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Will 21st Century Libraries Use the Dewey Decimal System?

Some branches are transitioning away from the time-tested classification system.

Is the Dewey Decimal system dying out in public libraries?

The Dewey Decimal Classification system has been used in U.S. libraries since the 1870s when Melvil Dewey developed it and put his name on it. But there is a movement afoot in library branches across the country to move away from the longtime industry standard that many learned as elementary school students.

The Dewey Decimal system groups books into 10 categories numbered 000 through 900, then divides even further within each subject to reach higher levels of specificity. Dewey, currently on its 23rd edition, classifies to an astounding level of depth: 27,000 categories in all.

Some public libraries, however, feel it’s time for a change.

The main complaint leveled against the system is that its focus on numbers is impersonal and unengaging. In short, the Dewey Decimal does not get people excited to read.

Rangeview Library District in Adams County, Colo., was the first library system to move away from Dewey in favor of its WordThink system, which was inspired by the Book Industry Standards and Communications subject headings and categories. Others noticed what Rangeview had done and put their own twist on it.

The Rakow Branch library in Elgin, Ill., tried making the layout of its library more user-friendly by emulating the way that bookstores group books, according to a report from the Chicago Tribune. Books in the Rakow library are categorized by subject as opposed to number, designated by signs and displayed by their cover.

But, Rakow has not totally abandoned Dewey. Its shelving system groups books by category like a bookstore but files books within each category according to the Dewey numbers on their spine.

This “mash-up” organization style inspired the Pauline Haass Library in Sussex, Wis., to do something similar, according to a report from the SussexPatch. Operators at Haass felt that a bookstore layout was better for browsing and got customers excited about reading, but Dewey made searching for specific books much easier, so they kept elements of both systems.

Dewey is still by far the most used book organization system in the world. More than 200,000 libraries in 135 countries currently use the system, according to estimates reported by the Chicago Tribune. Organizations like the Online Computer Library Center help libraries around the globe start using the Dewey Decimal system in its print, digital or abridged varieties.

These local-level efforts to transition from Dewey to a bookstore shelving style are not occurring on a large scale, but they do represent a significant trend.

So far, those putting Dewey out to pasture are suburban libraries with manageable numbers of items. For now the Dewey Decimal system is safe, but who knows its fate 10 years from now.

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Mar 14 2013

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