to explore the system. While a handful of students who had been relatively comfortable with Dewey expressed some discomfort with the new arrangement, the vast majority was thrilled by the change.

During their very first class in the upper-grades library, our third graders were easily able to find humorous fiction, scary fiction, basketball, and animal fiction on their own, leaving the librarian free to talk to students about fractured fairy tales and whether or not Gail Carson Levine was a good choice—and then quickly help another student find an appropriate audiobook.

Since then, we’ve seen kids navigate the new system with ease and speed, locating materials independently with just a sentence or two of explanation from us. Students who’d struggled to find a good book to read independently are suddenly choosing books from multiple sections with simple prompting. Books on inventions, science experiments, and children’s play scripts that had languished for years are now flying off the shelves. And nowadays, we spend checkout time talking to kids about the next book they might like to read rather than helping them find a joke or magic book.

Parents are also thrilled with the new setup. They’re now able to help their kids find books, and that sense of accomplishment has translated into a greater appreciation of our library and its services.

The faculty response has been positive, too. While teachers who knew exactly where to go to find their old favorites were at first a little disconcerted by the changes, they soon discovered that the new system provides opportunities to quickly find new resources. That probably explains why teachers are now visiting the library more frequently. It’s not uncommon for one to rush in during a prep period, looking for picture books on bullying or sharing (topics that were formerly scattered all over the picture book and nonfiction sections with Dewey), and walk out with everything they need within a few minutes, rather than spending a half hour or more moving from catalog to shelf and back again.

Where to, next?

Is there really a “happily ever after”? We think so. We only just finished up the “tale” end of cataloging our collection, and we still have some rather ungainly call numbers in some of the history sections. We’re working on improving our signage, and we’re finding new ways to fine-tune the services we provide. We’ve also set up a website at www.metisinnovations.com to encourage our colleagues in the library world to share their ideas.

Change is hard, but the new system has been a boon for our students, faculty, and parents, and it’s boosted the library’s standing in our school and community. Having moved away from an old system of organization that demanded that a significant portion of our teaching time was spent on simply finding books, we’re now able to concentrate on talking with our students about books, as well as teaching them critical thinking and assessment skills. In this 21st-century world of rapidly changing technology, we want our library to play a central role in our school and community. We’re finding that our new system supports the library program so well that we are better able to collaborate and support the schoolwide curriculum. We know our new system isn’t perfect, but we’re definitely on the right track. And to think it all started when we waved good-bye to Dewey.

From the left: Librarian Tali Balas Kaplan, Assistant Librarian Andrea K. Dolloff, Librarian Sue Giffard, and Technology Librarian Jennifer Still-Schiff teach at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City.

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  1. I have only one question to ask. What happens to these children when they arrive at a college or university and need to learn the Library of Congress classification system?

    • Rachel McCartney says:

      I’m putting my money on the online catalog developing directions and providing maps, or the ever popular “Request A Hold” so they don’t have to do the walking.

    • Lorna,
      Same way they do now. Having Dewey in K-12 doesn’t help with knowing LC in college.

    • Patricia Johnson says:

      College professors are prolifficly writing articles declaring that college students no longer know how to do effective research while we are no longer teaching students how to really use a library. This pains me. I can see something like this in a lower elementary school, but as librarians/teachers we are obligated to teach how to do the more difficult things in life. The foundation must begin early because in the middle and secondary years the time constraints become precious. Why even elementary teachers complain that they no longer have time to teach handwriting. We are letting the very basics of our training and learning become so simplified that I fear we are not sufficiently preparing our students
      for the future. In these times when the very future of libraries is being threatened children are not being prepared to use the resources which should be available to them. This article sounds like the students are not even being exposed to the resources in a way which will enable them to use necessary skills in the future. Sounds like another pendulim swing with our children being the ultimate losers.

      • Thank you for saying this! While I think this new system is clever and use is up, we need to factor in unintended consequences. And you’re right- professors frequently lament that students don’t know how to research at even the most basic level. As you get older, though, Dewey gets more intuitive and you don’t need as much training to figure it out, so I understand tossing it for the elementary years. Nonetheless, we really are watering down education in all facets with the basics we so frequently scrap. I have students who, in middle school, have such poor sentence structure their work is unreadable because we don’t teach grammar anymore. I know that using a dictionary is completely unnecessary with dictionary.com, but students built brain skills by having to develop the tenacity and problem solving strategies it took to meet the objective. We are demanding less and less of them on this front.

