Wednesday, July 18, 2007

NYT Notices That Dewey's Gone

Jeff Topping for The New York Times

The Perry Branch Library in Gilbert, Ariz., is one of the country’s first to drop the Dewey Decimal System in favor of one familiar at big bookstores, where titles are shelved in subject-specific “neighborhoods.”

Published: July 14, 2007

GILBERT, Ariz. — Trying to build popularity, many public libraries across the country have been looking more like big chain bookstores, offering comfortable easy chairs, coffee bars and displays of the latest best sellers.

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Jeff Topping for The New York Times

But the new library in this growing Phoenix suburb has gone a step further. It is one of the first in the nation to have abandoned the Dewey Decimal System of classifying books, in favor of an approach similar to that at Barnes & Noble, say, where books are shelved in “neighborhoods” based on subject matter.

It was Harry Courtright, director of the 15-branch Maricopa County Library District, who came up with the idea of a Dewey-less library. The plan took root two years ago after annual surveys of the district’s constituency found that most people came to browse, without a specific title in mind.

“The younger generation today is wired differently than people in my generation,” said Mr. Courtright, 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.”

So at the 24,000-square-foot Perry Branch, there is not a hint of a card catalog. (Mr. Courtright says most people do not know what the numbers mean anyway.) Visitors may instead search for books using an automated computer system, which classifies them by subject and author. Up to 50 items can be taken out, in a manner similar to self-checkout at a supermarket. And reference materials are just a click away in the computer databases.

Further, though the branch is part of a new high school, the atmosphere is not of a kind generally associated with much research. At its center are not books, or computers, or even a reference desk, but rather a cluster of pastel-colored couches and chairs. And while even chain bookstores still put out classics like “Jane Eyre,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Moby Dick” for summer display, at Perry such books have taken a back seat to Paris Hilton’s “Confessions of an Heiress,” a children’s book by the New York Yankee catcher Jorge Posada and Chris Gardner’s “Pursuit of Happyness.”

Many users of Perry, a 30,000-item branch surrounded by new subdivisions and by farmland ready for development in an area the Census Bureau calls the nation’s fastest-growing, seem very attracted to the new style.

But the attraction is hardly universal. On Web sites where librarians frequently post, the abandonment of Dewey has not been welcome. One blogger titled her entry “Heresy!” Another called the Perry Branch’s approach “idiotic.”

The Dewey Decimal System, invented in 1876 by Melvil Dewey, sought to categorize books by organizing all knowledge into 10 broad classes, with each class further broken down into 10 divisions and each division into 10 sections. For finding a specific title there is nothing like it, its supporters say, particularly since it is used all over the world. Though many college libraries use the Library of Congress system, for more than a century Dewey has been a mainstay in American public libraries, about 95 percent of which continue to rely on it.

The system does have its flaws, though, being limited in what it can do with subjects like cooking and travel, for instance, both of which happen to be popular at bookstores.

Further, noted 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, for example, and not enough on Eastern religions and on history outside of the American experience.

But Joan S. Mitchell, editor in chief of the Dewey Decimal Classification, the cooperative that administers the system, pointed out that Dewey had been revised 22 times to address such biases, most recently in 2004.

Ms. Mitchell also said she could not recall an earlier instance of an American public library’s totally abandoning Dewey or the Library of Congress system since she became editor of Dewey in 1993. Of Mr. Courtright, she said gently: “Perhaps he knows his library’s clientele and he’s meeting their needs. Libraries are always experimenting to meet the needs of its patrons.”

Her assessment, though, understates his goals. Throughout the recent annual convention of the American Library Association, in Washington, Mr. Courtright and 16 of his employees paraded around wearing and distributing eye-catching badges that bore the word “Dewey” encircled in red with a slash across the middle.

Though Mr. Courtright’s assault on Dewey was not an official topic at the convention this year — the association requires at least a year’s notice for such a designation — his intent is to have it discussed formally next year.

Does he think his approach could signal the death of Dewey in libraries across the nation?

“I think it could be,” Mr. Courtright said. “And it probably should be.”

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