From the catalogs of babes

{December 24, 2008}   Why such a storm against Storms?

As some of my co-workers know, I’m an avid reader of American Libraries Direct, delivered straight to my inbox every Wednesday (or maybe Thursday, or sometimes not at all, depending on whether or not Verizon is on the fritz). Mainly I read it for the sheer laughable entertainment value–much of the information is trite and nearly useless, and of the links that are actually functional and accessible, most are touting how great librarians  are so we can all feel good about ourselves. Each issue is generally good for a few laughs, but this week’s had a real gem: a link to a Tampa Tribune article about a state Senator who suggested eliminating the Dewey Decimal System. The comments on the newspaper site alone went on for 11 pages, and the paper has also posted several editorial responses, all in disagreement with Sen. Storms’ ideas.

And I agree that there is much there to disagree with. For instance: “Secretary of State Kurt Browning, who oversees state support of libraries, told the committee that Dewey Decimal is the national standard, set by the Library of Congress.” Secretary Browning might benefit from a tiny bit of research before telling lies to the committee–the DDC is owned by OCLC, not the Library of Congress, and with OCLC’s history, I’m a little surprised that they didn’t sue Secretary Browning for attributing DDC to the LOC (which, by the way, has its own classification scheme, quite appropriated entitled “Library of Congress Classification,” or LCC for short). It’s scary to think that such an ignorant individual is responsible for overseeing the state’s libraries.

However, the one thing I most definitely do not disagree with is Storms’ call to cease using DDC in the state’s public libraries. Her reasons? The system is costly, anachronistic, and frustrating for patrons to use. She admires the simplicity of bookstores like Barnes & Noble and wonders why libraries do not follow suit. Opponents against her suggestion are mainly motivated by cost–they say it would cost too much money and time to convert to something else. They also say that the focus and purpose of libraries is not the same as retail and so need a different system.

A lot of responders are calling Storms ignorant and incompetent, but I’m with her on this one. I’ve gone on record in the past as loving the DDC, and I still do. I think it is a brilliant classification system, though not without it’s flaws–you can read about prejudice in the DDC in plenty of other blogs and articles, so I don’t feel the need to go into detail here. It’s certainly not the best classification system ever invented, but it’s good points, I think, are really good–the mnemonic use of the number system is one of my favorite things about it. No matter what section you are in “92” will always mean personal treatment, whether it’s 920 (collected biography), 746.92092 (fashion designers), or 779.2 (photographs of people). The United States is always represented by 973, where books on history of the US are classified, or 747.0973 (interior design of the United States). The manipulation of subdivisions for geography, time periods, and other special topics are outstanding, allowing catalogers to build numbers rather than fit each material into a pre-established narrow box which may not actually be appropriate for the work. DDC has a lot of good things going for it, and its design revolutionized libraries and opened up stacks for patron browseability. I love the DDC and probably always will.

So why am I railing so hard to have it removed from public libraries? Someone who touts the merits of the DDC surely should encourage its use, no? Because it doesn’t serve our users.  Gone are the days of elementary library education–while I can remember weekly trips in second grade to the public school library, where we were taught the Dewey Decimal System and how to properly remove books from the shelf by placing a paper bookmark in between the books on either side so we would return the book to its proper place, most patrons these day did not have the luxury. I mean, I can also remember being instructed in how to use the card catalog (yes, the actual paper one) and the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature(the old bound print editions). These things don’t even exist anymore, having been replaced by the OPAC and subscription service databases. We would no longer think to include card catalog searches and print Reader’s Guide instruction in our bibliographic instruction classes of today. These things have changed with the times, and so too should our libraries’ classification systems.

A part of me struggles with this, I confess. By eliminating instruction on the Dewey Decimal System, is it just one more nail in the coffin of library instruction? I sometimes think so, and worry that not trying to push for further DDC instruction as opposed to elimination, only contributes to what I see as a downward spiral of ignorance and ineducation in our American society. But then another part of me feels stubbornly that if we’re not getting through anyway, we shouldn’t be trying whatever it takes. Why would we purposefully continue to make libraries more difficult to use, rather than easier? Restricting access though classification is not doing anyone’s education any good. Shouldn’t we be trying any means necessary to connect our patrons with the information they seek? And if that means migrating from the DDC to something more simple, so be it.

BISAC (the word-based classification system used by most major retail bookstores) was designed to be easy to use. Why? Because the easier it is for a bookstore customer to find something, the more likely they are to buy it. People can’t buy what they can’t find. (I worked for Barnes & Noble for 5 years, so believe me, I know.) The same goes for libraries: people can’t access what they can’t find. The bookstore and the library are not so different as some people like to think. Am I advocating for the use of BISAC in libraries? Not particularly. BISAC, like all classification schemes, has its flaws, too. I know Maricopa County Library (AZ)’s Perry brach switched to BISAC, and I’ve been anxiously awaiting word on its results before I start tooting the BISAC flag.  I’m also anxious to see what comes of the Open Shelves Classification, but I’m not necessarily pushing for that either (disclaimer: I originally intended to contribute to the OSC, but both my lack of public library cataloging background as well as some other personal issues made me back out). The thing is, I’m not advocating for any particular classification scheme at all. What I am advocating for is for libraries to find a classification scheme that best serves its user base, whatever it may be. Maybe it uses numbers, maybe it uses words. Maybe it’s by subject, or maybe it uses some sort of color-and-shape system (something I always wanted to experiment with for our collection, since our patrons are so visually inclined). Whatever it turns out to be is fine, as long as it’s what works best for your patrons.