    • Susan Smith says:

      That is exactly my thought. How are we preparing students to leave our college prep, K-12 library, and successfully navigate in huge university libraries when they have not learned to search for and find books in my relatively small, 18,000 book library?

      • Jenni Shah says:

        They will use catalogues, that will direct them to shelves…and hopefully search mechanisms in our library systems will have improved by then so they can better cope with natural language queries and ‘further information…’ guidance in the same way that Google and Amazon do (and our users will be used to).

        I implemented a similar system (not as comprehensive) for a small school in the Cook Islands. The kids there had lower English language skills, so categorising books by subject ‘type’ or genre, and using images rather than codes, really made the books accessible to them.

      • Torsten Adair says:

        Will there be physical books for them to search?

        Most likely, the library will have digitized most of the collection, allowing for keyword searching, just like Google Books currently offers.

        What happens with Metis is what happens when I search the web, specifically Wikipedia. One article leads to another, and soon I have a chain of research crazier than a protein molecule! (Rosa Klebb leads to SMERSH to MI6 to MI1 to Room 40 to the Zimmerman Telegram.)

        How soon before users can add tags to catalog records? Add an RFID tag and a local network, and one would be able to “ping” the physical book like a car lost in a parking lot!

        Of course, if the books fly off the shelves, there’s not much need for a shelving system. }]

    • I suspect the same thing that happened to me when I came out of using Dewey at both the school library and the public library (where I served as a page): they learn how to use LC. It was terribly confusing to me at first, when all I was used to was Dewey, but I figured it out. These kids will, too.

    • Excellent question!

    • kelly morgott says:

      Good Question!

  2. At New Canaan High School (CT) library, we are so not there yet, but as our learners become increasingly dependent on eContent (and we are making significant progress in that realm), we will get to a place (I predict within the next 8 years), when Dewey will become irrelevant to our patrons. When that happens, we will adapt, and to Lorna above, I am thinking that colleges will too.

  3. Oh, goodness. I really want to do this! We’re moving into a new library at our school next year, so this seems like a good time to reorganize. I would LOVE to know more specifics. For example, how does all this work with our catalog program (Alexandria)?

    I’ve read so many articles and blog posts about moving away from Dewey. It’s been at the back of my mind for awhile, but the bottom line is that it truly seems best for the child.

  4. Hi! I am the quasi-media center person at a center school in Tallahassee, Florida for students with significant intellectual disabilities. Our books have been organized by category for the last five years and while it took some getting used to, our circulation numbers have increased drastically. It was a huge undertaking to reorganize and there are some debates when new books are categorized, but it is currently working well for our staff and students! I am so excited to see that others in the general education setting are having the same success! Excellent article! Thanks so much!
    Courtney Benedix
    Gretchen Everhart School
    Tallahassee, Florida

  5. I did away with Dewey in my Library this past summer. While not completely finished, my new set-up is proving to be easier for all stake-holders to use. I completely agree that using decimals before the kids learn it is crazy and the sections of Dewey aren’t relevant to our students lives anymore.

  6. Patricia McGraw says:

    I often abandon Dewey without even realizing it, by pulling out special collections when certain groups of students need books on particular subjects. When 5th graders need a mystery for their book reports, I create a special display that makes it much easier for them to choose. Same with the 1st grade animal reports or 4th grade California history projects. Don’t librarians do this all the time?
    I think that these librarians must have felt emboldened by having each other to bounce ideas off of and shoulder the responsibility. Those of use who are alone…well, I just don’t know if we could throw Dewey to the wind with such confidence. Please report back and let us know how it worked out.

    • Patricia,
      I did not think of this until you mentioned it. I too have separte sections in the library. I have a Teen Favorites section and a College and Careers section. I guess I have abandoned Dewey a little myself to make these items more accessible to my students.

  7. I’m very interested in this new classification plan. Two questions: 1. Can you apply this to a MS/HS library where grades 5-12 share a collection? AND 2. Wouldn’t you end up with A LOT of different categories, maybe too many to handle, certainly more than the 10 large divisions of Dewey? I would love to visit a library where this categorizing has been achieved. Thank you for this article and suggested sites for more info.

