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Libraries sans Dewey

Barbara Fister has a terrific article in LibraryJournal about libraries who have moved away from the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system, many in favor of some version of the BISAC system that arranges books alphabetically by topic. This is a more bookstore-like approach. The article presents the multiple sides of this discussion, with lots of examples.

The disagreement among librarians is, to my mind, itself evidence that there is no one right way to organize physical objects. Classification is pragmatic. You classify in a way that works, but what works depends upon what you’re trying to do. Libraries serve multiple purposes, so librarians have to make hard decisions. If the DDC isn’t the safe and obvious choice, then libraries have to confront the question of their mission. The classification question quickly becomes existential in the JP Sartre sense.

At the end, she quotes from Everything Is Miscellaneous where I say that the Dewey system “can’t be fixed.” I still think that’s right in its context: No single classification system can work for everyone or for every purpose, although they can be better or worse at what they’re trying to do. In that sense, the DDC can be improved, and the OCLC has continuously improved it. But because it’s premised on assigning a single main category to each book, it is repeating the limitations of the physical world that require physical books each to go on a single shelf. Any single classification is going to be inapt for some purposes, and is going to embody biases constitutive of its culture. It’s the job of a library and of a book store to decide which single way of classifying works best for its patrons, with the obvious recognition that no single way works best for all. Books are miscellaneous. Libraries, bookstores, and the shelves over your desk are not.

Anyway, Barbara’s article is a fascinating look at how libraries are trying to do the best for their patrons, working within the constraints of the physical.

3 Responses to “Libraries sans Dewey”

  1. on 06 Oct 2009 at 1:32 pmDavid Bigwood

    There is no reason several Dewey class numbers couldn’t be assigned to an item, to bring out more topical aspects. If it was a physical item, it would still need to be placed on the shelf somewhere it could be found. The ‘mark and park’ number could be distinct from the subject based class numbers.

    It is good that libraries are begining to understand that different classification are better than others in difference circumstances. If a neighborhood library is mostly popular current materials, it will benefit from using a different system than a large research library. But we have always done that to some extent. Government documents in a Dewey library will be segergated and classed using SuDoc. A medical library will often mix the medical classification numbers with Library of Congress for non-medical parts of the collection. Recorded music will often use the ANSCR system, my local public does.

    Dewey, Library of Congress, Universal Decimal, SuDoc, and all the rest have their place. The trick is to find the one that fits the collection and members best. I do wish our bibliographic records would allow for multiple class numbers, we do use more than one subject heading.

  2. on 06 Oct 2009 at 5:29 pmScot Colford

    Oh, I am a librarian and I am so ready for Dewey (and LC) to go away. SuDoc is different, arguably. It’s a scheme for a discrete set of documents. Dewey is meant to capture the breadth of human knowledge and it fails miserably more than a hundred years after its inception.

    I have no problem with a linear shelving scheme. But it should be structured on some other element than topic. We live in a three dimensional world, so let’s not pretend that our abstract knowledge fits into one dimension. Subject analysis has supplanted classification in the minds of our users (at least in public and undergraduate college libraries) so we must adapt.

    Plus, I’m sick of writing things like “PR6017.S5 Z498 1977” down on a scrap of paper and handing it to some poor person who has to find the damn book on their own.

    And did I mention how LC and cutter numbers totally baffle Excel? Don’t get me started.

  3. on 30 Nov 2010 at 11:00 amTHARWAT

    Dear Colford
    I agree with you but what can I do exactly as a classifier?
    Do you have alternative solution to get off linear shelving schema or one dimmension ?
    do you have a schema for 3 dimention of knowledge ?

    Thank you so much
    Iam wating your answer please