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Dewey vs. Genre Shelving…the Conversation Continues Here February 15, 2013

Posted by Jen Habley in ALA Midwinter Meeting, Check this out!, Hot Topics.

At the recent ALA Midwinter Conference in Seattle, I moderated the AASL-sponsored Hot Topics discussion on “Genre-fying” the collection.  Six panelists presented a variety of viewpoints on how to handle and issue that is being widely discussed.  A number of librarians have implemented the change, reclassifying their nonfiction titles using letters identifying the genre.  Some have used EBSCO’s NoveList as a source for the categories they chose, others have used their own ideas.  A few have integrated fiction within the nonfiction.  A more limited approach is to “genre-fy” the fiction collection.  Those who have made the change point to increased circulation.  Librarians who think we should stay with Dewey argue that consistency between libraries is important and the amount of work to make the switch is huge.  The debate continues to rage.  An upcoming issue of Knowledge Quest will be devoted to the subject.

Below you will hear from two of the members from the discussion panel, Devona Pendergrass and Christopher Harris.  Where do you stand on the issue?

Hilda Weisberg is the Editor of  “School Librarian’s Workshop”

Dewey Shelving

Dewey or dontwey?  That is the question that brings to mind a list of things to remember in making your decision.  Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!  If it ain’t broke don’t fix it! We heard from Michael Panzer the Editor of the Dewey Decimal System that Dewey is meant to be a fluid system that evolves and changes over time.  Although not perfect Dewey offers a logical system for organizing every item in a library, offers users familiarity and consistency and is used in libraries worldwide.  Dewey is a living, breathing system that each of us can tweak to fit our own individual needs and those of our students and patrons. Dewey also allows for the use of thousands of additional relative index terms that can be used as additional access points to your Dewey system.  Familiarity breeds contempt.  Maybe that is what is happening here.  Since the system is old and everybody has heard and used the system it must be old and outdated.  Heck, I’m old but I’m certainly not outdated and I can and do change every day in my way of thinking and doing but I am not ready to just throw me away for a newer model and neither is my boss.  I’m sure my system could be replaced with one younger, prettier and sweeter smelling but as Shakespeare says “to thine own self be true.”

 Devona J. Pendergrass is the School Librarian at Mountain Home High School in Mountain Home, Arkansas.

Genre (Subject) Shelving

The biggest hurdle we face in the discussion about reorganizing resources in school libraries is getting over the widely held belief that this is a black-and-white decision between Dewey and chaos. Those of us exploring new spaces beyond Dewey are still using an organizational structure. We have carefully considered vocabularies of subject headings set within a hierarchy that better matches the unique browsing needs of school-aged readers and curriculum-focused collections.

In actuality, I believe that the practice of subject-based cataloging isn’t anywhere near as controversial as it may seem on the surface. The general consensus of the pro-Dewey crowd at the panel seemed to be that libraries need to use better signage to help students find book. You know, signs…with subject words on them. Don’t get rid of Dewey, they cried, but please could we have more words to make it easier for a browsing student to find books.

The difference is that those of us working to move beyond Dewey in organized and documented ways are actually doing more to ensure that librarians who follow will have a clear map to understand the changes. Pretending to maintain strict adherence to Dewey while moving books between sections is more confusing just building a new, fully explained system that works from the beginning.

In the end, we are all asking for the same thing; a hybrid solution that uses the back-end power of the DDC, but displays subject words to students. A system that provides support for the flexibility and local changes required for the adult-centered, public library-focused Dewey to be truly successful in schools.

Christopher Harris is the director of the School Library System of the Genesee Valley (NY) Educational Partnership and editor of the American Libraries Magazine E-Content Blog.


1. Jane Lofton - February 17, 2013

I am definitely intrigued when I hear about reports of increased circulation with new shelving ideas. I just can’t see, though, how I would ever have time to make such a change as the single staff person in a library for 2,400 students or how I would be able to properly track where all the books are if I did. In my situation, and that of so many of us, I believe it would require having a new system of cataloging provided by established cataloging services for new books. And, I can’t image the scope of the project redoing all the books I already have. But, I won’t stop following the discussion and will be open to new ideas!

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2. Pam Harland - February 20, 2013

I’m with you, Chris Harris! We are having these discussions in NH and I’m moving my collection to a sort of hybrid of Subject Shelving/ Dewey Shelving. I’ve been telling our staff that I’m “putting Dewey on a Diet” as I break popular collections out and put them on subject-specific mobile shelving units: Music, Sports, Oddities, Shakespeare, Poetry. We started moving the books two weeks ago and our nonfiction has never circulated so much! We don’t even have the signs up, yet!

