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First public library in nation to drop Dewy Decimal
June 10, 2007 8:13 PM   Subscribe

The Prelinger Library is a small privately owned "public library" in San Francisco with the unique philosophy that browsing library stacks can reveal new knowledge, if the books are arranged for browsing. This is counter to most public libraries who rely on computer terminal searching, databases and the Dewey Decimal system to atomize books and subjects, with stack browsing a sort of random after effect, and in some places--like the Library of Congress--normally not even allowed. Now a (real) public library in Arizona has joined the revolution and claims to be the first public library in the nation to drop the Dewey Decimal system. Instead, books will be shelved by topic, similar to the way bookstores arrange books. The demise of the century-old Dewey Decimal system is overdue, county librarians say: "People think of books by subject. Very few people say, 'Oh, I know Dewey by heart.' "
posted by stbalbach (84 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
You can take 741.5 away from me when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.
posted by interrobang at 8:17 PM on June 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


The system used by Prelinger was pioneered by Aby Warburg (1866-1922) who founded the Warburg Institute. His idea was that if every major art history book was arranged by subject and chronologically that it would reveal a hidden but fundamental truth about human culture and history. The library he built still stands to this day which is open for anyone to browse, unlike many other famous libraries which are closed to browsing.
posted by stbalbach at 8:17 PM on June 10, 2007


I knew Dewey by heart.

Then I went to university, where they used some other system.

Bastards.
posted by -harlequin- at 8:18 PM on June 10, 2007


I fear sending this link to my librarian friends. Then again, I'm a huge browser, but I have my own combination system: if I'm looking for a book on a topic, I plug in a few keywords and only pay attention to the first few numbers/letters.

Of course, an interesting title will still win any browsing competition.
posted by cobaltnine at 8:20 PM on June 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


Harper's Magazine had a wonderful article about the Prelinger Library last month.

It's available off the Prelinger Library's blog in pdf form here.
posted by OrangeDrink at 8:21 PM on June 10, 2007 [2 favorites]


I used to have LC by heart, during my three years in the stacks at my university. I'm losing it now though.
posted by frobozz at 8:21 PM on June 10, 2007


isnt the dewey decimal system already arranged by topic?
posted by sergeant sandwich at 8:26 PM on June 10, 2007 [3 favorites]


OrangeDrink - thanks, excellent article. I was looking for it, and could only find the $$ copy on Harper's site. It was that article that opened my eyes to the 19th C backwardness of libraries and how there is a huge opportunity for private libraries to shake things up with more modern concepts - like browsing. The digital library initiatives are good but they are missing the point - libraries are foremost stacks of books.
posted by stbalbach at 8:26 PM on June 10, 2007



I fear sending this link to my librarian friends.


There's been a big discussion on this on the PubLib (public library) listserv in the past week or so; I think most of the comments were of the somewhat positive/wait-and-see attitude (although there were a few knee jerk dumbing-down-the-stacks responses). Most librarians really want their patrons to find books as easily as possible, and seem to have an open attitude about trying different things.

isnt the dewey decimal system already arranged by topic?

Yes, but this system is less granular than Dewey - it's got fewer topics and fewer subheads. Reading over the publib discussion again, I notice a couple of people who used to work at bookstore mentioning that when customers had trouble finding things there it was because the sections were specific enough - some happy medium seems to be indicated.
posted by frobozz at 8:32 PM on June 10, 2007


I have always thought the classification of books in bookstores tended to discourage variety in reading habits. God forbid you browse literature and accidentally pick up a mystery. I can see separating books about how to repair your roof from books about computers, or the literature from the cookbooks, but the separation of different types of fiction has always frustrated me.
posted by jiiota at 8:33 PM on June 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


I told my university to label the stacks with what is actually on them a few years ago i.e. label history 'History'. They didn't get it. They didn't understand browsing.
posted by niccolo at 8:37 PM on June 10, 2007


" When someone writes a book, they bring it to the library and place it on a shelf anywhere they choose."
posted by Sailormom at 8:45 PM on June 10, 2007


I want to know what Jessamyn thinks about this subject.