    • Sue Giffard says:

      I think it would be theoretically possible to extend and adapt the sub-categories in this system to a MS/HS library, but I have never worked in a high school library, so my perspective is limited. What is for us the “upper library” (Grades 3-5) uses a significant number of sub-categories, in some cases quite detailed, and I can’t see why that couldn’t be further extended. Our system has 26 categories, but, being an elementary school, we devoted a couple of them to denote level (for example, beginning readers). In a different context, those extra categories would be available while keeping within the 26 categories. We found that having more main categories/class than Dewey’s ten allowed us to flatten the hierarchy considerably while retaining a great deal of specificity in our sub-categories. This specificity allows for targeted catalog searching as well as easy browsing.

    • yes it can be applied to hs I have been in a hs in KY that went away from dewey

  8. One sidebar asked what children would do with a decimal system when they don’t learn decimals until fourth grade. They are not “working” with decimals. DDS is a filing system. I’ve stopped going to my closest libraries because they gone to the labeling system. I was looking for a children’s science book and asked for help. The librarian took me to the science area – top shelf, all children’s nonfiction are now mixed in with adult books. This is NOT a good idea. Children learn many things at a young age. Most, if they can read, can be taught to look things up in the library’s computer. If they do a subject search for “making stuff” it could give them the variety of choices. DDS numbers are plainly displayed at the end of racks. Don’t dumbe our kids down.

    • Ann Peters says:

      I agree completely that we should not be dumbing down the lessons we teach. Categorizing, and recognizing categories, are higher order thinking skills. I work in an elementary library, and use kid-friendly signage to help even the non-readers find what they are looking for. I label the picture book section with small color pictures of, say, Clifford. Then to reinforce the “alphabetical by author” lesson, I type Bridwell next to Clifford’s picture. In non-fiction, the shelves are labeled with the Dewey numbers as well as the more kid-friendly labels of “football,” or “origami” or “dinosaurs,” also accompanied by color pic for the struggling readers. Dewey may not be perfect, but the overwhelming strength of it is that it is uniform! Are we really going back to the days when each librarian’s opinions, and likes or dislikes, dictate the order of books on the shelf? I choose to not reinvent the wheel, but to supply training wheels for my users until they can pedal by themselves.

      • Sue Giffard says:

        I agree completely that recognizing categories and categorizing are important thinking skills, as is an increasing appreciation and understanding of hierarchy in categorizing as kids get older. We have found that making those categories transparent by having each book show clearly both category and subcategory/ies in whole language rather than numerical code helps our students to recognize categories. Not only that, but they are actively engaged: for the first time I have found myself having discussions with students about the best place in the system to place a book.

      • I can see this new arrangement in lower school, beginner, or small elementary libraries! As students grow and learn, needing more detailed, advanced books relating to a large variety of subjects, the DDC is important to have and to teach! The training wheels idea just mentioned is valid. Learning to use the public library’s given classification system is a must.
        Yes, most librarians don’t hold to the DDC system completely. If you have the hours to devote, you arrange and change books as you can to make them easier to find. We all pull groups of books to focus on collections. I always found this part of my job fun and, at the same time, revealing. I was the only professional in a medium-sized MS-HS and did what I could to make sense of the classification system for the many levels served and multiple needs.
        If I were in a PK-5 library the Metis idea would be very enticing.

      • susan Moynihan says:

        I second that! especially the part about not reinventing the wheel! Yes, Dewey can be annoying, especially when booka about science in the Middle Ages are in a different section from The history of the Middle ages. BUT if you know how to catalog, you can reclassify the book. I am NOT going to relabel all the books in my library.

    • Yes! I totally agree agree with you. Why dumb these kids down? I feel that many librarians today are jumping on too many bandwagons without giving any thought to the repercussions.

    • Thank you! I believe children are teachable. Our patrons are more than 90% EL and my entire collection is English and WAS DDS. Children were taught searching skills and were successful. We have now ‘dumbed it down’ for the children so they may instead find books for use in the Accelerated Reader program. Now I spend way too much time apologizing to children and trying to teach them that our catalog with it’s call numbers is obsolete. They must now instead search the catalog to see what my holdings are, then access the AR Bookfinder to see if the book they’re interested in has an AR quiz (most of mine do, now). They will go to one of the six (!) sections of my library to search through picture books, chapter books and non-fiction to find the book they want. Honestly, this is way too time consuming so they settle for whatever they can find in five minutes. This new ‘more efficient’ system was put into place to speed up the checkout process. In the process I sold my tears and integrity but i kept my job and met shame.

