From the catalogs of babes

{March 10, 2009}   your patrons, or yourself?

Last week (or was it the week before? I lose track) I attended an awesome webinar sponsored by Infopeople called “The Deweyless Library: An Innovative Approach.” Now, I’m not normally big on webinars. In my experience, they’re fairly one-sided, and often so dumbed down to a lowest-common-denominator level that I find I don’t get much out of them that I don’t already know. But heck, it was free, and I’ve been dying to hear about any follow up on Maricopa County’s migration to BISAC classification. The presenter, Marshall Shore, talked about the decisions and processes of implementing a non-Dewey classification system at a new public library branch.

Now, I’ve made a few anti-DDC posts in this blog. I won’t deny it. But, as I’ve said before: I like the Dewey Decimal System. I think it’s an example of brilliant design, with its repeating patterns and subdivisions. I admire it very much, despite its known flaws, and I fantasize about someday being smart enough to develop a classification system half as well-designed. However, I’ve been the recipent of a few comments (both on- and off-line) that seem to interpret my stance on this as being some sort of anti-DDC Nazi.

I’m not. What I am obessed about is using the right classification system for the job, whatever the job may be. And what I appreciated the most about Shore’s presentation was that he, too, was focused on finding the right system that would work for his patrons and his libraries. He wasn’t out to get rid of the DDC just to get rid of it–he was out to improve user experience in the library.

He talked a little bit about the library as a “third place,” and using that idea as a motivational factor to improve patron experience. I appreciated that he took a survey of the participants, asking them whether they thought their libraries were or should be considered “third places.” I was pleasantly surprised to see that not everyone thought they should be. The library where I work, for example, is part of a college, and rather than functioning as a community center, is designed to function more as a “second place”–where students come to get work done. Ideally, I’d love it if we could incorporate elements of the “third place,” but our first priority is to support the school’s curriculum and the information literacy of our patrons. (That’s straight out of our mission statement, btw.)

Basically, what I’m trying to say here is that there are all different types of libraries. Some are work centers, some are community centers, many are a mix of both, and more. Libraries have different missions, different needs, and different patrons, and so each library should evaluate its situation and determine how to best serve its users, classification systems included. If the DDC works for your library, great! If LCC works, awesome! If you work with the library collection of some random historical society and find that people respond best to filing the materials chronologically by date, then why not?  But if you’re using a classification system despite your patrons, then who are you really serving? Your patrons, or yourself?

I have to give props to this webinar, especially regarding attendee participation. There were about 75 people logged on to attend, and I was delighted to “see” some familar names, including some blog readers (hi Gina!), as well as co-workers.  Besides overwhelming the presenter with questions, I loved that spontaneous discussion broke out in the chat box among attendees–I’ve never had that happen in a webinar before. Another interactive survey by Shore asked people what they would do to improve patron experience at their libraries. Of course there were the standard copy-cat answers of “we’ll go Dewey-less just like you did!” which bothers me just as much as the resistance to doing away with Dewey. I mean, let’s think about it: if you’re moving away from DDC just because it’s the “hip & cool” new thing to do, it’s equally as problematic, imo. You’re still ignoring the potential needs and wants of your patrons.

One of the survey responses fascinated me so much that I had to inqure among the attendees who posted it. The contributor talked about designing a visual classification system for use in their library. It turns out she was the library manager of the new Home Gardens branch of the Riverside County Library System, and they are in the process of creating a classification system that relies on images rather than words. Of course I was instantly intrigued, as I think the use of a visual classification system in our arts-focused library has a great deal of potential. So I sent her an email and she was kind enough to respond with some more information about the project. I love the fact that she is actively seeking out potential ILS software that will actually display the image as the “call number” rather than substituting a word like [TRAVEL] or [FICTION]. She also pointed out that the visual symbols serve to eliminate language barriers when there is a large multi-lingual patron deomgraphic (which hadn’t even occurred to me but I think is brilliant). But my favoritest part: when they can’t decide what section a book should be classed in, they ask the patrons. That’s right. They take a survey of 3 or 4 average patrons and ask them what section they would look under if they were looking for that title. It doesn’t get much more user-centric than that! The classification system is still in the works, as they build a new branch, but I can’t wait to see it in action. I am totally trying to weasel a tour.

I talk a lot about the DDC because I know a lot about the DDC. I will always, always love it (wouldn’t get it tattooed on me otherwise) and I’d actually be pretty stoked to work on it (if I wouldn’t have to work for OCLC to make that happen…) But in the end, it doesn’t matter if that’s what I love, or what works best for me. It matters what my patrons love, and what works best for them.


Gina says:

Thanks for blogging about this — it was an interesting webinar. I was really pleased that his approach was so positive. Rather than just bagging on the flaws of Dewey, he really emphasized finding a solution that works for each individual library. That positive approach really appealed to me. I think libraries have been doing this forever, under the guise of ‘local practice.’ You’ve already blogged here about the false assumption that because we all use Dewey, we all use it the same way. So even though fidm, art center & lapl all use dewey, we all have our own local modifications. Rather than allowing mechanical or technical factors to guide our local deviations (lapl working from an old edition of ddc b/c it would be too expensive to update), we should be guided in our classification by patron input (perhaps even if that takes us away from dewey).

Unfortunately I was interrupted and missed the last 15 minutes or so, but I went back and looked at the chat session. I really liked that aspect of the event.

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