Thursday, July 19, 2007


Who was Dewey Decimal?

A recent New York Times article tells us about a library that's abandoned the Dewey Decimal System. Some old-time librarians decry the move, but, well, I think they're being a bit stuffed in the shirt.

The system always puzzled me, from the time I learned it as a child. It depends upon a somewhat arbitrary classification of books into categories and subcategories, irrespective of the books' authors. The categories are defined in advance, making the system inflexible as new genres and sub-genres appear (and that's resulted in several updates to the system over time, requiring all libraries to change accordingly). Further, if the classification of the books is done by different groups in isolation, the same book may be put into different categories in different areas.

The Library of Congress system is better standardized, and makes more sense, but it's still not terribly accessible to the average library user — and that is, after all, who the library is serving.

In the time before computers, the Dewey Decimal System and the accompanying card catalogue made it possible to find any book. If you were looking for a book on, say, Civil War history, you could go to that subcategory section. You could cross-reference authors and titles in the card catalogue. And that all worked for many years.

But, look: we have computers now. There's no need for static cross-referencing in a card catalogue, and many libraries have already eschewed the card catalogue and provided the same function and much more with computer stations. If the computer can tell you where to find the books, is there really value, any more, in shelving them according to an antiquated system that few people understand?

Good riddance to the Dewey Decimal System. Thank you, Mr Dewey, for giving us something that served us for a long time. It's time, now, though, for that to be set aside in favour of arrangements that better attract browsers and readers.

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