      • Hello,

        I empathize with you completely! I fight a continual battle with a small, but vocal group of classroom teachers to keep the books organized by DDS instead of by the reading levels assigned to books in the AR program. Thankfully, my principal also continues to hold high standards for the library so I haven’t had to succumb to the kind of re-organization you describe, yet. We need advocacy and support on this issue, but I can see by the majority of the comments that it is unlikely and we will all probably be forced to re-organize our libraries soon.

  9. Sherry Scoville says:

    For beginners of this system can we begin with signage? Growing into the grouping?

    I like the idea.

  10. What do these children do if they have to visit the local public library after school, on weekends or during breaks when the school library is closed? They will probably have to cope with the Dewey decimal system after 5th grade, so why put them at a disadvantage with children who were already taught how to find their way around the library.

  11. Jan Chemotti says:

    I love the ideas of changing the signs from ‘fiction’ to “imagination” and am going to order some new signage tomorrow! Was aready planning on changing ‘nonfiction’ to “information”, anyway. The one thing I think is problematic is the ‘imagination’ sub-classifications, because of cross-genre novels…in many instances the genre can be debatable – adventure can also be historical, or fantasy, etc. Many middle schoolers, IMHO, like to read deeply within their favorite author’s works (Dan Gutman, Rick Riordan, Mike Lupica, Laurie Halse Anderson, Margaret Peterson Haddix, etc.) and it brings great confidence when they can go to the author’s last name-arranged shelves and find that person’s works easily, especially when they’re dashing in between classes or on a lunch break

  12. Am I the only one who uses Dewey as a guidance rather than law? I often disagree with the classifications that “come with the book” and use the Dewey number that I deem would best be useful to my students. Yup, all of my train books are together and they go with transportation. All of my energy books are together regardless of which technology they use.

    • Luanna,
      You are not the only one. I sometimes change the classification that “comes with the book”.

    • Totally agree. I often go against the CIP to put it where I know the kids will find it.

      At one time, a former librarian rearranged the children’s room picture books into categories and added labels on all the books. No one could find anything! As a staff member from the reference area, coming into the room to find books for the holds list was impossible. The patrons did not enjoy it either. When I became the Youth Services Librarian that was one of the first things we changed. If people need help finding books, that’s what the Librarian and staff are there to do. I love walking out with a child to help them find the perfect book.

      • Gretchen Caserotti says:

        Our picture books are arranged by subject, but the location and call numbers reflect that so pulling holds is no different. Our circ went up almost 500% so the patrons clearly like it. The success is all in the execution of the idea. Each library community is different. Our members want to be empowered to find things on their own. :-)

        • susan Moynihan says:

          How can you organize picture books by subject? What subject is In the Night Kitchen? Do you keep all the books by one author together?

          • In the Night Kitchen would be the ‘booty’ books like No, David!, Bill and Pete, Stop Those Pants, and so many more. The little ones love those, haha.

  13. It’s nice to have your own classification system. But I thought that one of the reasons for the Dewey Decimal System was to make all libraries the same and patrons could find materials regardless of the library they enter.

  14. I have been “tweaking Dewey” for years. I have been a school librarian and a public librarian. it’s all about finding the information. For a small library, Dewey fits the bill. Every category makes sense. Moving to LC in college still works out; general categories are still in place. Just labeled differently.

  15. I have done this in fiction for years, both at the high school I was at previously and 4-8th grade middle school I’m at now. At the high school I separated by genre and separated “fiction” (adult level) and YA, as well as mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, etc., as do the public libraries. At my middle school, I have separated YA (grades 6-8) from fiction (grades 4-5) with divisions within those categories: adventure, animal, fantasy, graphic novels, historical, humor, international (we’re an IB school), mystery, realistic, science fiction, sports, and suspense. In addition, last year I reorganized the country books alphabetically by title, put all of the Native American books together under one number, keep series books on topics like states and colonies together and am ready to tackle sports. The teachers and students love the independence it fosters. Students still use the catalog to look up and locate books; they’re just easier to find once they get to the shelves.

  16. Let’s not forget the butterfly effect. That old lament of “what happens when they get to…” is not a truism for the ages. The changes we see reflected in user behaviors now will surely trend upward as they age too! Just because it’s the way it has always been done isn’t a guarantee that it should continue to be done as such! Sometimes we have to take a leap of faith, in this case one that I believe is rooted in examining and analyzing our students’ browsing behaviors and habits to lead them to the best resources and to create independent, curious, and engaged readers and users of information. It is certainly worth exploring!

