Two Days Without Dewey

The Perry Branch of the Maricopa County Library District generated tonnes of buzz recently because they're not using the traditional Dewey Decimal System, opting instead to go with a "neighbourhood" set up more in tune with a bookstore.

I spent two days working this new and innovative branch. If you got the interest in what's happening in a Deweyless branch, read on.

Full disclosure: I work for MCLD.Opening a new branch library is not a thing to be taken lightly. After all, you're unleashing something onto the community, a time bomb of knowledge paid for by the taxes of a populace. With luck, the populace welcomes you with open arms, otherwise you get to hear people whine about taxes. So when you do this thing, you better be right.

But when you do something different, something no one ever attempted, you better make damn sure you know what you're doing. For instance, if you open a public library and forgo the use of the Dewey Decimal System, your instinct better be razor keen to the will of the patrons.

As to the will of the library community at large, screw that. Librarians, as a whole, are slow to change certain things. We readily adopt new technologies, and then vigourously apply them to centuries old methods of doing things. Whoever said that the more things change the more they stay the same must have done time in a library. We utilize all of our shiny new tech to automate a antiquated system. The DDC is over 130 years old, biased, and confusing to patrons. For those who think it isn't, try getting a patron to care about it. Melvil designed the system for librarians, and the system makes some sense to librarians.

To the patrons, it's anathema.

Or at least this is what the Maricopa County Library District banks on by opening the Perry Branch Library, a combination of a public and school library wholly abandoning the use of Dewey organization. I spent sixteen hours at Perry, working side by side with the staff during their opening days. My expertise covers Polaris ILS, the Class cash management software, public library circulation, and library technologies. I manage the Circ Department at the Southeast Regional Library, also a part of the Marciopa County system. We are library people of the highest order, pushing through day after day at the District's biggest and busiest branch. Because of this, my staff and I trained many of the people now working the Perry Branch. They too are library folk, our siblings.

The last two days marked their “soft opening†with a grand opening to be held later this month. Patron tensions ran high at Southeast Regional over the last few weeks. Many live out in that developing area of Gilbert, Arizona and the Perry Branch sits closer to a great number of our patrons. So it came as no shock to me that, a few minutes before opening the Deweyless library, a small group idled outside the great glass sliding doors, peering in and waiting.

Things remained on the task list even as branch manager Jennifer Miele unlocked the doors and welcomed our first patrons. Some shelves weren't yet fully organized. While all the sections stood completed, they weren't all in alphabetical order. The 3M SmartCheck and five bin sorter were offline due to connectivity problems. We let patrons know of these small issues as they entered. Their response was incredibly casual. Word got out long ago that the District arranged this library in a decidedly non-traditional sense. It's a library for the Chandler School District in the Town of Gilbert operated by Maricopa County. They expected strangeness.

Almost all the shelves in the library are shorter than the average library shelf. You can easily see from one end of the branch to the other. Laser printed signs designated areas of interest from Fiction to Mystery to Science to Art and beyond. The only thing detracting from a true bookstore atmosphere is the lack of a coffee shop. Patrons immediately began doing what MCLD Administrators assumed they would, they browsed. They looked everything over. We assisted them by locating items when they were unsure of a location, but the overall customer attitude was that this works.

A gentleman asked me for a book on dog breeds. When I escorted him over to the section dealing in Pets, he felt embarrassed. Not so because he didn't think to look there, but because he'd missed the sign. We had exactly what he was after. Other patrons mentioned that, despite the as yet un-alphabetized sections, they had no problems finding anything. Books on Astronomy were in the Science section. Patrons located their books about drawing on the Art shelves.

In short, they understood. They knew where things were by the subject signs taped to the shelves. (Better signs are on the way.) They happily made use of the self checkouts. By day two, the self check-in purred along and handled returns. We saw teens return the second day for the computers and the manga in the Teen Room. The main complaint: get the shelves alphabetized.

They're working on it.

Since the library also services the newly constructed Perry High School, they expect an explosion in circulation come the beginning of the school year. Believe it, bucko, they'll give Southeast Regional a run for the money. As it was, for a 28,000 square foot library, an opening day circulation of over 910 wasn't bad. Not bad at all especially when you consider that it was a soft opening without too much hoopla.

Patron response is positive and the staff is upbeat and ready to rock. As it stands, this will work.


Thanks so much for the report, GWD. I hope they have continued success. I think it's great!

Other than a lot of hype you gave two examples of people finding a generic book on a general topic. You can whine about 'antiquated systems' and if thats the only kind of reference you have then you can get away with that. But since this is in fact a public/school library I sincerely hope that you are "library people of the highest order" (whatever that means) cause you're going to have to be damn near clairvoyant to do serious research in an alphabetized collection.

We embraced automation years before other industries. We embraced data standards years before other industries. We just have the foresight to not throw out a classification system because we are in love with hanging out at Borders. Borders makes a great bookstore but a crappy library. I'd like to see a survey of patrons and staff in about six months.

One brief comment -- seems to me that the feasibility of a move like this depends in part on the size of the library in question: The bigger the library, the less likely the bookstore model is to work.

I'm not going to take the time to defend my story. The fact that Greg disagrees with me is par for the course and I'd be surprised if he ever agreed with me.

