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October 2, 2009

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.