  17. Started a new elementary school 7 years ago. I did it and LOVED it. My kids and teachers loved it. After 4 years and a principal change, I was told I had to go back to Dewey because my kids weren’t successful at middle school. Reluctantly I reverted back. Had many kids in tears that first year with Dewey as they just couldn’t find the perfect book for them anymore. I see it as the “Google” library. Go find everything you need in one spot. Miss it, but my state and district wasn’t ready for the change. Good Luck!

  18. Brenda Bertino says:

    I did away with Dewey directly after taking over as the library director of 7 schools a few years ago. I started in our middle school (7th-8th grade) . The students love it , the teachers love it, even the librarians who have been employed in the schools for 20 years love it . Some of the best comments I heard ” Mrs B we can find our favorite books all together!” “Mrs B I didn’t even know we had money books!” “My teacher said I had to use print resources and had to look everywhere for my subject — now it’s in one location. Thanks for making it easier.”
    My Middle school filters into two different high schools so when we had our librarian’s meeting I asked specifically how they felt our students did coming in their freshman year. The response was “better because at least they understood subject headings!”
    For those of you nay sayers — do a survey of your own and ask any college (non library science) student to tell you what subject is any dewey number and I bet they will tell you they have no clue. But ask them how they found the books and I bet they respond with I asked a librarian!

  19. Mr. Tooley says:

    A good many public libraries ‘merchandise’ their collections–especially their kids rooms. How will they navigate a public library no longer applies. They navigate it the same way they navigate a bookstore–they look for signage and other visual cues. And anyway, we already do the same in our school libraries. If we aspired to be Dewey purists, all of our fiction would be classified in the 800s (largely 813/823).

    I can’t tell you how often I am asked for stories about dogs/princesses/etc. (1st grade), a good sci-fi book (5th grade), and “Where are the scary stories?” (all grades). It is highly inefficient to have to take students looking for Titanic books to the 380s and the 910s and then on a tour of the fiction shelves for the novelizations.

    Maybe this isn’t the perfect solution–and one size doesn’t fit all, anyway. Ranganathan advised us:

    1. Books are for use.
    2. Every reader his [or her] book.
    3. Every book its reader.
    4. Save the time of the reader.
    5. The library is a growing organism.

    Seems like #4 and #5 apply here.

    • Sue Giffard says:

      Thanks for this great connection! Because of what I knew to be the synthetic nature of his system and a sense that the structure was too complex for our needs, we didn’t consult Ranganathan’s work for this project, but I am very happy to be in sync with him in any case.

    • Deborah Smith says:

      I have a hard time finding what I need in the bookstore because the subject that makes sense to me is not always where the bookstore “catalogers” use. I often have to ask for help. What are “librarians” expected to teach to students in the schools? How many of these “librarians” are actual trained librarians? What happens when a book could go into different categories? Who determines where it goes? Is it consistent every time? Is there a description somewhere of all the different sub-themes that fall into the broad subject? Seems to me the dewey decimal system is just as effective and needs less signage.

  20. Carol Tracy says:

    We ditched Dewey in our K-5 media center at the School of Engineering and Arts in the Robbinsdale District. I have a unique situation in that we opened a new school in our district, so we were able to start from scratch. So far, we are loving it! Even though we have ditched Dewey, we do not ignore him — there are still lessons about how other libraries might be organized. Just as we teach our students about the history of the world, like Pangaea, even though it no longer exists (like Dewey in our building), it’s important to teach them how we arrived.

  21. Amy Kirchofer says:

    This article just underscored what many of us have already been thinking about and griping about for years: Dewey increases the need for laborious searching across many different sections, emphasis on filing and shelf-reading (yak!), and staff assistance, while turning off our customers by making them feel incompetent, when what we WANT is for them to feel positive, empowered and successful! Even our adult customers get frustrated when they have to visit multiple sections to find what they are looking for (how many people that I help would LOVE to have a “Making Stuff” section!) So why is Dewey important? Is it only important because it makes us feel important? Because we are the curators and “Gatekeepers” to knowledge? If we don’t want to become relics of a bygone era, our profession needs to continually embrace change (as our customers’ lives and needs change), and to not discount new things just because they are new.

    • Your comments really speak to my feeling about why we left Dewey! I think the positive reinforcement that comes from success in the library will bring users back with more confidence. If they feel we are supporting them, they’ll be more likely to ask for help when they need it, too.

