Thursday, August 09, 2007

Kanawha library awaits nation change to abandon Dewey Decimal

by Karen Snyder
Daily Mail Staff

A new movement could change the face of libraries across the country as they start to organize their books more like bookstores.

The move -- which certainly isn't expected to be a speedy one and is not ready to be embraced in Kanawha County -- takes on the time-honored system established by a man named Melvil Dewey.

In 1876, he set up a uniform way to classify non-fiction books in a numbered system now known as the Dewey Decimal Classification System. If you go to a library in South Charleston, you will find books organized the same way as in a library in Cleveland or Santa Fe. Religion is organized under the 200s; geography under the 900s.

But that is changing. The Maricopa County Library District in Arizona recently became one of the first libraries in the nation to abandon the Dewey system in favor of grouping books under headings by topic.

The topic is likely to come up at next year's convention of the American Library Association, where it is expected to spark debate.

Harry Courtright, director of the Maricopa County library, has said he believes most library goers don't know what the numbers mean, anyway.

Kanawha County Public Library employees are watching it all with interest.

"We're following these libraries that have made this change, and we are trying to listen and learn from them before we make a decision of our own," said Toni Blessing, the library's adult collection coordinator.

"It certainly is appealing, especially for our smaller locations," she said. "I think it would be difficult for the main library."

Blessing said the sheer number of books in the main building would make a complete re-organization nearly impossible.

The issue is complex and goes beyond the United States, she added.

"This is a really hot topic in libraries. The Dewey Decimal system is the most widely used classification system in the world. We have thousands of books on thousands of subjects, and we have to have a method to help people find them."

Proponents of abandoning Dewey say that books categorized by subject matter are much easier to navigate than those organized by the Dewey system or Library of Congress method, which is often used in academic libraries.

Blessing acknowledges the Dewey system does have its faults.

"It can be confusing and frustrating," she said. "Also, Dewey was developed a long time ago, and sometimes it doesn't allow for new subjects to be added."

In Arizona, library officials conducted surveys to see how patrons were using their facilities.
They learned patrons often come to browse rather than to find a specific title, and that the Dewey system was a hindrance to that.

Blessing agrees that accessibility is important.

"Sometimes you don't know what you want to read until it jumps off the shelf at you," she said.

"We certainly don't have plans to do away with Dewey right now, but we'll wait and see," Blessing said.

For now, the library is focusing on services. The construction of a new main library by 2010 will provide the space needed for additions that have become trends across the nation.
The first of these, Blessing said, is comfortable seating such as couches and chairs.
"We do want people to come in and feel comfortable," Blessing said.
Contact writer Karen Snyder at or 348-7939.

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