June 3, 2007

Dropping Dewey – An Alternative Proposal

Posted in Libraries and Librarianship at 3:26 pm by neotradlibrarian

The Perry Branch of the Maricopa County Library District has gotten a lot of publicity lately for totally dropping the Dewey Decimal system. You have to give Maricopa County credit for trying out new ideas. After attending the Public Library Association conference in Phoenix in 2004, we came back prepared to adapt some of their concepts for use in our library. But note: adapt and not adopt. Maricopa is growing at such a pace (basically adding a new branch site a year) that they have no choice but to drink from the fire hose. The rest of us can implement the future at a more sedate pace.

Let’s start with what they seem to be doing. The new branch will have 24,000 items. Since it is sure to be heavily media oriented, I would expect no more than 6,000 of those to be adult non-fiction. No one expects DVDs, CDs or fiction to be in Dewey order, so the adult non-fiction is the heart of the matter. Moving Children’s non-fiction to display collections would be innovative, but much less of a concern. Children’s non-fiction is a much smaller collection and less specialized. While Perry says there will be fifty display collections, some of those will be used for fiction, so let’s estimate that there are twenty-five display collections for those 6,000 adult non-fiction books.  That works out to less than 250 books per display collection.

There are several things that stick out about the situation.

Perry is a small library, certain to be heavily focused on current and popular materials. For a collection of 6,000 adult non-fiction items, eliminating Dewey in display style collections is an option. Perry’s collection is necessarily thin, indeed, thin by design. Maricopa could have built fewer larger branches, but decided in favor of a larger number of smaller branches.

Perry is a branch. They can rely on larger collections elsewhere in the library district to meet the demand for in-depth or non-current material. In general, the smaller the library, the more it relies on items permanently stored elsewhere in the system. For a branch Perry’s size, it would not be surprising if 35% of what it checked out came from elsewhere. This definitely affects the size and type of the permanent collection needed on site.

For a highly visible library in a high tech city, it would not unusual if 25% of all circulation resulted from items requested over the Internet, with many of these coming from other libraries in the system. A great deal of Perry’s need for in-depth non-fiction will be filled this way. Patrons will order a title online and pick it up at the branch without knowing or caring where the book “lives” permanently. Even for in-library users, many are willing to wait a few days for delivery of a title they really need. Inter-library delivery is as fast as any Internet seller and free to the patron.

If Perry’s display collections run 250-300 titles, they are the right size. My experience is that that size display is large enough to attract attention and fill casual needs, but small enough to browse effectively. Richmond (B.C.) Public Library speaks of “critical mass” in a collection. The difference is that in the Richmond model, items age out of the display collections and move to regular stacks. It is quite possible that items will age out of Perry’s collections too, but be discarded instead.

Perry is planning to shelve items alphabetically by author in its display collections, while other libraries using display collections continue to use Dewey. The trade off is obvious. It is easy to shelve items in author order. If a patron knows the author, then author order is easy for them too. Author order does violate one of the expected rules for shelving – similar books should be shelved together. If a health section has six books on diabetes, four on schizophrenia and three on Parkinson’s disease, shelving by Dewey puts the books in subject order, but author order mixes them at random.

No matter how many display collections one creates, there are titles that don’t fit anywhere easily. This really is not an objection to developing display collections. Even in a badly chosen collection, a book benefits from being displayed. Patrons who want it can use the catalog to identify the chosen location. It is a problem if a book is permanently in a poorly chosen collection. In that case, it might be better off in a Dewey arranged stack, where it would at least be near similar titles.

In a properly sized display collection, the difference between Dewey and author order might not make too much difference. The collection is designed to be small and browsable. As long as the collections stay small, it will remain workable. Larger collections would demand Dewey. If a library had a mere thousand cookbooks, author order would create a jumble of ethnic, regional and diet specific titles. It is likely that Perry plans to remain in that “sweet spot” where author order will work.

Display collections are a great idea. Items on displays will circulate more than items not displayed. Few works flourish in the stacks. Stacks are designed for effective storage, not effective browsing. If a smaller library can shelve everything in display, keep those collections current and rely on collections at other libraries for depth, it will be a circulation dynamo.

If a library is larger than Perry, it can implement many features of their display collections, following the pattern established by Richmond (B.C.) Public Library and others. New and popular items are placed in display collections, retaining Dewey classification. As items age, they are moved to regular stack areas, where they will remain available but will not generate as much use. The displays are gateways to the stacks. Readers can find a new thriller and go to the stacks for more by the author. They can find one book on Alzheimer’s and use the Dewey number on it to find the rest of the library’s holdings.

Will we see a spate of libraries dropping Dewey and moving to display style collections? I don’t think so, though Maricopa might well be on target with this branch. At a very low level, size will preclude libraries from breaking their entire non-fiction into small collections. A relatively small non-fiction collection of 30,000 titles would require about one hundred collections. That many collections would be confusing, not helpful, to browsers. Dewey provides real advantages in providing fine-grained browsing. The War of 1812, home schooling and Japanese cooking all deserve their own space on the shelf, but are too small for their own collection. Dewey gathers them together and keeps them in context. Display collections would mix them into broader topics.

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  1. Sean Meade said,

    interesting to this geeky non-librarian

  2. AlexM said,

    I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

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