  22. This article intrigued me because I see the rationale in theory. But, as I thought about what this would be like in my library (large high school) I quickly became overwhelmed with the thought of trying to reclassify the wide diversity of topics included in my collection–not to mention integrating the fiction section into the nonfiction section). It got me pondering some questions:
    1. What was it about the way libraries were organized that prompted a standardized organizational system (And by standardized I mean something broadly accepted and used across most libraries)? In other words, why did libraries move to the Dewey system in the first place?
    2. Is there any value in any standardized system of classification? If so, and if Dewey is no longer effective, is it time for a “Librarian Summit” to create a new standardized system?
    3. For the authors of the article, have you abandoned the ability to search your collection via a digital catalog, such as with Follett Destiny for the purpose of location, or are you going through the digital catalog to match it to your revised classifications–particularly in terms of subject headings that may not be quite so clearly pigeon-holed into one of your 10 or so categories? It sounded like you were going through the catalog in the article, but it wasn’t quite clear how your catalog would ultimately be used.
    5. I know kids who latch onto particular authors, so what about authors who write in a variety of genres–would their books be distributed throughout the collection based on category?

    I know as I think about it I will come up with other questions, but that’s what came to mind. At first blush, I have to say that while I understand what prompted the changes–and I realize nothing is perfect and you are working through bugs as they arise–I have a pit in my stomach for the “every librarian for him/herself” feel of this and the implications for our patrons in the long run.

    • Sue Giffard says:

      To answer a couple of John’s questions:
      We have not abandoned the online catalog in any way (we use Destiny Quest as our student interface): in fact, students are if anything using the catalog more, because they are now able to independently and easily move from the call number in the catalog to finding the book on the shelf. We have a set of schedules which provide us with guidelines and controlled vocabulary for call numbers, and we adhere to these completely. Our catalog is used in exactly the same way as it was used with Dewey: the only difference is that the call numbers are words rather than numbers. We don’t have the space to have special displays or islands or anything like that. Our books are in a single linear sequence by call number, and all of that information is in the catalog.
      If we find that we have left something out, we have to add the new sub-category (which is easy to do, because it’s in an alphabetical sequence) and mark it in the schedules.
      Our schedules are available online at our website (http:metisinnovations.com).
      Also, in the grades 3-5 room of our library, the basic rule is to separate the fiction from the nonfiction. It’s only in the lower grades (PreK-2) room that we combine fiction with nonfiction.
      In terms of cross-genre authors: what I did with Roald Dahl was to ask students where they thought his books would be most useful. I took a poll across the 4th grade and worked from there. (Their answer was Adventure.) Not perfect, and perhaps not quite accurate, but it works for the students. While I agree that cross-genre authors present a challenge to organizing by genre, I think that it’s a price worth paying. I see the advantages numerous times a day in the way that the library is used.

  23. Jennifer Susina says:

    Our kids can handle the DDS. My K-5 students learn about it based on what their level is. With the kindergarten, they know the difference between fiction and nonfiction. I show them where the books with the numbers are located, and I explain how to find the fiction books by author. I do have bins that hold the most popular books – Legos, princesses, dinosaurs, etc, so those are organized by subject. Most of the the K-1 students look through these bins, and when they are ready, they move on to the stacks. So, I guess my school library has a little bit of both. I think though, that learning about Dewey does show them that there is a specific organization system, and that will translate to Library of Congress in the public and academic libraries.

  24. A nice report, though I don’t find the argument so new. Of course each library is free to choose an ad-hoc system for its particular users, and children’s categories are clearly different from Dewey academic ones. This does not imply, however, that traditional classifications aren’t useful as bibliographic metadata in shared catalogues, databases etc. Classification and local shelving are two different functions.

  25. I have one tiny bone to pick – the political bias in the decision to use RED for “imagination” and BLUE for “information” – really, did you have to pick RED and BLUE? This school is in (blue-state) New York; as a red-state Texan, I am a little disturbed at teaching children to correlate red with fiction and blue with nonfiction, and think other non-politicized colors should have been chosen.

    Otherwise, as a MLS student, I am intrigued by this story, and have great appreciation for the focus on the users’ needs. In this age of debate over the obsolescence of libraries, IMHO a 100% (or 500%!) increase in circulation supersedes most other arguments. Converting from the DDC to a Ranganathan-style classification system (facet-centered) does not conflict with the foundations of library science, but instead brings the library more in line with the ideals set forth by FRBR and its focus on the user perspective. As a profession, we need to continually evaluate our relevance, and sticking to conventions (just for the sake of convention) will not cut it.

