Wait! Let’s rethink the whole new classification system thing.

I’ve been harping on…um, examining, DDC and the use of Dewey in our public libraries quite a bit lately.

In my last Dewey post, I discussed the possibility of creating a type of classification ‘mash-up” which explored the idea of combining categories or genres into our DDC call numbers. This can be accomplished through a variety of procedures, from stickering and adding a note in the record, to an extension of the call number itself (prefixes/suffixes).

There’s a wealth of information and literature floating around that sing the praises of removing DDC from public libraries, of implementing new classification systems and, to some extent, even creating new, in-house classification systems. This literature is focussed primarily on public libraries using DDC. We don’t often read about libraries throwing out LC classification or Sears (maybe it’s out there and I just haven’t seen it?). In fact, it isn’t often we read about users of LC or Sears having difficulty understanding the classification numbers, which is the opposite of DDC, where its classification system (based on numbers!) seems to cause no end of trouble for staff and patrons.

When I hear about libraries opting for categories and then shelving alphabetically with no assistance or foundation from a developed and standard classification system, I cringe. I’ve walked into my own library to pick up my holds, which are shelved by last name, and have found the items sprinkled throughout the shelf, not grouped together and certainly not in alphabetical order. Holds are only a small, small collection of items, imagine the problem on a wider scale!

But, more importantly, if we get rid of DDC from our collections, we are ignoring the growing and very real situation of virtual browsing and access to our collections. From my own experience, and from what I’ve heard from other professionals, patrons and staff like to browse by call number. In fact, when we first implemented AquaBrowser, that was one of the first patron complaints – that a sort and browse by call number function was missing.

In our new libraries, shelving space is limited, allowing more room for the “social” aspects of our physical spaces. As a result, it is only the new or popular items that are housed within the physical walls and on display, where the remainder of the collection is placed in storage. In storage, we can either shelve by call number where the purpose for retrieving an item is most often based on known item searches of an identified item (usually one with a hold on it) or, with a browsing system that does not identify the exact location, but will let staff browse the storage area by category until they find an item. The latter doesn’t sound efficient or desirable. This is an issue that many librarians and managers are not considering when they build new branches which include smaller collections and fewer shelves. By combining DDC with a more “browseable” system, items in storage can be found, too. Eliminating DDC will make retrieval difficult and time-consuming.

Finally, there are the advancements in technology that should not be ignored. Shelf Browse, launched this past year, indicates a shift in how we are enabling our users to browse our shelves – browsing virtually. Shelf Browse works by sorting and displaying through code created to read and sort information based on call numbers. Eliminating DDC and opting for word based classification systems may result in lost opportunities for libraries looking to promote their collection virtually through computers and mobile devices.

A serious question we need to consider is: Do new classification systems work or can higher circulation be the product of a new (or newly renovated) library and better signage? I don’t know because I haven’t seen any research critically examining this in public libraries (and adjusting or taking into account the “new library” factor).

Libraries get caught up in the ideas and excitement of copying Amazon, our bookstores and Blockbuster. Of course it’s exciting – especially if it’s working. But, our customers are also more diverse than the target environments in which these for-profit markets operate. And, what they do well and what public libraries often ignore, is research. There are several areas of research and examination that need to be addressed with implementing new classification practicies:

1. Return on investment. What is the success rate of DDC versus the time and expense involved in creating and applying an entirely new classification system.

2. Proper study and research examining the results of the new classification system. (How is the success being measured? Have external but significant factors [such as a new branch, increased patron attendance due to a new branch and increased signage] been removed or considered in their feedback/surveys?)

While the ongoing discussions over whether we should continue to use DDC will continue for the forseeable future, we shouldn’t be so quick to exclaim success and applaud these innovative rebels for throwing out DDC.

Should we be exploring new ways to enhance and compliment DDC? Absolutely. But what if, in our excitement to show our innovation by eliminating Dewey, we end up compromising future access? DDC has been in use for many years for a reason. It works. No, it isn’t perfect, but it’s very good. It appears that, given the new technology and increased demand for technology to access our collections remotely and the ever-growing emphasis on a social space within our physical walls that a structured and stable classification system needs to remain in place throughout our libraries no matter what our short-term needs may demand.

Like tagging in our catalogues, new ways to categorize, shelve and access our physical collections can sit atop our existing classification systems. But, thoughts to the future of access, how our collections are being accessed, the transition into downloadable collections and the increasing amount of remote users over physical visits to access our collections must be examined.




Filed under Access Issues, Dewey

7 responses to “Wait! Let’s rethink the whole new classification system thing.

  1. Daniel Stuhlman

    One difficulty with DCC is that it changes so much with each edition. In an effort to be decimal (i.e. fit everything into groups of ten) the classification system does not match the distribution of materials. Some subject areas have more books than other.

    Outside of that limitation your posting is great.