I just wrote a blog post about my process here: http://pamlibrarian.wordpress.com

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3. Elizabeth - February 23, 2013

I believe very strongly that we need a system for book classification that students can learn and then use in any library that they visit. That was the reason Melvil Dewey designed his system in the first place-consistency. Though Dewey has been around for more than a 100 years, it works for me. I always tell the kids that you don’t have to memorize the numbers, but if you find folk tales in my library all in the same location, then you can find the folk tales all together in any library you use.

I do think that as professionals we may need to assess the appropriate locations for books. Do I put the sports heroes in the 700’s or with biographies. You should know your patrons and put books in the most logical location. Once you receive books from a jobber that are already processed, it can be a pain to change the call number. If it makes it easier for a child to find the book on the shelf, then maybe it is something that you need to do.

I don’t plan to get rid of Dewey. When our school moves to its new space next year and the library is four times the size of what I have now, I may need to assess how the books are shelved. Maybe I will have a few special sections in fiction for sci fi and fantasy. Maybe I will have a special Louisiana collection that spans fiction and non-fiction.

I do know that the larger space will allow me to create book displays that I never could before. Maybe that is a way to highlight unknown books.

This is an interesting discussion, but I would hate to hear that because each school library is organized in a different way that students move from elementary to middle to high and have to learn a new system as they change schools.

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4. Elizabeth Hester - February 28, 2013

I attended the session at ALA and was won over to try the limited approach of genre-fying the fiction section. It was a bit messy at first with a few books on the floor and we are not quite finished. I have polled the students casually and they absolutely love it! They are finding different books than they have found before and I have done quite a bit of weeding. All of this has been catch as catch can with a class researching and filming a World Religions project in the library for a week and a half.
What has been super interesting is how some kids have not even noticed the new signage and how new and fresh my shelves look after creating a classics area. I mean how could I possibly weed the Miss Hickory book!
I do not plan to do anything to Dewey. I believe the kids that have problems with Dewey now – and I am in a high-poverty school- are still going to be able to locate whatever they need in fiction at the high school level because the books are in alphabetical order within genres. We still have plenty of tagging to do!

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5. Tali Balas Kaplan - March 1, 2013

We often talk about “libraries organized by Dewey” when what we really mean is “libraries organized by a mix of Dewey and customary conventions”. While Dewey is ubiquitous in the English-speaking world (not at all worldwide), these custom-based conventions are quite a free-for-all. I’m including here the way we organize fiction, picture books, biographies (for many libraries) and other areas. Dewey itself does not distinguish between fiction and nonfiction. Fiction and biographies all have Dewey numbers and from the point of view of DDC, should be filed in that sequence.

In public libraries and school libraries over the years, librarians have broken or bent the rules and set up sections for fiction, picture books, easy readers, and biographies, etc., mostly organized alphabetically according to author. The call numbers for these sections begin with an identifying word, letter or group of letters: F, FIC, EASY, ER, JFIC, JF, JYR FIC, P, PIC: the array is dizzying and confusing, and belies the idea of a standard practice from library to library. For example, in our library, while we still had Dewey, we talked about “easy readers.” At one point the call number prefix was ER; we then shifted it to JFIC. Our picture books always had the prefix E. At the local public library down the road, the prefix E is used for “Easy” books, which are easy readers. The picture books have the prefix P or PIC. We always used the first three letters of the author’s last name; the public library uses only the first letter.
Biographies are another example: for many years we followed the practice of a separate biography section identified by B or JB and the last name of the biographee. Our sister elementary school library shelves their biographies in the Dewey sequence and uses 920 and 921 to identify the books as biographies. Our sister high school shelves biographies with subject.
If this seems confusing and complicated, that’s because it is. We have all taken these conventions and made them work for us in the best way possible for our circumstances and hopefully for our users.
I don’t think that it is shortsighted to take a look at this situation, and try to see what we as professionals can do to improve our systems of organization for our users. On the contrary, I feel certain that that is what I am supposed to do as a librarian.

When we decided to switch from Dewey and began to create our own system we did many of the things that Joanne suggests, on a small scale. We spent time doing online research to see what other libraries had done and what research was out there. We found Professor Linda Cooper’s research on children’s categorization, which was incredibly helpful to us as we searched for a way to create a child-friendly classification system. [Linda Cooper. “A Study of the Relationships Between Categories of Library Information as Typified by Young Children.” In H. Bruce, R. Fidel, P. Ingwersen, and P. Vakkari (eds.) EMERGING FRAMEWORKS AND METHODS: PROCEEDINGS OF THE FOURTH INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON CONCEPTIONS OF LIBRARY AND INFORMATION SCIENCE. pp. 17-32. New York: Libraries Unlimited, 2002.]

We began by reorganizing our fiction collection by the genre stickers already on the books. Students responded in a positive way immediately, even before we had had a chance to change the call numbers in the catalog.

We then created small sections, particularly with popular, non-curricular sections, and our circulation skyrocketed, climbing 80%, even 100% in certain sections over the same period the year before. Even with minimal signage and without proper call numbers, students were finding books easier, browsing more productively, and checking out books that hadn’t moved for years.

