Another Library Ditches Dewey

The Frankfort Public Library in Illinois is yet another library, in the growing list of libraries, choosing to break free of the Dewey Decimal Classification System.In an interview with Melissa Rice, head of adult services and reference librarian Joanna Kolendo the Southtown Star reports:

“People spend 10 or 15 minutes in the library. They are frustrated if they have to go to a card catalog and get the number. They are embarrassed to ask for help. This Dewey-free system takes out the middle man,” Kolendo said.

“I love coding. I read Dewey’s biography,” she said. “As librarians, we have a hard time changing things. But it’s not about me. It’s about the patrons.”

When Frankfort’s patrons walk into their library, they can look for colored signs directing them to books on gardening, cooking, auto repair, health and fitness, travel, computers or whatever.

Cooking and gardening collections already have been retrofitted and broken down into subcategories, all clearly marked and alphabetized on the shelves. Within each subcategory, books are further alphabetized by author.

So if a patron wants Rachael Ray’s “Thirty Minute Meals,” they find “cooking,” “quick and easy,” and find Ray’s name, instead of looking up the 641.555 RAY. (Ironically, this places “cooking” and “heart attacks” in the same 600 category, according to Dewey’s system.) If this is confusing, think: bookstore.

The gardening category now combines botany from the 500s, gardening from the 635s and landscaping from 717s.

This dynamic duo pores over one collection at a time and decides what to name each new category and subcategory based on what patrons are asking for and using words they can identify with.[Emphasis added]

First, the question must be asked, where are the cataloguers? Were they consulted? Are they in favour of this? Was there expertise utilized in any way?

According to this article, the head librarian and reference librarian have taken it upon themselves to classify the materials and assign random categories to items, with no authority control or uniformity. Are they taking these categories from the subjects assigned in the MARC records? Or, are they just making it up, “for the good of the public”. The MARC records provide detailed information regarding subject information and the Dewey number provides librarians and patrons with the subject most closely related to the item. 

Now, I’m going to get a little stereotypical here. Isn’t it always the “front-line” staff and librarians who believe they have a greater understanding of classification and the library catalogue than cataloguers? Most of these librarians, and I remember them from library school, stayed far, far away from cataloguing and classification courses. Yet, somehow, they assume the responsibility and expertise of knowing more about how information should be classified and structured than cataloguing librarians.

What Frankfort Public Library has now created is a changeable, non-uniform classification system that has no standards or guidelines.

Regarding the use of Dewey as a system whose only function is to provide classification numbers, I urge you to read Moving Beyond the Presentation Layer: Content and Context in the Dewey Decimal Classification System.








Filed under Access Issues, future of cataloguing

2 responses to “Another Library Ditches Dewey

  1. Irvin Flack

    I used to think classification was easy too, before I became a cataloguer. 🙂 In the long term I think these attempts work in DDC’s favour: there’s nothing like developing your own classification system to make you appreciate Dewey.

    But stories like this do reinforce the widespread and pernicious idea that DDC = the DDC notation. Dewey was a victim of his success in that: the notation was so innovative it became the classification in people’s minds. If he is spinning in his grave it will be from having his systems so grossly misrepresented. As if Dewey doesn’t also ‘categorize nonfiction books by topic’.

    Presumably this library will also have to come up with their own notation as well: ‘Cooking-Quick and Easy-Ray’. And document it … and maintain it … and train new staff in it. Basically, re-invent the classification wheel. Also, when I think bookstore, I think having to walk around the shelves frustrated for 15 minutes before giving up and asking the staff if they have the book or not.

  2. Laurel Tarulli


    This movement toward the bookstore model has always puzzled me. A bookstore’s only purpose is to sell books. The reason it’s so hard to find anything is that they want the consumer to wander, finding other items of interest to buy. Certainly, that theory will initially attract libraries – wow, finding more items to borrow through discovery. However, have you ever picked up a book in the bookstore, carried it around and then decided not to buy it? It’s a nightmare trying to remember where it was originally located on the shelves.

    I think the issue that really struck me with respect to Frankfort Public Library is the idea of categorizing based on what the public has been asking for and in their words. As we cataloguers are well aware, a book on any given topic means different things to different people. Our existing classification systems and authorities provide direction as to where topics should be located, access points and description.

    You’re absolutely correct when you say that Frankfort will have to “re-invent the classification wheel”.

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