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention Wait! Let’s rethink the whole new classification system thing. « The Cataloguing Librarian -- Topsy.com

  3. A point that must be considered when it comes to creating categories is the age-old problem of deciding which terms to use that would be intuitive to everyone, which is in reality practically impossible. How granular will these categories need to be? At some of the DVD stores, for example, you’ll see films like “Lord of the Rings” classified under Science Fiction (which is pure nonsense, since this series is not set in the future or based on science), action, drama, etc., because the stores don’t have categories that are sufficiently granular to handle something like fantasy films. Given the diversity of our collections, are we simply going to list things under, say, “cook books” and then alphabetically by title or author (assuming we stick to the main entry). As a vegan who has not the least interest in cook books that feature animal-based dishes and ingredients, I don’t wish to troll through dozens of items until I find what I want. If I don’t have a known item in mind, I will have no choice but to do this type of time-consuming browsing. OK, I hear, but surely we can come up with sub-categories. Fair enough but, again, to what degree of granularity? Secondly, will the titles we give to the categories be intuitive to the client? How often will be update our categories to ensure that they are sufficiently granular (when, for example, would you determine that it’s time to create a “gluten-free” category for cook books)?

  4. Ivy

    >>In fact, it isn’t often we read about users of LC or Sears having difficulty understanding the classification numbers,

    I agree that it’s not ‘often,’ but in the demographic I’m interested in–artists and other creative & visually oriented users–there is documented research showing exactly that.

    I think, as always, it has to come down to the user group. Even ‘public library users’ may be too broad a brush to paint with, as public libraries in different regions and populations may have very different classification understanding and needs. DDC is probably great for some groups and terrible for others. I think it boils down to two things: 1. figuring out which groups are which and 2. not being afraid to have libraries with different and deviant classification systems. One size does not fit all.

    Does DDC allow for better technological browse access? Sure. But so can LC and any other standardized classification system–yes, even a word-based system. DDC, specifically, isn’t inherently necessary for that. As long as the classification system is well-developed, the technology can use that data to present a browse-friendly interface–one that’s compatible and closer in line with the way that particular user group browses. Online browse access using DDC still doesn’t collocate items from, say, my former fashion school library–fashion design is still spread across 391, 646 and 746. Adding the ability to browse online doesn’t solve the browse problem inherent here with DDC spreading the topic across multiple disciplines, which is not the way those patrons search.

    I agree that more research on both the return on investment and long-term benefits is necessary, and I have no doubts we’ll be seeing exactly that over the next few years. It will take time before those new branches can measure adequately and appropriately, as you note, but I’m sure there will be plenty said and discussed when the time comes to do so.

  5. One aspect that I very rarely see discussed is the role of subject analysis of information resources as a first step towards subject representation using controlled vocabularies or classification systems. That should be on your list of research areas in terms of how well librarians are able to perform this step.

    As well, if you want to look at return on investment then start with how well the librarians–or whoever is doing the classifying–understand the classification system and how to classify with it, or even just read the call numbers. This means understanding kinds of classification (i.e., enumerative, hierarchical, faceted, etc.) and how this impacts classes and subclasses, or facets, how to construct numbers using the notation system, understanding the expressiveness of the notation system or how hospitable the system is when it comes to new knowledge…and so on.

    We don’t just open up DDC and pick a number–it takes time and effort to construct it. If that time and effort is sidestepped/downplayed then the whole idea of getting return on investment is derailed.

  6. Laurel Tarulli

    Timely article out of American Libraries Direct, “Librarians abandon Dewey Decimal System in favor of Netflix categories”. http://www.cronknews.com/2010/08/11/librarians-abandon-dewey-decimal-system-in-favor-of-netflix-categories/


  7. Laurel Tarulli

    Hi All,
    Thanks for your comments – very thought provoking! And, lots of great ideas and points made by all of you!

    Daniel – Glad you found the post interesting!

    Shawne – You make some excellent points! I’m especially interested in the point you make regarding understanding of classification and who is making the decisions.

    Louise – Excellent examples! – broad categories can’t drill down and provide the precision and “findability” that DDC allows for. As Shawne says, we don’t just “pick a number” to assign, thought and classification expertise goes in to assiging these numbers which results in improved access.

    Ivy – I can understand your position but I don’t necessarily agree. My first degree is in music and art. As such, I also tend to think “outside the box”, but I do find a structured classification system built and created by experts in classification more useful than one created by professionals who do not have any background, theory or knowledge of classification structures. Most of these in-house and new classification systems are made by the latter. However, (I do agree and hope that this came across in my post) enhancements to any existing classification system can and should be made to enhance access. In your example, an arts library where the individuals are very visual, users will benefit from increased signage, color coding and even added categories that sit “on top” of your existing classification system.

    You should consider doing some of this research in your doctoral work! The field could benefit from this as this is an area that has been sadly ignored.

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