The University of Louisville uses the Library of Congress system, the Louisville Free Public Library uses Dewey. Mapping one to the other would only confuse me.

As for browsing, I don't see why I should have to search through three or four different sections for say the history of ancient Greece: I don't see why the internal politics should be half a block away from the military stuff, for example. Why not just put it all -- slavery, cuisine, battles, public breakups between Athenian statesmen, whatever -- in one section? Why should one separate a literary critique of Thucydides' History from an analysis of what it reveals of internal power relations? Of course better cross-referencing would do: libraries should hire more well-trained librarians and pay them better.
posted by davy at 8:45 PM on June 10, 2007


the separation of different types of fiction has always frustrated me.

Having worked in a bookstore during a remodel where we replaced shelving and re-arranged the sales floor, I can tell you that the partitioning of genre fiction is at least in part due to the binding cycle of a new book and sales floor real estate. Many 'lit' fiction books never get released in a Mass Market (pocket book) binding so the shelves have to be larger in general than genre (sci-fi, mystery, romance) fiction. 95% of genre fiction is eventually (if not initially) released in MM format, so the shelving can be more compact and more product can go on the shelves.

Aside from all that sales-based stuff, plenty of sci-fi or romance readers won't even bother with the lit section. They'd be angry if we'd moved the Danielle Steele and Forgotten Realms over next to the Brontes and Golding.

Don't mind me pimping the other book thread on the front page, where jessamyn is also eagerly awaited. [self-link]
posted by carsonb at 8:50 PM on June 10, 2007


and pay them better.

Yeah, that's gonna happen.
posted by blucevalo at 8:50 PM on June 10, 2007


Davy: I see what you're saying, but then if you shelved "a literary critique of Thucydides' History [alongside] an analysis of what it reveals of internal power relations" you would be seperating the literary critique of Thucydides from the literary critiques of Homer and Hesiod and Sappho.

So we'd have all the Ancient Greek stuff together, but if someone wanted to compare Ancient Greek politics with Ancient Roman or Indian or whatever, they'd have to walk all over the library. You'd help one group of users, but harm another.

[I had this same conversation with a lecturer at my university just recently; we use Library of Congress and so in his area, everything is shelved by country, then by subject. Which is useless for him - he wants everything on one subject together, no matter what country it comes from.]

Dewey, LoC, and all the other systems are far from perfect; but any replacement system would have equal faults.

I do think you're right on the money with a suggestion for better cross-referencing though (and better pay, natch), and the same for nicollo's suggestion for better signage. Those are things that bug me, as well, and I work in a library.
posted by Infinite Jest at 9:00 PM on June 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


when you're looking for a small book in a big library and you know the exact dewey number, you just march down the stacks and slow down when the numbers you're looking at approach the number you want. is this new thang as easy as that?
posted by bruce at 9:06 PM on June 10, 2007


In some ways I like this -- I hated trying to browse the LC-arranged stacks of my university library, and the idea of more general, organic categories is appealing. I wonder, though, about trying to find a specific book. It is easy in a Dewey library or a LC library to know exactly where on the shelf to find a book. I assume the books within these new categories will be ordered somehow (by author), but it just seems less exact, less rigorous.

I love Jessamyn, too, but there are other librarians on MeFi, people!
posted by Rock Steady at 9:12 PM on June 10, 2007


I liked when you combined the LC system with the subject-specific libraries you find in universities. Like the Math library was QA, and only QA.
posted by smackfu at 9:17 PM on June 10, 2007


I have a hard time pitting Dewey against Library of Congress, or hierarchically structured subject categories against looser bookstore-type umbrellas, or even digital books vs. analog books. Yes, there are differences and some are significant, but all of these can and should coexist. It's exciting that the dominant conception of how libraries should work is being challenged, and that different philosophies of arranging knowledge are afloat in the world. Monocultures are scarier.
posted by footage at 9:20 PM on June 10, 2007


Dewey, LoC, and all the other systems are far from perfect; but any replacement system would have equal faults.

