A Librarian’s Dilemma: Three Articles in Consideration of DDC and its Utility in Public Libraries

by Bruce A. Sullivan

Part I: Summary

The current debate over the continued utility of the Dewey Decimal System in public libraries seems to hinge on one assertion, as articulated by Michael Casey: “Dewey, no matter how good for librarians needing to locate a book fast, is simply not suited to a popular collection intended more for browsing than research” (Casey 19). Resultantly, a number of small public libraries, notably Maricopa County Library District in Arizona, Rangeview Library District in Colorado, and Frankfort Public Library in Illinois, have adapted standards designed by booksellers (indeed, for booksellers) to their collections. These BISAC standards allegedly facilitate browsing, giving the library patron a more user-centered, as opposed to professional-centered, experience.

Hence, library professionals face what Barbara Fister, writing for Library Journal, has called, “The Dewey Dilemma.” On one hand, librarians wish “to retain Dewey’s precision and its ability to identify a specific shelf location” (25). On the other hand, “Many librarians feel BISAC’s relative simplicity and user-friendly language have an advantage over Dewey’s complexity” (22). Library users, regardless of their purposes for visiting the library, want to feel empowered; Fister’s article indicates both that many librarians feel Dewey could be improved with category signage and catalog metadata, and also that many patrons (over 50 percent) feel that call numbers are too complicated to use (see 24, “Chart 1” and “Table 1,” respectively). Solutions to the dilemma seldom involve dropping Dewey altogether. Darien Library’s Kate Sheehan states, “We wanted to retain the findability of Dewey while encouraging and enabling browsing. We clumped similar areas of Dewey together in eight broad categories, which we call glades” (qtd. in Fister 24). Other libraries have taken a variety of approaches, but still “Dewey is currently the most widely used classification system in the world, employed in 138 countries by over 200,000 libraries” (25).

In “Another Opinion: The Joys of Deweying,” librarian Bob Hassett is forthright in his opinion of the abandonment of Dewey: “It is reckless and irresponsible, amounting to dereliction or our core mission, a rank disservice to library users” (47). Writing for Library Media Connection in 2007, Hassett refers to the bookstore model as “a small number of vague categories” demonstrating “the absence of any reliable formal system for organization” (47). While Hassett acknowledges a number of arguments against using Dewey, he stresses its ongoing, widespread utility, writing, “In the end, the point of classification is findability, providing as many access points as possible for users. Experience tells me that even the best bookstores do not serve this end with near the efficiency of even the worst libraries” (47).

By March 2008, librarians of the Frankfort Public Library district had decided to “Free Dewey.” Two years later, writing in “Transition & Reflection: Frankfort Public Library District’s Decision to Go Dewey Free” from ILA Reporter, librarians Melissa Rice and Joanna Kolendo detail their experiences with the project and reflect on its aftermath. They write, “The most exciting aspect about going Dewey Free was the freedom to redesign collection layouts. No longer restricted to a numerical order, we moved popular collections closer to the front of the library and combined similar collections” (14). Highly circulating collections were moved near the entrance and check-out desk. As with many other libraries engaged in such a change, Frankfort developed its own taxonomy based on Dewey categories, the BISAC standards, and various alternatives. In conclusion, the librarians reflect on the benefits they have seen, including positive feedback from patrons, but admit they don’t know how well their Dewey Free classification system will work. Nevertheless, they insist that “decoding the system provides all patrons, regardless of educational, social, or cultural background, equal footing as they walk through the collections” (14).

Part II: Assessment

The Dewey controversy is of major concern for many public libraries. However, as noted by Library Journal’s Francine Fialkoff in an editorial response to “The Dewey Dilemma,” “Simplifying Dewey isn’t so revolutionary” (8). Indeed, if we claim that a core competency of librarianship is the ability to conduct bibliographic instruction (Core Competency 5D), then simplifying or discarding Dewey for the use of patrons is not the answer; rather, empowering patrons through education of Dewey classification (as part of the reference interview, for instance) more effectively meets that role of librarianship.

As most of the authors I read have noted, there are a variety of things bookstores have borrowed from libraries and vice-versa – comfortable seating, discussion groups, and so forth (Fialkoff 8). We should remember, though, that public libraries in particular are not in the sales business, even when circulation statistics are so heavily prized. Specifically, I recall the words of Rangeview Library’s director Pam Sandlian Smith from “The Dewey Dilemma:” “Customers often comment that when they visit bookstores, they can find things easily and would like that ease of use in libraries” (qtd. in Fister 23). This statement is unsurprising. Bookstores, along with the public relations and marketing firms that guide their corporate philosophies, have invested heavily in selling an experience to customers. That experience includes the notion that the customer has found exactly what was wanted or needed: a manufactured need. Whether or not the item the customer takes home is what the customer wanted or needed in the first place – if, in fact, the customer wanted or needed anything in the first place – is irrelevant, because bookstores are designed to make the customer take something home (after paying for it, of course). In Wayne Wiegand’s words, “In general, bookstores do a better job of identifying newer titles relevant to their customers’ interests, but that doesn’t mean they understand those interests. They are mostly responding to a market demand” (qtd. in Fister 23). Circulation is a vital part of any good library system, but it is still one part only. There is no ostensible reason to cast a library’s organization of information to the wayside in order to drive circulation statistics. Tom Eland laments this fact when he states, “Too bad for the people who are trying to do real research, or who want to explore a specific domain of knowledge by going to the shelves and browsing by classification area” (qtd. in Fister 23).

