Dewey Free.

So apparently the director of Darien Library is retiring. Why is this significant? Aside from me really, really wanting to get down there a couple years ago for a book signing by Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen fame (I had to work instead… or possibly I chickened out at the thought of walking in an unfamiliar town after dark and waiting on the train station platform in late November*), it’s one of the most innovative public libraries out there today. I’m under the impression that Darien is the curve breaker of CT public libraries, and sometimes at big meetings I’ll hear somebody end an idea with the phrase “like what Darien Library did.” (Sometimes that phrase is followed by a jealous scoff from someone in the crowd.) Darien is known for its extreme customer service, and a few years ago it sort of got rid of Dewey in favor of a “glades” system that groups similar subjects together. Under Home, you’ll find gardening, cooking, crafts, and home repair, and Places is where travel and language books live. They’re still using the Dewey numbers to an extent, but they’re reorganizing the physical locations in a way that is much more apropros of browsing.

Public libraries without Dewey seemed to be like exciting magical unicorns, mentioned in library school as living in some far-off location, but never seen and without a live specimen to prove their existence. Sure, there are the roaming herds of academic horses using LC’s classification, and sometimes you’d come across a zebra like the Oriental Institute’s archives, whose organizational system was designed by a past archivist / historian for that particular collection. But now there are lots of unicorns, and one of them (at least, one that’s got the wings but hasn’t grown the horn yet) is less than 40 miles from me.

The idea of moving away from Dewey and coming up with a more browseable classification system like that of bookstores is thrilling to me. Libraries are paying attention to the usability of their websites, and it’s extended into exploring the usability of the library’s physical layout. Why not explore a more usable classification system? However, according to a 2009 online survey of public librarians, almost half of librarians still want to use Dewey, and more than a quarter believe that patrons should be able to find what they want simply with better signage. Nevermind that the resources on alcoholism, mental illness, and improving your mental well-being are at three different call numbers.

Less than 12% of respondents were in favor of going Dewey-free. There were some people who viewed leaving Dewey behind and moving towards a bookstore-like organizational system as a violation of librarian ethics:

Tom Eland, a librarian at Minneapolis Community and Technical College who teaches courses on the politics of information, thinks that turning to business as a model for libraries shows an uncritical acceptance of market capitalism. “Unlike customer service, which is done by private sector corporations on behalf of the profit motive, public service to library patrons is done on behalf of the civic duty of library workers to serve the interest of citizens and residents of the community who patronize the library.” He’s not surprised that libraries that drop Dewey often display materials using ideas from retailing. “Too bad for the people who are trying to do real research, or who want to explore a specific domain of knowledge by going to the shelves and browsing by classification area.”

Um, no. After working in retail for more than five years, I can say that libraries absolutely should be looking at corporate customer service models for examples of how to best serve the public. The profit motive is driving companies to innovate in customer service. I wouldn’t be half the public services librarian I am today if I hadn’t first learned how to build relationships with customers on the sales floor. Sure, it was great to make a huge sale, but it was more satisfying to me and my coworkers to make people happy and help them find exactly what they were looking for – which is the exact same end goal I have when I’m working with patrons at the reference desk. I could go on forever about how my retail jobs helped me learn how to get patrons to notice our hidden collections, and how to develop hype around our programming. Successful retailers are successful because they’re awesome at responding to customers’ needs, and Darien is successful because it’s also awesome at responding to customers’ needs.

Let’s not forget the reality that government officials and board members like seeing numbers just as much as corporate execs do. We’re here for the community, yes, but when the month ends we still need to come up with those circulation stats to justify our existence (and those numbers have gone significantly up in libraries that moved away from straight Dewey). When it comes to our bottom line, we do need to protect our funding. And it certainly wouldn’t hurt to take a look at what businesses do to make a profit.

I would also argue that most patrons who are utilizing the physical collections at public libraries, especially branches, aren’t trying to do research – they’re coming in to pick up some entertainment and go on their way. Patrons who want to do serious research are theoretically more likely to show up at colleges and universities or central urban libraries with research-oriented holdings, like Harold Washington Library in Chicago – places that have enough holdings to fully benefit from the complexity of Dewey or LC. Again, it’s all about the customers’ needs.

I’m not even sure why Dewey is used in public libraries, but somehow it’s become one of those sacred standards of What Libraries Are Supposed to Be that we have had to completely break down to stay relevant. Maybe this is the wife-of-a-historian voice in me, but Dewey is an artificial, subjective system with no intrinsic superiority over any other system. In our diverse and globally connected 2014, it’s definitely showing its age and its Eurocentrism. It’s telling to see in which order Dewey lists literature and languages: English gets the first 10 subjects, then German, Romance languages, Latin and classical Greek, then the hundreds of other Indo-European, Semitic, African, East Asian, etc. languages have to share 10 subjects. Not to mention the 200s Religion section: there are 70 subject numbers for Christianity, but Judaism is relegated to number 296. And Islam shares number 297 with Babism and Baha’i. Maybe I’m completely overthinking it, but what sort of message is it sending our patrons when church furnishings are found at 247, and the Quran is at 297.122 like an afterthought? At best Dewey is slightly outdated, and at worst it’s helping to reinforce biases such as racism. (Not that I can readily propose a better system, mind you.)

Plus, Dewey wasn’t even made for public libraries – it was designed in the late 19th century for academic libraries. Almost all academic libraries, from my little undergrad up to major research collections like Yale, have moved to the more sophisticated Library of Congress at this point.

I’m not saying that all libraries should totally abandon Dewey, but that Dewey is far from sacred. What is sacred in the library is the patron, and we could definitely serve our patrons better by looking at alternatives to Dewey that would make it easier for them to find materials they care about, and would better reflect our diverse communities. I’m really excited to see where Darien and other partially and fully Dewey-free libraries will take their classification systems and how we’ll revise them over time, and it would be awesome to someday witness a major classification change from the front lines.

* TANGENT: I’m still hung up on the cold train platform thing. Chicago does it right in winter. Metro North, take heed and start thinking of installing these:


Sometimes you’d share a lamp with a pigeon.

And in the search for a photo of the L’s heat lamps, I came across this awesome time-wasting page of L trivia. It answers all your burning questions about Chicago’s mass transit train system, questions such as Are the CTA railcars shorter than that of the NYCTA (New York City Transit Authority) or other cities? To me they look a lot shorter in length. and Why aren’t there public restrooms in “L” stations? I did always wonder that.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s