Ah, the quaint limits of book-stacking systems developed by puny one-dimensional minds. Whatever happened to hyper-linking through the folding of space-time?
posted by -harlequin- at 9:23 PM on June 10, 2007 [2 favorites]


It seems to me that there is little overlap in these catalogue systems - each system is only workable for a certain range of size of library/bookstore, and things go a little wierd if a system is used for a collection size outside it's optimum range.

I don't think any orthodoxy is being challenged here - both libraries mentioned that are dropping Dewey have so few books that it wouldn't surprise me if the costs of maintaining Dewey Decimal outweighed the benefits even before you factored the merits of browsing.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:32 PM on June 10, 2007


This is really, I think, about the inherent difficulty of placing something in a physical library, where a book can only have one spot. If there's anything that the concept of 'free tagging' has taught us, it's that things like books and works of art lie at the intersection points of a zillion different topics, not the end of a family tree of subjects.
posted by verb at 9:40 PM on June 10, 2007 [2 favorites]


What I want is a library a bit like the equipment shopping mall in The Matrix.

Plus, what everyone else said. Dewey or LOC are beneficial for research, and beneficial when you start from a card (or terminal) catalog, but aren't browsable in any but a general sense -- all the Latin American History together, for instance.

But it seems like books should be browseable in more than one way. All of Roman history, sure, but also all of political theory, whether it's Greek, Roman, English, or Chinese.

One way or another people should be able to be introduced to books that they will enjoy reading. I think "browsability" is a consumer-oriented model that somewhat bespeaks the deterioration of a common cultural center, the way a random British public school graduate would be expected to know all the works of Plato, Shakespeare, and Descartes.
posted by dhartung at 9:51 PM on June 10, 2007


Ah, hunting the most dangerous prey of all: books.
posted by stavrogin at 10:01 PM on June 10, 2007


but aren't browsable in any but a general sense -- all the Latin American History together, for instance.

Hmm, I don't know about libraries in your neck of the woods, but here, they use DD and are extremely browsable. Moreso than the supposedly browsable bookstores. The different subjects have overhead signs in that area of the library, and the individual shelves, are likewise signposted by subject. (And also by dewey range if you're after something more specific). Since many of the signs are overhead, you can see what is around you while browsing what is in front of you. The font sizes increase for umbrella topics, so there can be a lot of visual information without you having to scan it all to find stuff related to your topic.

I have far more interesting finds (and a far easier time) browsing books arranged by subject via DD than when arranged by subject via Some Crazy Random System that differs bookstore to bookstore, employee to employee, day to day.

Just wanted to say :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 10:15 PM on June 10, 2007


I dunno, isn't it all fairly arbitrary? From what I remember from the Harper's article, theirs' is a fairly idiosyncratic system, not an attempt at an objective ordering at all but one that makes tries to make very pointed assertions.
posted by JHarris at 10:52 PM on June 10, 2007


As for browsing, I don't see why I should have to search through three or four different sections for say the history of ancient Greece: I don't see why the internal politics should be half a block away from the military stuff, for example.

Ah, but I'm often looking for works of politics (or anthropology, or what-have-you), and don't particularly care what the subject is so long as I've got the right discipline. There isn't any one-dimensional classification system which will make us both happy. (At the Chicago Public Library, it's the worst of all possible worlds; some books are arranged by Dewey, some by LOC, according, apparently, to the fickle whims of the laughing fates, and that's just at the main branch. Fiction appears to be arranged by last name only; so, for example, if you are looking for books by David Mitchell, you've got to go through all the Mitchells; the chances that David's books are shelved together are slim to none. At a neighborhood branch you're really on your own; I keep hoping that I'll stumble on some obscure branch using Ranganathan's colon classification, though I can't imagine how you'd shelve it.)
posted by enn at 11:50 PM on June 10, 2007


