Monday, July 16, 2007

Dewey: Hip or Not Hip?

The juxtaposition is interesting: Last week the NYT had an article (in the fashion section) about hipster librarians who among their avocations count guessing Dewey classifications for everyday items as a drinking game.

“I got the Joy of Sex,” Ms. Yao replied. “I thought for sure it was French Women Don’t Get Fat.” Ms. Yao could be forgiven for being confused: the drink was numbered and the guests had to guess the name. “613.96 C,” said Ms. Yao, cryptically, then apologized: “Sorry if I talk in Dewey.”
But from hipster librarians - and by the way, in the letters section this week some older generation librarians took exception to the notion that this group of libraians was somehow unique - we go to hipster libraries. This week the Times has an article about the supposed end of Dewey currently showing at the Gilbert Arizona public library. The libary has shrugged off the shackles of the dewey decimal system and abopted a commercialist subject coding method - just like a Barnes & Noble:

But the new library in this growing Phoenix suburb has gone a step further. It is one of the first in the nation to have abandoned the Dewey Decimal System of classifying books, in favor of an approach similar to that at Barnes & Noble, say, where books are shelved in “neighborhoods” based on subject matter. It was Harry Courtright, director of the 15-branch Maricopa County Library District, who came up with the idea of a Dewey-less library. The plan took root two years ago after annual surveys of the district’s constituency found that most people came to browse, without a specific title in mind.
The aspect of creating a more user friendly environment for patrons is a good one. Perhaps the imposition of Dewey into the public library setting was always one of those instances where the view point of consumers (patrons) was lacking; but, in this article there is little about whether the Dewey system can or is adapting. The hook to this story, is the ardent pursuit by Mr. Courtright for its elimination and this strikes me as rather misguided.
Her assessment, though, understates his goals. Throughout the recent annual convention of the American Library Association, in Washington, Mr. Courtright and 16 of his employees paraded around wearing and distributing eye-catching badges that bore the word “Dewey” encircled in red with a slash across the middle.

Certainly, Maricopa has made a valid choice if it satisfies the needs of their patrons; however, why is the choice absolute? Why pursue a crusade, aren't there better things to consider? Moreover, the Dewey system, LC, and BISAC (which Gilbert's system seems to mimic) are managed standards and all have good points and bad but why call for the exclusive selection of one over the other? Furthermore, bibliographic vendors - OCLC included - have created 'cross-walks' or linkages between the various subject classifications both as a way to augment titles with only one subject and as a way to provide more flexibility for users of these data records in how the records are cataloged.

With respect to B&N-like shelf locations it is interesting to note that B&N's are not the same as Borders' which are not the same as Ingram's. The approach Gilbert is taking is worth following especially if it helps patrons, but the crusade aspect is a waste of effort; rather pursue a standards based approach that either helps improve Dewey or supports a library version of BISAC.


Matt Church said...

Libraries aren't bookstores. Libraries will be on shaky ground if they attempt to become completely like bookstores. The library community can embrace certain aspects (mainly atmosphere) of bookstores but they can't lose their identity in pursuit of the competition. Instead, libraries need to breath new life into their buildings and into the profession. They need to capitalize on what sets them apart from bookstores by highlighting the many unique and valuable services they provide.

I hope that the demise of the Dewey Decimal System is limited to Mr. Courtright's library. Dewey isn't a perfect system of classification. It has its shortcomings. But it's served library users for generations and is vital in today's quest to connect library users to desired content.

Read my full response at Detroit Leaning:

Matt in Phoenix said...

What's wrong with Gilbert taking the initative to make itself a pilot case for a system different than the Dewey system, the de fact standard? It seems to me that if the Maricopa Public Library System is ready to take all the risks (financial, public relations, etc) to better serve their constituency and contribute to the profession with user studies from an innovative approach, why should anyone else really object on principle? Standards can only be improved or recreated through thoughtful testing, feedback and research--this seems to me to be the very core of modern librarianship as a profession; it's the reason why educational prerequisites for entry into the profession have come to include a masters degree and appropriate research methods courses.

If Mr. Courtright's approach is a disaster, then Maricopa County will take appropriate measures to fix the system and go back to the standard Dewey system. He'll be ultimately responsible. But if his experiment turns up some interesting feedback and data, it could jumpstart research that could ultimately benefit the profession.