Part of our process was talking to students about the way that they thought about categories of information and giving them piles of books to organize, so that we could see what worked intuitively for them.

But ultimately, we had to change the system, implement the whole plan, in order to see if it worked. Our plan required relabeling with visual subject category stickers as well as specific call numbers, so that the collection was easily browsable as well as being easily searchable. Students and faculty still use our computer catalog to find books, our system is searchable and browsable. As practicing school librarians, perpetually overscheduled as we all are, we have not had the chance to do research since implementing our system. But our experiences every day with our students, faculty and parents tell us that even though some of the details may need work, and our system is by no means perfect, the new system is meeting our users’ needs in ways that our old Dewey-based system simply never did.

Yes, it was a lot of work but we believe that we owe it to our patrons to provide them with the best service possible.
Sue Giffard and Tali Balas Kaplan

Tali Balas Kaplan
Librarian, PreK-2nd Grade
Ethical Culture Fieldston School

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6. Lori - March 1, 2013

While I am enjoying seeing the discussion continue past ALA Midwinter, I have to add my concern of district wide implementation as stated by Lee D. Gordon:

“And then there are the problems of district-wide implementation and staffing. In my district, there are 315 schools and Dewey is our district standard. What if two schools decide to do this? How will that affect the students who move from school to school? Will those two schools use the same system?

Then, on top of that, all of our schools have only one librarian (and some are only staffed with one clerical position). How does one librarian attack this on top of all else that they must do?” (AASL forum post March 1).

While her district is much larger than mine (315 schools to my 64), I agree that a district-wide implementation would be very hard to do, and would involve copious amounts of time. Most of my elementary librarians are flying solo, and all of them, even with ones with itinerants, only have clerical staff 6 hours a day (and that is generous since many of the assistants are pulled to act as substitutes or have lunch duty).

We have a union catalog that subscribes to the DDC, and our MARC records allow us to add as many subject heading we need to aid a student or teacher in finding a book. I think if I put all my librarians in the room and asked them to genre-fy the catalogs, there would be mutiny.

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7. Christopher Harris - March 1, 2013

Let’s review a couple statements that have been thrown about on the AASLForum and consider them in a different light:

“We don’t have time for this.”
And nobody is requiring that you make changes to your classification scheme. As I noted in my writeup for the blog, one way in which much of the discussion overlaps is the desire for better signage. That doesn’t take new spine labels or changes in the catalog, but can help improve browsing in the collection.

“But Dewey is the standard.”
And it isn’t in other libraries. The key is that the information be organized in some logical, documented way. Can you please point to the AASL Standard that says students learn the DDC? In fact, there isn’t one. The standards that address this all say that students need to learn how and why information is organized…in a variety of ways.

“Common Core is the priority.”
And the Common Core places a high priority on information texts. One way to increase reading of information texts would be to make the section more accessible for browsing by grouping like topics instead of separating them according to DDC. For example, kids that check out books on tanks and fighter jets (600s) are probably more likely to want a book on the Army Rangers (300s) than a book on trains (600s), but that is in a totally different part of the library. Kids who read about football teams might be drawn in to reading a sports biography of a football player, but are much less likely to find it if it is buried in the biographies section. As we work to support Common Core, modifying how to classify and shelve informational texts could have a large impact on students’ adoption of informational texts.

“Dewey has been updated.”
And they did it by adding more and more places after the decimal point. Sure it covers new topics like the Department of Homeland Security (353.30973). You had best hope that Apple doesn’t start releasing iTelevisions, because books about internet connected TVs are 384.5502854678. The updates to Dewey, the seemingly never-ending quest to add more decimal places, make the classification system LESS useful in schools. We need an update to Dewey that re-works the 10s into modern categories.

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8. Lee Gordon - March 1, 2013

And then there are the problems of district-wide implementation and staffing. In my district, there are 315 schools and Dewey is our district standard. What if two schools decide to do this? How will leaving Dewey affect the students who move from school to school? Will those two schools use the same system?

Then, on top of that, all of our schools have only one librarian (and some are only staffed with one clerical position–no librarian). How does one librarian attack this on top of all else that they must do? Our elementary librarians must provide prep time for teachers and have very little “free” time (meaning time to do library chores instead of instruction).

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9. Shannon Thompson - September 8, 2013

I’m the librarian of an elementary school in Athens, GA. We recently finished our transition away from the DDS and we couldn’t be happier. It was a lot of work, but the payoff has been so worth it. Students are able to find books independently and are exposed to more great books that they like. Overall, the library is just a much more patron-friendly space.

I love reading accounts of other libraries that are making the switch. There may not be a perfect organizational system, but I am sure that our current model is way better (for my patrons) than Dewey.

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