Tom Stoppard writing about the idiosyncratic classification system in the London Library:
John Wells of blessed memory once told me a story which gives the nub of the thing, the thing about the London Library. Arthur Koestler, John said, had been commissioned to report the Fischer-Spassky chess match for the world championship in Reykjavik. To prepare, Koestler went to the London Library to borrow books on chess and on Iceland. In the entrance hall he hesitated. Chess first or Iceland first? Chess was nearer. On the Chess shelf the first book that caught Koestler's eye was Chess in Iceland. Two of the possible reactions to this story are: a) "Er, is that it?" and b) the bibliophiliac version of thrusting one fist in the air and shouting "Yesss!"
posted by hydatius at 1:35 AM on June 11, 2007


Oh I know dewey by heart.

er, at least I used to, was class librarian from Form 1 through 5 at school, a few decades ago :)
posted by infini at 3:49 AM on June 11, 2007


when i was a youth i spent whole days in the local university library. it's alot like 'browsing' the internet if the library involved has alot of books (which it did). and there was and is no 'library.google.com.'

unfortunately, library search terminals are hardly more advanced now than they were then. boolean keyword is as good as it gets usually.

nominally, you should be able to 'browse' in any recognized style from a computer. search is easy since even the largest libraries have books numbering in the mere millions. but for some reason no one has done this...

maybe they have and i stopped caring...
posted by geos at 5:09 AM on June 11, 2007


This is a stupid debate, one about imposing data structures on atoms. Dumb.

Store the physical books in the manner most efficient for retrieving. Only librarians should have access to the stacks. Stupid, sentimental "we want to browse" types can STFU and go to Barnes & Noble.

In place of "Dewey Decimal exclusive-or Library of Congress," you have a system that allows material to be discovered using "DD inclusive or LoC" or whatever-system-can-be-used-as-a-database-key-to-the-storage-record. If you need content to be inspected before retrieval, a digital version of the internals can be inspected. This, of course, leads one to wonder why the HELL anyone would want the physical book in the first place.

Pretty pictures, sure. Odd format that depends on the codex-style, rock and roll. Keep the physical books, but improve access to them by building data structures that more fully represent what's inside them.
posted by mistersquid at 5:14 AM on June 11, 2007


I take it these guys aren't related to the Prelinger archive? How odd that there's two "appropriation friendly" places on the net with the same name.
posted by fungible at 5:55 AM on June 11, 2007


I used to browse in libraries organized by Dewey Decimal. I found that, for school papers, it was pretty convenient to find one book that was useful. Then I'd stand at its DD number and riffle through adjacent books. It worked a treat.
posted by Karmakaze at 5:56 AM on June 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


Now realizing that my last line could be taken as a joke. Harf.
posted by fungible at 5:56 AM on June 11, 2007


It was depressing that the big reason they cited for dropping Dewey decimal was that it was too complex for people to understand.

How hard is it to count to ten?

I keep thinking "but surely everyone could, say, file papers in alphabetical order - and if you can do that, you can use DD", but judging from workplace stories I hear, a lot of people can't sort or file things.
posted by -harlequin- at 6:24 AM on June 11, 2007


Books could be arranged any old damned way the library chooses if they would chip them so the library robots and library computer network could find them and retrieve them for you.

Let readers leave books wherever they want to leave them, but let robots find and rearrange them at night according to usage patterns, including data on which books are consulted by the same people on the same day, which books are read by the same reader on consecutive trips to the library, and where in the library the books are left by readers. If a book is always read and abandoned in room A, or maybe even taken out of one branch and abandoned in another branch of the library, maybe it belongs there, though a librarian could always override that shit if someone is just being contrary and making things harder for others.

(And of course let people walk right out of the library with automatic check-out and check-in at the doors -- match the books in your pack to the library card in your wallet, display the status on a screen for you to check, and print a slip telling you when they have to be back.)
posted by pracowity at 6:44 AM on June 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


Both would be cool -- you could browse and wander (which many of us do anyway), but then if you look something specific up, it could give you "History aisle 23" or "History shelf G", along with the DD number, so you could find the actual book that way too.
posted by amberglow at 6:56 AM on June 11, 2007


I can see separating books about how to repair your roof from books about computers, or the literature from the cookbooks, but the separation of different types of fiction has always frustrated me.

