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Libraries sans Dewey

Barbara Fister has a terrific article in LibraryJournal about libraries who have moved away from the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system, many in favor of some version of the BISAC system that arranges books alphabetically by topic. This is a more bookstore-like approach. The article presents the multiple sides of this discussion, with lots of examples.

The disagreement among librarians is, to my mind, itself evidence that there is no one right way to organize physical objects. Classification is pragmatic. You classify in a way that works, but what works depends upon what you’re trying to do. Libraries serve multiple purposes, so librarians have to make hard decisions. If the DDC isn’t the safe and obvious choice, then libraries have to confront the question of their mission. The classification question quickly becomes existential in the JP Sartre sense.

At the end, she quotes from Everything Is Miscellaneous where I say that the Dewey system “can’t be fixed.” I still think that’s right in its context: No single classification system can work for everyone or for every purpose, although they can be better or worse at what they’re trying to do. In that sense, the DDC can be improved, and the OCLC has continuously improved it. But because it’s premised on assigning a single main category to each book, it is repeating the limitations of the physical world that require physical books each to go on a single shelf. Any single classification is going to be inapt for some purposes, and is going to embody biases constitutive of its culture. It’s the job of a library and of a book store to decide which single way of classifying works best for its patrons, with the obvious recognition that no single way works best for all. Books are miscellaneous. Libraries, bookstores, and the shelves over your desk are not.

Anyway, Barbara’s article is a fascinating look at how libraries are trying to do the best for their patrons, working within the constraints of the physical.

5 Responses to “Libraries sans Dewey”

  1. Looks like it’ll be fun to read; thanks!

    That said, if other librarians’ intro to cataloguing classes were anything like my intro to cataloguing class, the multiplicity of classification systems is hardly new to us; nor is the concept that different systems work better for different purposes. (Heck, anyone who’s seen both Dewey, e.g. in their public library, and LC, e.g. in university, knows there are multiple coexisting options…) And there are classification systems that aren’t premised on hierarchical, single-major-category assignment (see also: faceted classification; S. R. Ranganathan). These systems make a ton of sense — in fact you encounter them on many e-commerce sites and library catalogs these days (whenever you’re asked in a sidebar if you want to refine your search by, e.g., shoe width, or book language). They’re limited, though, in that if you are, in fact, arranging physical books on physical shelves, you *are* constrained by a one-dimensional arrangement; each book is located in one, and only one, place on your linear shelves. A linear classification system aids in that shelf order, and in finding things on the shelf, even as it doesn’t model all that well the nature of the conceptual space in which books also reside.

    I keep ending up in raging arguments with my software-oriented friends about this; they see no point in the linear order because they tend to interact with information *only* in the conceptual space, and seem to have never browsed shelves, or discovered material they didn’t know they were looking for near things they were (or are only interested in doing that browsing via a multifaceted online interface). And then those of us who have relied on that shelf order for humanities research try to explain how it can be tremendously useful, and they stare disbelievingly, because it isn’t useful for *them*.

    OK, rant over :). But yes, my nonfiction books are shelved according to Dewey. And yes, it’s highly broken. And yes, I found it personally useful and illuminating — and not even in the way I expected.

  2. And I just moved to Glasgow, where the library is organized according to neither Dewey Decimal nor (go figure) Library of Congress. If you’d stopped to ask me, I’d have guessed as much — but it was disorienting.

  3. Andromeda, of course librarians know all this. They deal with the limitations of the physical world every day and are experts in helping us to hack those limitations. I didn’t mean to imply that any of this is news to librarians.

    The newsy element of the Library Journal article is the extent to which libraries are not only moving away from Dewey — although the vast majority of US public libraries still use the DDC — but are embracing more commercially-oriented classifications. It all depends on what your library’s mission is.

  4. thanks, David, for tweeting this article; I think it provided a balance of viewpoints, and I agree with you about the limitations of categorizing physical items. I think many people don’t see that distinction and assume that libraries don’t get it — why can’t it work like the tags of the internet?

    I really appreciate what you always bring forth for us to think about.

  5. […] Dave Weinberger) Posted by balexander on Sunday, October 4, 2009, at 9:54 pm. Filed under Libraries. Tagged […]

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