That’s One Radical Librarian

A public library in Gilbert, Arizona (Phoenix area) is doing something rather radical. They’ve dumped the Dewey Decimal System.

Instead the stacks are organized into “neighborhoods” based on the subject matter of the books, similar to what you would find in most bookstores.

To accompany the rearrangement of the physical books, they’ve also eliminated the card catalog, a very familiar part of a library to us old folks.

So at the 24,000-square-foot Perry Branch, there is not a hint of a card catalog. (Mr. Courtright [director of the library district] says most people do not know what the numbers mean anyway.) Visitors may instead search for books using an automated computer system, which classifies them by subject and author. Up to 50 items can be taken out, in a manner similar to self-checkout at a supermarket. And reference materials are just a click away in the computer databases.

Further, though the branch is part of a new high school, the atmosphere is not of a kind generally associated with much research. At its center are not books, or computers, or even a reference desk, but rather a cluster of pastel-colored couches and chairs.

In David Weinberger’s recent book Everything is Miscellaneous (highly recommended!), he talks at length about how Dewey’s and other classification systems for human knowledge were a reflection of the biases of their creators and those of their times.

And about how the miscellaneous nature of information in the digital age is amplifying the flaws and limitations of almost all of these schemes.

However, there could be more than just a natural progression at work here. Is there possibly a conspiracy afoot to do away with dear old Melville Dewey?

Throughout the recent annual convention of the American Library Association, in Washington, Mr. Courtright and 16 of his employees paraded around wearing and distributing eye-catching badges that bore the word “Dewey” encircled in red with a slash across the middle.

Though Mr. Courtright’s assault on Dewey was not an official topic at the convention this year – the association requires at least a year’s notice for such a designation – his intent is to have it discussed formally next year.

Does he think his approach could signal the death of Dewey in libraries across the nation?

“I think it could be,” Mr. Courtright said. “And it probably should be.”


library, dewey, classification

1 Comments That’s One Radical Librarian

  1. Matt Church

    Libraries aren’t bookstores. Libraries will be on shaky ground if they attempt to become completely like bookstores. The library community can embrace certain aspects (mainly atmosphere) of bookstores but they can’t lose their identity in pursuit of the competition. Instead, libraries need to breath new life into their buildings and into the profession. They need to capitalize on what sets them apart from bookstores by highlighting the many unique and valuable services they provide.

    I hope that the demise of the Dewey Decimal System is limited to Mr. Courtright’s library. Dewey isn’t a perfect system of classification. It has its shortcomings. But it’s served library users for generations and is vital in today’s quest to connect library users to desired content.

    See my full response at Detroit Leaning:

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