Most public libraries do this for the convenience of patrons. SF fans just want to look at SF books, Mystery fans just want to look at mysteries, etc. Public libraries are by definition for the public, so they tend to be far more open to suggestion and to change than, say, a medical library or a law library. If you disagree with how books are organized in your library, talk to someone working there about it.

Hmm, I don't know about libraries in your neck of the woods, but here, they use DD and are extremely browsable. Moreso than the supposedly browsable bookstores. The different subjects have overhead signs in that area of the library, and the individual shelves, are likewise signposted by subject. (And also by dewey range if you're after something more specific).

And:

I used to browse in libraries organized by Dewey Decimal. I found that, for school papers, it was pretty convenient to find one book that was useful. Then I'd stand at its DD number and riffle through adjacent books. It worked a treat.

This is what I was going to say. DD is basically set up to encourage browsing. This is what it's great for - I can show a patron to the book they want on designing their garden, and - hey, what'd you know? - there's all the other books on garden design right next to that book they wanted. Any time I go to a new public library, I just head for the 300s because that's where my interest lies (social sciences). This is why non-fiction isn't organized by author's last name (whereas fiction is, because that's how most people browse fiction).

It's pretty funny to me that so many of the acknowledged problems with Dewey haven't even been mentioned in this thread - the sort of nit-picky things discussed in library school like outdated classifications, potentially racist classifications, and so on. My own pet peeve is that, when someone comes in looking for home repair, I'm often taking them to two or even three different areas of the collection - but no system is perfect.

I guarantee the same sort of problems would arise at any physical system you could design - because books take up space in a way things don't in virtual systems. You can't go from Renaissance comedy to Medieval warfare in one 'click' in a physical space, the way you can in a virtual space. That's just the nature of physical reality.

While I have nothing against the Prelinger Library, or its efforts, a lot of people posting here just seem to want a rather simple system further simplified. Posting first thing in the morning, so forgive me if I'm being rude, but it just seems to me like yet more of the dumbing-down (down, down, down) our culture is currently rife with.

Ultimately, no matter what sort of library you are visiting, the quickest way to find what you're looking for is to just ask the staff working there. That's what they're there for, and they really shouldn't mind.
posted by stinkycheese at 6:56 AM on June 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


This post is frightening. Did you really think LC and DDC were designed not to be browsed? Any classification scheme is going to ruffle someone's feathers, and the only perfect one is a digital one that can be repackaged based on each user for whom it performs a search, and even then it would need constant retuning.

As my cataloging prof said, the problem with libraries is that the all fail to maintain a shelf called "My Project", containing only books that are useful and interesting to me.
posted by Hildegarde at 6:56 AM on June 11, 2007 [3 favorites]


I'm a librarian and I'm not sure how I feel about this. I'm a browser by nature. I'm sure that's why I was such an early, enthusiastic user of the web. And I find DDC easy to browse. Most public libraries I am aware of already do a great job of working around the constraints of their classification scheme by pulling genre fiction into different locations, highlighting local history collections, dividing juvenile lit into age-appropriate collections, etc. They also have, you know, librarians on staff who can help point people in the right direction.

As a cataloger using LOC in a small college library, the browsability of the collection is the last thing on my mind. Our students are very much in-and-out types, and if they could order their books online and pick them up in a stack at the front desk without ever setting foot in the stacks, they would. Which makes my job less about making sure books are arranged in tight subject groups on the shelves, and more about making sure the subject headings and keywords in our database are rounding up all the materials they should be when a user searches. A fantastic resource for our nursing students, say, could be right there on the shelf next to its brethren, but if it's not getting picked up by the students' electronic searches, it's not going to get found.

It all comes down to librarians. Whether we pile the books on the floor or lock them away in a vault, we are the ones responsible for making sure our patrons find what they are looking for. I do it behind the scenes, and I count on my co-workers to do it in person with the students and faculty. The trick is never assuming that your system is so fool-proof and self-explanatory that you can just point to the shelves or the search terminal and never actually help a person again.
posted by Biblio at 7:11 AM on June 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


Oh, and I was going to do a FPP on this, but hey, it's apropos to this one: AquaBrowser is a product that grafts a visual search engine to your existing catalog so you can browse through it in a more intuitive way. You can see it in action here.
posted by Biblio at 7:20 AM on June 11, 2007


This post is frightening. Did you really think LC and DDC were designed not to be browsed?

