I just finished reading Are Dewey’s Days Numbered in the current issue of School Library Journal and I have to say that I’m conflicted about the idea of tossing out Melvil with yesterday’s garbage. I love the fact that people are challenging the old guard. Let’s face it, Melvil was a bit of a quack and certainly was a product of his particular times and geographical location. It should be no surprise to anyone reading this that the 19th century, Euro-centric perspective has significant implications in areas like religion and technology. But I wonder if the underpinnings of the system are bad enough to warrant chucking the whole thing.
The beauty of any system is that it is a system. It is something that all agree to ascribe to so that one can walk into any situation in the world and know what is going on. Dewey Decimal, at my last check, was still THE most widely used classification system in the world. The fact that my students, having learned DDC, can walk into a library in France and know where things are, without even knowing the language, has huge value. I feel for the poor kids leaving these schools who have chucked Dewey. They’ll go down the street to their public library and be lost, or have to learn the system anyway.
We are dealing with a system that is designed to organize physical objects. There are serious limitations to organizing physical objects, the primary one being that no object can be in two places at the same time. (Weinberger goes into this in great depth in Everything is Miscellaneous.) We get around this, by developing a system that places like items together. The problem is that we have to determine in what way these objects are alike. Items are alike in different ways and we have to figure out what ways are most important to us. This allows us to be able to browse a section of a library and see “all” of the books that are similar, next to each other. But what is important to one browser is not to another. No system is going to be able to group items together that will address all browsers needs.
This is where the catalogue comes in. Catalogues allow us to describe items in a way that we can regroup items. In today’s world, this is done in virtual space using computers. If we follow Weinberger, what we could do is throw everything into one giant pile and let users categorize them in ways that are meaningful to them. We can tag items, put them in folders, rate them, and sort them in any way that makes sense to us, as long as we have some way of retrieving the item quickly and easily. In this kind of world, we could simply number every book by the order that they were acquired and go to the shelf to get them once we’ve done our browsing in the catalogue. The reality is that some folks, myself included, love to scan shelves of books and an arbitrary organization scheme like this does nothing to help browsing.
So, here we have an elementary school in New York that has devised their own system to aid browsers. They have re-categorized all of the books in a way that makes sense to them. Well, it makes sense to them now. I suspect that, in ten years, they’ll be looking at all of this again and questioning why certain sections exist and why particular books are put on specific shelves. But, for now, it works. They are rejoicing because circulation has gone through the roof. I have to wonder how much of that has to do with the new organization system itself and how much of that is because it is new and everything is in a different place. How many times have you moved and “discovered” that old book or recording that you’d forgotten that it exists. There is currently a newness to the old stuff. I’m sure that some of this rise in circulation has to do with the system itself. It was developed in a collaborative manner with current users of the resources. It makes sense to these people at this time.
I agree that Dewey is old and has many flaws, but I don’t think that we’re at a point where we should be throwing it out. I even wonder how much energy should be put into thinking about revising a system used to organized physical books. As much as I love the physical media, technology is slowly digitizing our libraries. At some point, all of our resources become digital and then we CAN have a single resource in multiple places at the same time. The Dewey Decimal systems dies a natural death because it is a system used to organizing items that we are no longer using. Until that time, DDC is as good as anything else we have. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And I don’t think that it’s broke.
Kaplan, T. B., Dolloff, A. K., Giffard, S., & Still-Schiff, J. (2012). Are Dewey’s Days Numbered? School Library Journal, 58(10), 24-28.
Weinberger, D. (2007). Everything is miscellaneous: The power of the new digital disorder. New York, NY: Times Books.