The question of true, serendipitous findability remains, even for librarians, perhaps especially for librarians. A masterful librarian likely needs years to know most information packages in even a modestly sized collection. No classification system is perfect (Fister 23), and the ones we have were developed to solve the cataloguing problems of the day. Dewey is old and its problems are not necessarily overstated. The numbers themselves do not have any readily apparent meaning – there is no reason why, for instance, 921 must be “biography” any more than 610, which actually looks like “bio.”

We may remember that Melvil Dewey was a pioneer, and many industries have long ago turned to innovation to build on a pioneering foundation. Still, it is unclear to me how the oft-proposed BISAC standards or some mash-up of them and DDC is superior to true, systematic organization, even for browsing. Dewey is as flexible and any other system, and this flexibility allows librarians to catalog items based on common convention or local needs (Hassett 47). Additionally, there are many things libraries could do to make their collections more accessible from the moment the patron enters the building. Increased signage is often mentioned as helpful, and admittedly whenever I enter an unfamiliar bookstore or a library, the first thing I look for is signage. Entry to a bookstore usually disorients me with items for sale everywhere; in a library, all I need is to see is where the catalog is and where the Dewey numbers begin. Some would argue that learning how to use those things is too much to ask. I disagree. The power of those tools far outweighs any perceived convenience derived from being able to see popular books upon entry to the library.

From a professional point of view, a Dewey call number for a book is extremely helpful to me if a patron is looking for a book that my library doesn’t carry, but another library in the consortium does (and of course, subject headings work this way for me, too). I can use that other library’s call number to find something appropriate on the shelf at my library. If a situation were to arise when the only library that had a particular book on a topic had that book labeled with a category, and not a Dewey number, it would be more difficult for me, for a patron, or for whomever to find an equivalent or nearly equivalent title on the shelves at hand. This is probably the biggest practical problem I see with ditching Dewey, particularly for consortial libraries that are nearby to each other, that work together, and which rely on copy cataloguing and a shared catalog.

What is the solution to this dilemma? There is no silver bullet. It is unreasonable to say that DDC is all that public libraries can and should ever use, particularly since electronic resources now present so many varied challenges. Robust catalogs which allow for extensible metadata entry by professionals or others can often mediate problems with any cataloguing scheme. It would be the same for Dewey as for BISAC. No matter where the book goes on the shelf, if there are not reliable and various means to point people in the direction of what they would like to find, then the organization of information has failed.

Works Cited

Casey, Michael, and Michael Stephens. “It’s Fine To Drop Dewey.” The Transparent Library. Library Journal 134.12 (2009): 19. Library and Information Science FT. Web. 23 November 2009.

Fialkoff, Francine. “It’s Not About Dewey.” Editorial. Library Journal 134.18 (2009): 8. Library and Information Science FT. Web. 23 November 2009.

Fister, Barbara. “The Dewey Dilemma.” Library Journal 134.16 (2009): 22-25. Library and Information Science FT. Web. 23 November 2009.

Hassett, Bob. “The Joys of Deweying.” Another Opinion. Library Media Connection 26.3 (2007): 47. Library and Information Science FT. Web. 23 November 2009.

Rice, Melissa, and Joanna Kolendo. “Transition and Reflection: Frankfort Public Library District’s Decision to Go Dewey Free.” ILA Reporter 27.3 (2009): 12-15. Library and Information Science FT. Web. 23 November 2009.



Simple put up signs over sections of books in the library and you have enabled browsing no matter what system you use. This debate is really stupid.

I agree. It's a studid debate. It's as if librarians need the Dewey to be confusing to patrons so that they'll actually come and ask questions and also make the librarians feel smart.

Keeping the Dewey as it is (without signage) is anti-library growth. You Dewey dinosaurs need to retire. Or stay and adapt with the times. The younger generation of librarians will make signs in publisher and post them to the shelves and end this debate once and for all.

If you let us....

I liked your essay anonymous. I can't believe how rigid libraries are....

In the town I used to live in, the public library used Dewey--with signs at the end of each range indicating the subjects (in words).

In the town I live in now, the public library uses Dewey--with signs at the end of each range indicating the subjects (in words).

I visited another library recently. Guess what? Dewey--with signs at the end of each range indicating the subjects (in words).

Always nice to tell a bunch of people they should retire, but I do wonder where all these "we aren't going to put up signs, PEOPLE SHOULD MEMORIZE DEWEY!" librarians are? For some reason, they're not at the libraries I've used.

Stop the ageism. We dinosaur librarians have eagerly adapted!

so they create all these new classification systems based on popularity... "let's put the popular books up front!" babe, if they were that popular, they'd already be checked out..
they just trade one arbitrary (Dewey) system for another (Ricey and Kolendoey)..

the other day I went to the auto parts store to buy an air filter. I had to look in the big air and oil filter identification book to find my car. when I found the make and model, I chose a filter model number from one or two different brands. then I scanned the boxes on the shelves, arranged by manufacturer and model number until I found the part I needed. it's a numbered system very much like Dewey. the Fram and Purolator filters had one or even two decimal classifications which were sorted in an unfamiliar way. but the number ordering informed me and *empowered* me, and guess what? I found the proper filter without any help. and I'm sure thousands of people find their auto parts every day, too. but maybe, Chuck and Billy Joe and Raul and Mac, and all the guys who shop for auto parts are smarter than library patrons?

There is no reason that parts of the collection cannot be merchandised using BISAC which is the Book Industry classification. The problem with BISAC is that it is not granular, it is only subject headings based on popular categories. This will not work in academic settings or with libraries with lots of special collection.

BISAC is good for browsing, but not necessarily to find a specific title. It is easy to add subject headings and create special collections with BISAC and still keep dewey. This is what Queens Library and others do.

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.