    • We actually chose the colors red and blue to provide access for users who might be color blind. There are 4 types of color blindness and by choosing red and blue we ensured that any person who has this impairment would be able to differentiate between fiction and nonfiction. This proved to be a boon when our new principal walked in this year and told us he was color blind!
      We’re glad that you’re intrigued, vigorous discussion is much better than fading into obscurity.

  26. In some sense of the word, we have done this several years ago. Zoobooks and Magic School Bus, Reading levels, and now French, Spanish, and German, separated out from the non-fiction Dewey area for ease of patron searches!

  27. Steph Buzzell says:

    I find it interesting that the majority of this discussion is brought back to the fact that people don’t feel that students will be proficient locaters of research information in a college setting if we all revert to this type of system. Isn’t our job as librarians, to prepare students to be independent when researching and locating information, in any setting? It shouldn’t matter the type of system we are using to catalog, as long as students are taught how to successfully navigate and find any type of information successfully. Our jobs as librarians won’t be for nothing, if we are using a different way of categorizing our books. If you feel that way, then you need to look at what we are expected to teach as a librarian. We are the link between students constantly relying on someone else to show them how to do something or find something to taking students to the level of being able to do and find information independently. We teach students how to be self-sufficient, to persevere. We create lifelong learners. I guarantee students are not going into college unprepared because they didn’t have the Dewey decimal system at their k-12 schools; it is because they weren’t given wings to fly on their own. We can’t be enablers as librarians; we must trust that given the right tools, our students can fly. But it is our job to teach, guide and model what those tools are.

    • I believe that you missed the point the people were making about using the Dewey system. Part of giving them those wings is getting them used to what is out there. Labeling your entire (small) collection so that it is easier for them to find books according to their own form of (child) logic doesn’t really do that. Yes, if you are teaching them to use the catalog and then use the call number to go and find it, that’s great. However the article makes clear that that’s not what’s going on. Kids are wandering around the library and looking under subject categories to find the books they want. I agree that as librarians in school libraries (which I am- elementary school level) our job is to teach them how to help themselves. These librarians just gave them a huge short cut, which is why everyone else who is pro-dewey is so upset. (Also- using code classification is basically the complete opposite of using child logic and general subject categories… so I fail to see how a system that revolves around this kind of thought and minimal librarian involvement is going to do the job in preparing them for the majority of libraries out there.)

  28. Michelle K says:

    I have one question. Why did this library not just go with BISAC instead of recreating the wheel?

    • Sue Giffard says:

      In answer to the question why we didn’t just use BISAC and instead created our own system:
      When we looked at the Juvenile version of BISAC it seemed to us that it was basically the adult BISAC cut down for children; that much of the hierarchy in the adult BISAC remained in the children’s version; and that BISAC was completely based on alphabetical order. Re the alphabetical order issue: this was a problem for us because we do not have the space to create islands, or specialized areas where we could mix up the sections. We needed a system which would work in a linear fashion on our shelves. So we needed related topics to be together or close by each other (for example, Science, Nature, Animals, Pets). One can use hierarchy to achieve this effect but that was one thing we were trying to limit as much as possible (for example, putting Nature, Animals and Pets under one giant mega-category). We felt that too much hierarchy was not developmentally appropriate for the youngest children we were serving (4, 5, 6, even 7-year-olds and older). In addition, and very importantly for us, the way that the categories were conceived in BISAC did not come out of children’s thinking, and we very much wanted our system to reflect children’s thinking. These were the major reasons we decided against using BISAC. We began our process by having conversations with children at the same time as having adult conversations about main categories/main classes, order and general principles. This meant that our system is a hybrid of the “categorization thinking” of children of various ages (K-4th Grade) as well as having adult input.

  29. Yes… having Dewey experience does help in college Sandy (and everyone else who naively thinks differently- school is a giant practicum for real life by the way). By then you are used to the idea that codes represent certain subjects and create an order of where to find it in the library. Wandering around looking for letters and where you think things belong is no where even in the same ball park.
    Wonderful! We’re going to have job security in the academic and public libraries since we’ll have young children and adults with no clue how to find things. If you are even contemplating converting these types of collections into the same system that is child logic centered (great for training more self centered and entitled individuals running around who think that the world revolves around them- ah!)- FYI larger collections require a more in depth system of classification than the alphabet and a general subject.