But all that money it will cost and time it will takes to change! That’s pretty much the argument against changing any already-established classification system. And I can see that–to a point. I doubt the Library of Congress would have much success reclassifying its 32 million books and print materials, even with all of its staff. However, most public libraries don’t even come near that total: the tour guide from my recent visit to Seattle’s infamous new main public library branch quoted their holdings at 1 million books.* Yes, it’s a lot, and it sounds daunting. Heck, I’m daunted by the prospect of reclassifying our ~27,000 books. But what’s more important: our lack of desire to do reclassification work, or the patrons’ abilities to find the materials they seek? Sounds like we’re being pretty selfish and lazy when we put it that way. Yes, reclassification would be a lot of work. But aren’t our patrons worth it? And if we’re not taking on such tasks, then what are we being paid for? As a service profession, our first duty is to our library users. We’re paid to make otherwise inaccessible materials accessible to all. This is not just our job, but our professional duty. It can be done.


*I’m not sure if that included branches as well; I think not, but still.


[…] the catalogs of babes {December 30, 2008}   Apropos of my recent post regarding user-driven classification systems, I returned to work after the holidays to find numerous back digests of Autocat, a […]

Booker says:

>> maybe it uses some sort of color-and-shape system

I can think of another librarian, a famous one, who’s been thinking about that for a good while. Any plans to follow up with her?

Ivy says:

If I thought a) I could find her AND b) I could have a coherent conversation with her, I might try, but I fear it’s a null set.

LaSemuse says:

I’m having a hard time pulling the knife out of my back on this one.

Just on practical grounds, yes, the financial costs are prohibitively expensive. I don’t think being selfish/lazy comes into it.

In terms of making it easier for patrons in public libraries to find materials, many don’t actually want to find the book on their own; they want you to look up the title/author/subject so that you can go to the shelf and pull it for them. For the patrons who do want to browse, the DDC serves its purpose.

As for teaching children how to use the place holders in the library, let’s talk about not having the 590s completely pulled from the stacks and stomped on, or the 92s ransacked everytime there is a school project. The DDC is what helps the staff keep it together. Most schools don’t have a librarian to teach the DDC, so the under-staffing is the issue, not the use of the DDC.

Tried not to make this a rant, just don’t agree with you on this.

Ivy says:

>the financial costs are prohibitively expensive. I don’t think being selfish/lazy comes into it.

Of course it’s expensive. So is hiring staff to teach the DDC. And while it may not be the primary factor, selfish and lazy definitely play into it–there are plenty of librarians who already admit that they hang on to the DDC as a means of justifying their master’s degrees. I mean, if we don’t have some Sooper-Sekret Librarian Knowledge like how to use the Dewey Decimal System, what sets us apart from ordinary, average citizens?

>many don’t actually want to find the book on their own; they want you to look up the title/author/subject so that you can go to the shelf and pull it for them

Finding a particular book is a different ball of wax than browsing the stacks. You can retrieve a specific title with any classification system–DDC, LC, BISAC, even if you shelve the books in aquisitional order. For a patron to find a book on their own requires a whole additional level of skill above and beyond knowing how to use the DDC. They have to know how to search the catalog, and then only after that do they need to know how to use the chosen classification system to find the book. If we can make it easier in one or both of those areas, why wouldn’t we? Why add to the difficulty, when we could possibly eliminate one of those layers almost entirely?

>let’s talk about not having the 590s completely pulled from the stacks and stomped on, or the 92s ransacked everytime there is a school project.

Let’s not, because that has nothing to do with which classification system those books use. They would get just as stomped on classified as “QL49” or “Biography.”

>Most schools don’t have a librarian to teach the DDC, so the under-staffing is the issue, not the use of the DDC

I’m not in disagreement with this, I even discuss it in another post. When I’m Queen of the World, I’ll make a class in DDC a requirement to graduate from high school. But until then, I’m coming at it from the pragmatic, reality-check pov: we didn’t have the staff support before, we don’t have it now and we won’t in the future. We’re not going to be able to solve the problem by adding more staff (if anything, we’re going to be seeing even more staff cuts). So we need to look at other ways to address the issue. In a day and age when many kids can’t even read, why are we adding more barriers and making access harder? Besides the ability to find a book on a shelf in one particular library (because it certainly won’t be the same for all libraries, even other libraries using DDC), what additional benefits are gained from learning the DDC?

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