However, I do have to back up this comment:

We embraced automation years before other industries. We embraced data standards years before other industries.

You're right. We did. And we still do. And yet we cling to the DDC, a system that's over 100 years old. We still use MARC, a system that's around 40 years old. And I believe that both of these systems still work... for librarians. And that'd be great... if we served only librarians.

But we don't or at least I don't. I work for the public. The public doesn't really understand DDC. They might know something about it, but 99% of them really don't get it. On a frequent basis, I get asked why religion is shelved under 200 and not under, say, religion. They don't get it. They don't understand Dewey. We do, sure, and we're here to help. But sometimes, they don't want that. They're searching for something personal (herpes information for instance) and don't really want to broadcast what they're after to anyone for any reason.

They don't understand DDC and they sure as hell don't get MARC.

Our technologies have evolved, sure. But we merely apply them to the automation of the same system we've used for over a century. And the fact is, it really is easier to find something in a bookstore. It's in the store's best interest to do that. They can't sell a book if people can't find it. Libraries, on the other hand, seem to go out of their way to make things hard to find, especially for those patrons who don't visit all the time.

Why don't they visit? Because it's intimidating, things are hard to find, and many don't want to ask.

Hey, I'm fully behind laying out libraries like a bookstore if it helps patrons make better use of it but throwing out standard tools that help librarians be librarians *for no apparent reason* is dumb. This is not an either/or situation.

It is not easier to find something in a bookstore. Online or in a physical store. If you believe that then you spend your life only finding items on display tables. The only argument you have made is better signage and marketing. The age of Dewey is irrelevant. The comment about the public doesn't know MARC is also irrelevant. Are you saying they can't search a catalog because they don't know how to format a search request in MARC? That's ignorant deadend reasoning which you know is false. By all means label in common terms and use signage to aid people. I will never see the logic of abandoning a system of organization for chaos?


Hi, one of the public libraries I worked at in 1999 brought in the "Living Room" system which organised section of the libraries in related areas (in little alcoves, therefore "living rooms") such as "Countries," "Art" "Music" "People" etc, but within these broad sections the books were still shelved by Dewey - the idea being that people can locate an area of interest and possibly find good resources simply by browsing but anyone using the catalogue will still have a useful finding aid eg:

Counties: 993.01 NEW

It was slightly disconbobulating for patrons at the time but is still going strong 8 years later so draw your own conclusions - there are plenty of other fore-runners too. I can't imagine going without classification altogether until every book has been chipped and every patron giving an RFID scanner but we'll see... :)

Regards, Glen ([email protected])

Working in nonprofits is great isn't it?!

Tomorrow we could throw away all the books and people would still come in and as long as we spend all our money at the end of the year while presenting a friendly face to the few people who use us, we will be a successful nonprofit!


I don't really care. I'm glad Harry didn't try this out on my branch when I was there, the first few weeks must be a mess to get used to.

I think the big thing that needs to be considered here is not only what the patrons are comfortable with, but also the size and space considerations of the library involved. It's nice that you were building from scratch (it sounds like?) and could afford the layout you wanted with all low shelves and big, clear signage. That's not really realistic for a good number of libraries.

The number of items involved should also be considered. Do you realize how long it sometimes takes staff in bookstores to help me find books I'm looking for? There's a reason my library uses Dewey for most items--so we can find them in a reasonable amount of time when we walk to the shelves. We're a large library. I don't think the patron really wants to look through the 222 different book titles we have on small businesses to find the one they had in mind. I know I don't want to.

There's nothing wrong with using Dewey and combining it with good signage and marketing I'm a little dismayed to see it pooh poohed simply because it's 100 years old. There's a reason it's survived 100 years-it's useful, and most members of the public can understand where a basic number comes, even if they don't know what the numbers mean.

Certainly, it's not the answer for all collections, and I wouldn't want people to refrain from trying new things. (We shelve our children's picture books in colored tape clumps and then by the first three letters of the author's last name. That's the closest to "order" they will ever get, and it generally works out pretty well.) I'm glad you like your new system, and I hope you find it keeps working as well as it has at first for you. All the same, with the number of times people are in a hurry when trying to find books and the size and layout restrictions of my library, I think we'll stick with Dewey for a bit.

Our library uses the Library of Congress system for most of our holdings and the older books do still go by the Dewey system. We also have a government document classification system for the government documents. I am wondering what the ratio is for libraries who use multiple systems, dewey only, LOC, etc. We are a university library so I do not believe we will ever switch to the Barnes and Noble way off arrangement. But truly, the B and N system cannot be a truly 'revolutionary' way of arrangement. It's just another system to learn.

I agree - let the county try whatever *new* technology they want it is still an awful place to work. If they want to get accolades and or respect from the library communtiy they ought to consider treating their employees a little better.

Just a library patron here, not a library professional of any kind. Our family does homeschool, though, (NOT religion-based) and in addition to having a card for our 5 county regional library system we pay $50 yearly for a card to a local municipal library that isn't a participant. This "kickin' it book store style" sounds awful and I'd drive to a different town to avoid it.

I also find it pretty grim that the rationale seems to be that people are too stupid to use libraries as they currently function.