    • Sue Giffard says:

      I feel compelled to answer this comment, as I feel that you are insinuating that this work was done with little thought, sloppy execution and a kind of free-for-all chaotic result. Nothing could be further from the truth. No one is walking around our library in the kind of clueless way that you suggest. Our catalog shows call numbers: general category, sub-category and, where applicable, author’s name (for fiction and poetry). In some cases we have more books in a particular sub-category than we would have had under a particular Dewey number; in some cases fewer (ie. our system is more specific than Dewey is); in still others, it’s the same (the sports books are an example of this).
      I want to answer the idea that using child logic somehow encourages self-centeredness and entitlement on the part of students. The entire basis of developmentally appropriate education as taught in US schools of education is based on the idea that one teaches students in an age-appropriate way: no one would suggest that teaching advanced math to kindergarten is appropriate or helpful; or teaching Shakespearean tragedy to 2nd graders: the list could go on and on. Teachers spend a great deal of time figuring out the best way to teach so that their students can understand and learn: much of this process is about figuring out how children think so that we can present information and engage in conversation with children where they are. As librarians we do much the same thing when we select books for our libraries, decide which stories to read, how to teach web evaluation or how to compile a bibliography or a host of other things. But for some reason, the way librarians organize their collections has traditionally been seen as being outside of the scope of this conversation. What we are saying is that we think that the way we organize our collections should pass the same kind of tests for developmental appropriateness as the rest of our curriculum and program.
      One of the problems is that the logic and structure of Dewey escapes most students. We may think that we are presenting a “system” to students. They don’t necessarily experience it that way. Once we move away from Dewey and work with a topic-based (as opposed to primarily discipline-based) system, with whole language call numbers, the logic of the system becomes clear to the students, and they can see and experience it AS A LOGICAL SYSTEM. This can only help them when they are exposed later to a coded system like Library of Congress or Dewey, or some other system in a special library.
      I simply don’t see how self-centeredness or entitlement comes into this picture at all.
      My prediction is that our students will come out of our elementary school library confident as library users, using the collection way beyond their curriculum needs, and will proceed to be wide-ranging library users with high expectations of libraries and librarians into high school and beyond.

  30. Eileen Whitttle says:

    I am an unemployed school librarian. I am getting trained to be a special education teacher. I think asking someone to reclassify the library is overwhelming. I think our profession is slowly disappearing and it is too bad!!!

  31. Dave Chancellor says:

    At first I thought I was reading a New Age article about space age children in the flower power world of the 25th century.


    “Whole word labeling”? “Adventure”? “Child centered”? “Making Stuff”?

    Let’s be honest … this is the epitome of ‘dumbing down’. This effort is anti-rational, anti-science, anti-logical and corporate, not scholarly.

    Of course, this was done a a private school. Ah, for the luxury of having only the best, brightest and most prosperous of students with which to experiment.

    The only upside I see in this experiment is that it will produce more bookstore-friendly consumers out of these children. When they grow-up (ah, the tragedy … they will grow-up. Sigh.) they will know how to work at Barnes & Noble, or how to ask a clerk at Barnes & Noble where to find what they are looking for, or perhaps they will be able to browse more ‘adventurously’ on the Amazon web site.

    For the sake of genuine education, critical thinking, science and, indeed, the library profession itself, let’s hope that this kind of experimentation confines itself to the rarefied air of private and selective charter schools.

  32. I have been a teacher for 27, the last 15 as a junior high librarian. After my first year as a librarian I re-classified my fiction according to genres. Students have really enjoyed being able to browse for the type of fiction they like, rather than spending tons of time on the card catalog trying to find a book that will interest them. Yes, this is definitely a bookstore approach, but it allows students greater independence in looking for books that will interest them. Teachers like it too, particularly when they send students to check out books in a particular genre. Improving the user’s access of materials in the library and promoting more independent selection are the most important aspects of any library shelving system. Genres do that for fiction, even if it takes more work to set them up.

  33. My greatest confusion in this conversation is why people are so attached to Dewey. . . most of the argument seems to be, “In my day, we did it this way and so these lazy kids today need to do the same.” Isn’t the idea to make the library, especially as print media are becoming endangered, more accessible? No doubt there are things that work in the Ethical Culture community that would require adaption in others (I don’t particularly care for ‘Making Stuff’ as a moniker) but that doesn’t mean the idea is bad. In schools, the library should be a center of the learning hub and making materials accessible is a big step in that. More importantly, the organization of material says nothing about how it is used by students and teachers. Children can learn to synthesize information into their own conclusion much better if they can access the information in the first place, can’t they? If I can access the information easily within a library, I would consider its organization a success.


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