+ Do Away With Dewey (The Decimal System)?

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Harry Courtright, director of the 15-branch Maricopa County Library system in Arizona, has come up with the idea of a “Deweyless” library.   A NY Times article reports that  he and sixteen employees paraded the floors at the recent annual convention of the American Library Association in Washington, wearing and distributing eye-catching badges that bore the word “Dewey” encircled in red with a slash across the middle.

At the 24,000 square-foot Perry branch, administered by Mr Courtwright, there is no hint of a card catalog.  (He says most people don’t know what the numbers mean anyway.)  Visitors search for books using an automated computer system, which classifies them by subject and author.  Up to 50 items can be taken out using a self-checkout arrangement similar to those found in supermarkets.

Pastel colored couches and easy chairs are arranged in groupings, with small  tables  scattered about.  Books are shelved in “neighborhoods”, just as they are at Barnes and Noble or Borders.  (Some libraries even offer coffee bars.) 

And while classics, like “Jane Eyre”, “Moby Dick” or “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” are still displayed prominently in bookstores, here they take a back seat to Paris Hilton’s “Confessions of an Heiress”,  a chidren’s book by NY Yankee catcher Jorge Posada, and Chris Gardner’s “Pursuit of Happyness”. 

“The younger generation today is wired differently than people in my generation,” says Mr Courtright, who is 69.  “What that tells me is we as librarians have to look at how we present materials that we have for them the way they want it.” 

The Dewey Decimal System, invented in 1876 by Melvil Dewey, sought to categorize books by organizing all knowledge into ten broad classes, with each class further broken down into ten divisions and each division into ten sections.  Supporters of this method, which has been used all over the world since its inception, say there is nothing like it for finding a specific title.

Although many college libraries use the Library of Congress system, Dewey has been a mainstay in American public libraries , and 95 percent of them continue to rely on it.

The system does have its flaws, though: it is limited in what it can do with subjects like cooking and travel, categories which are particularly popular in bookstores.  In addition, says Barbara Kwasnik, a professor at the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University, Dewey had a strong classification bias when it was created: there was an emphasis on topics like Christianity and American History, and little interest in Eastern religions or history outside the American experience.

But Joan S Mitchell, the editor in chief of the Dewey Decimal Classification, a cooperative that administers the system, points out that Dewey has been revised 22 times to address such biases, most recently in 2004.  Ms Mitchell became the editor in 1993, and says she cannot remember an instance, before Courtwright’s defection, of an American library’s totally abandoning Dewey or the Library of Congress system.

She said gently of Mr Courtwright, “Perhaps he knows his library’s clientele and he’s meeting their needs.  Libraries are always experimenting to meet the needs of patrons.”

But those badges at the ALA convention suggest that Mr Courtright has something very serious in mind. 

sole source: article in the NY Times on 7/14/07 by Sarah N Lynch and Eugene Mulero

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