I've been thinking about Melville Dewey a lot lately... strange you think? Well, I think it is rather strange too.
Melville was the originator of the Dewey Decmial System. He was actually a very interesting guy. Born in upstate New York in 1851, he was a graduate of Amherst College here in Massachusetts. After he graduated from Amherst, the college hired him to reorganize the college library, and he developed a scheme of using decimal numbers to arrange books in groups according to subjects and relationships. Later he became the librarian at Columbia University andf ounded the world's first Library School there in 1887. He founded a company that sold library supplies, and he co-founced Library Journal, still the magazine that I, like hundreds of thousands of librarians everywhere, look forward to getting in my mailbox every couple of weeks. Dewey eventually became the State Librarian of New York, helped found the American Library Association, and served as its President twice. Aside from all these activities that helped give him the moniker "Father of Modern Library Science," Dewey also was an enthusiastic proponent of spelling reform (going so far as to spell his own name as "Dui"). He was also one of the primary supporters of the early Winter Olympics and arranged the first US Winter Games in Lake Placid, NY. He ran a resort in Lake Placid and also founded the community of Lake Placid, FL.
"My Hero," I always thought. Several years ago my husband and I even stayed in a bed-and-breakfast in Lake Placid that had once been Dewey's home. Not surprisingly we met lots of librarians around the breakfast table that week. Dewey did have a darker side...rumors of womanizing, and accusations of anti-Semitism at his Lake Placid resort have tarnished my glowing image of this library superstar.
But the Dewey Decimal System remains... or does it? There is a growing movement in American libraries to modify or even discard the Dewey Decimal System. Some libraries are adopting the system used in bookstores for classifcation. This system, known as "BISAC" (Book Industry Standards & Communications) organizes by subjects; it is the system that you find in almost all bookstores. There are no numbers, no decimal points, just general and familiar words to describe subject areazx... "Self-Help," "Parenting," "American Hitory." Fifty-two subject names in all, with numerous sub-headins, create areas that are easier to browse and find books casually. Libraries that have ditched Dewey are reporting that library users LOVE IT! Users in non-Dewey libraries reportedly feel that the library is reading out to them and adapting to new patterns of library use. With as many as 75% of users going to their local libraries to browse rather than find a specific book, many librarians feel that using familiar words to guide patrons to areas of interest is more helpful and user-friendly than the number-based Dewey. On the other hand, I hate trying to find a specific title in a bookstore. I yearn for a good Dewey number when I am shopping for a birthday gift for my non-fiction reading family members who always give me a list of specific titles they want. As a librarian from Connecticut, where the Darien Public Library has become a model of collection reorganization has said, "Dewey is great for grab-and-goers." But of course, Dewey is not so good for people who want to browse, who like to surprise themselves by finding new books serendipitously.
As a compromise, some libraries have come up with a hybrid method of organizing their materials. With better signage, they are creating "neighborhoods" for books and materials, with all materials on a general subject in one area, and then arranged by Dewey number within that area. For example, in Dewey, foreign languages are in the 800s, but history and travel are in the 900s, and books on foreign relations and politics are in the 300s. A "neighborhood" might be called "Places" and contain books on languages, travel, histories of different countries together, along with travel DVDDs, language-learning software and traditional music CDs.
I have to admit this is a scary prospect for a librarian. Melville Dewey, with all of his faults, is a comfortable, familiar old friend. Those of us that work here are the ones with the most need to "grab-and-go" with those library books. We have daily "pick-lists" of books that need to be shipped to patrons in other libraries. We are finding a specific title on the shelf for a patron who is standing at the desk, or waiting on the telephone. We understand Dewey and ove all those strings of numbers behind the decimal point that mean something to us. The prospect of having to move thousands of books, choosing subject names that will be most meaningful, evaluating and touching every non-fiction item in our collection and going into the computer to change all those location codes is daunting. One library estimated that it took a thousand hours of staff time to make the change. A library administrator has to be pretty sure that the new system is going to provide a substantial benefit to patrons before she tooks on a project of that scale.
Can you see why I am thinking about Melville Dewey these days? It is because here at the Nevins Library we are talking about all of these new ideas about rearranging libraries. It is because we want you, as the library user, to get the best possibe experience when you come here. it is because we want you to enjoy visiting the Nevins Library, to take out lots of books and other materials, and to experience the sense that the library is here for you and your pleasure and convenience. We want to make sure we keep up with the latest trends in libraries, but we don't wish to fall prey to fads that will waste our time or money that are in short supply.
So, as always, feel free to talk to us about what you think about our services. Tell us if you find it difficult to locate things you are looking for here in our library. Help us understand how you select your library books, and whether or not you find a bookstore model appealing. We'll be listening, talking with you, and continuing to think about Melville Dewey. Who knows, maybe Melville would approve of rejuvenating our libraries through innnovation and change... he was that kind of guy