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Dewey in Your School: Yea or Nay?

Stephen Eldridge, TeachHUB

Dewey in Your School: Yea or Nay?December 10th marks the birthday of Melvil Dewey, the American educator who invented the nation’s most famous library classification system. More than a century of work has gone into making Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) and its many variants indispensible to school and public libraries—and a fixture of elementary education for students. But in an age where computer searches have successfully supplanted card catalogs, more and more schools are asking: Do we need the Dewey Decimal System?

 

The Background: Competitors to Dewey

DDC has faced competition since almost its earliest days. Charles Ammi Cutter crafted a rival system of classification just a few years after Dewey. Cutter’s scheme never became as famous as Dewey’s, but it served as the basis for the Library Congress Classification (LCC) system. The LCC is the standard for major academic libraries, and DCC’s most widespread competitor.

Today, more and more libraries are ditching Dewey for their own personalized approaches. Organizing a library catalog has changed: libraries can use database programs to manage their books, and classification schemes can be shared and peer-reviewed online. The Rangeview Library District in Colorado even created a blog so that everyone could follow their reclassification efforts as they put them into action.

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The Yeas

The case for sticking with Dewey’s system is simple—it’s well-established in most schools, and we’ve spent years trying to engrain it in students. Changing isn’t just a time-consuming and complicated task (read: logistical nightmare), it could be downright confusing for the people a library is serving.

For larger libraries the case for staying with DDC is even stronger. Not only would a switch take thousands of hours of work from the library staff, but few “user friendly” systems are as comprehensive and specific as Dewey. This can make a big difference to expansive catalogs with a lot of nuance in their contents.

But maybe the best reason not to make the switch away from DDC is the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” principle. The Dewey Decimal system successfully serves approximately 200,000 libraries. While some people may think it’s showing its age, it actually goes through regular major updates to keep up with the expanding frontier of human knowledge. Why go through so much trouble to replace a system that already works?

The Nays

Few people disagree that Dewey works, or that switching away can be a big task. But is institutional inertia a good reason to stick by a system when we have the opportunity to try new things and find a better way?

Technology has changed how people search for their library books. Although the DDC is still taught in many schools, the death of the card catalog means that today most students will do a title search on a computer and then track down a book by its reference number without ever considering its content. If finding the book you’re looking for is that easy, doesn’t it make more sense to stock the shelves for natural browsing rather than rigorous logic?

Some libraries are drawing inspiration from bookstores in thinking about how to organize their catalogs. Signs directing people to “Sports” or “Travel” sections may serve students better than steering them toward 796 or 910. And designing a new classification system gives a library an opportunity to organize in a way students find naturally intuitive. If you’re not sure whether a biography of Alfred Hitchcock should go into “Biography” or “Film”, why not ask your students where they’d look for it and shelve accordingly?

Ultimately, school libraries exist to connect students with knowledge. The best way to do that is to make going to the library a little less like work whenever we can. If kids can research a topic easily, without feeling as though they have to decipher a code just to pick up a book, they’ll be better readers and better students.

 

So do you agree with the yeas or the nays? Do you have even better reasons for standing by DDC, or abandoning Dewey for another system? We want to hear your thoughts in the comments!