Can You Do Without Dewey?

That’s what library staff members were asking themselves as they listened to Rachel Fewell and Jesse Ransom at SCLS on January 25th. The two librarians presented their innovative conversion to a word-based classification of non-fiction materials at the Rangeview Library District in Colorado, which is now called the Anythink Library. The presentation was filmed and is available for viewing on the Gateway.

Like most library staff, I grew up with the Dewey Decimal System. In fact, when the Hauppauge Public Library staff somehow walked away from an SCLA dinner with a beta fish, we all named him (or her) Dewey without any discussion.

But now I am thinking about what Fewell said about the way children ask for books: They use words. They use words when they search and they use words when they ask for help. Expecting kids (or adults) to convert their words to the Dewey Decimal system could be thought of as one more obstacle to accessing library materials.

The presentation went into great detail about how the Rangeview Library District converted to the bookstore-like model currently in place at Anythink Library. In many ways, they were poised for success: their board of directors wanted to see big changes in the library. The community had just voted on a bond to renovate the buildings and build the collection. The branches were able to close one at a time to allow for a conversion with the least amount of service interruption. Following the presentation, there was much discussion of how a word-based system works and how a library would begin its implementation. I could never disseminate all that information here, but happily, Anythink is more than willing to share what they’ve developed and work with other libraries to create best practices. Visit, click on “Anythink Tank,” and you’ll discover useful materials such as the “BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications) to WordThink Translation Key” and the “Juvenile WordThink grid.” These spreadsheets illustrate how Anythink Library used the BISAC codes as a basis for the word-based catalog and worked in partnership with Baker & Taylor to develop what Fewell called “the experience model.” 

Perhaps the easiest innovation to put into effect at your library are the custom-made signs/bookends that guide users to sub-categories such as “Jokes and Riddles.” As a children’s librarian in the audience pointed out, libraries could use these kinds of shelf-markers even if they aren’t ready to convert to a word-based classification system. At the Austin Public Library we used visual shelf markers that included an image, the subject and call number. These were created by APL’s graphic designer and then outsourced to a manufacturer (yes, having a graphic designer on staff was awesome). As a librarian working in the youth area, I often ditched Dewey, preferring to tell children wewere heading towards Little Red Riding Hood rather than the 398.2’s.

So whether or not you are ready to do without Dewey, it’s worth it to revisit the way we’ve always done things and brainstorm ways to make library materials more accessible to young customers. And if your library is thinking of making a change of this kind, staff at SCLS would love to hear about it.

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