I do. They're a classification system, not a browsing system. You can only browse the limited area they delineate, and not related things.

For instance, a biography of Rosa Parks isn't near the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the US, or the Montgomery Bus Boycott, nor near Sociological studies of Race Relations in 20th Century America, nor Social or Psychological studies of Civil Disobedience and its history in the world, or African-American Studies stuff, or histories of Racism, or broader overviews of Segregation, etc.

In a browsing system those things might all be together --grouped under Civil Rights, or Social Movements and Change, etc, (and they could still have codes or DD on the spines for exact locationing)

And in an ideal browsing system, you'd have multiple copies in different places--So you'd find biographies of Parks in every single one of those areas i listed above.

DD has a weird segmentation that isn't natural nor does it make much sense if you want more than 1 thin slice of something.

Foucault on punisment doesn't belong only in philosophy. Most things don't belong only in one place.
posted by amberglow at 7:24 AM on June 11, 2007


oops-make that ...punishment or his work on sexuality doesn't belong only in philosophy.

The majority of works in a library are naturally and seamlessly connected to other things and other subjects. Dewey locks things down to one specific place--not always the most natural place nor the best place for students, scholars, or browsers.

There's a vast wealth of connected and relevant resources that Dewey has hidden away in other places. Now, with DD, you have to look, find an area, investigate that specific area, then go to the related areas a card or screen has suggested, then investigate the other specific area, then do that again, and again...
posted by amberglow at 7:31 AM on June 11, 2007


This is Dewey --it's atomized, and sliced and diced, and not at all connected to how people relate things, or think about things or anything.

In terms of children and their curiosity about the world, i think DD has been damaging and limiting. We're more naturally holistic, and libraries and DD aren't at all, except for the special displays they put out for holidays or history months, etc.
posted by amberglow at 7:38 AM on June 11, 2007


The Prelinger Library has a blog as well which is a worthwhile read. Rick is a good friend of mine. I'd chime in here more about Dewey but I'm at a teeny library in Southern New Hampshire preparing to talk to folks about Facebook and MySpace in little libraries. I find this to be a cute experiment but unlikely to check on in bigger libraries where categorical divisions really won't be sufficient.
posted by jessamyn at 7:39 AM on June 11, 2007


the Dewey people themselves don't call it anything other than what it is: ...a dynamic structure for the organization of library collections. ... the world’s most widely used library classification system. ...

Bookstores as a model might make people cringe, but they organize much of their material in groupings that make real and natural sense. And we absorb how things are grouped in stores way way before we even learn to read, and certainly before we learn how to understand DD--DD has to be taught specifically, since it is so unnatural.
posted by amberglow at 7:47 AM on June 11, 2007


the dewey decimal system is cataloged by subject... it works fine for browsing... maybe you just don't like the subects it uses for categorizing books? why not color? number of letters in the title? gender of author? zodiac sign of publication date? the realm of taxonomy is limitless...
posted by njohnson23 at 7:59 AM on June 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


look at these exercises to help students understand Dewey--it's a mess.
posted by amberglow at 8:00 AM on June 11, 2007


. it works fine for browsing...

But it doesn't use subject as we all understand subject to be--Butterflies:

500--Natural Science
590--Zoological Sciences
595--Other Invertebrates
595.7--Insects
595.78--Lepidoptera
595.789--Butterflies


Natural Science does not at all tell me that Butterflies are in there somewhere. Nor does Zoological Sciences, since Butterflies aren't in Zoos usually. Invertebrates is way too complex too for kids or adults who wouldn't know Butterflies don't have spines. Then, finally you get to Insects, and then it starts into more jargon. Public libraries are for the general public--all of whom have widely varying levels of knowledge. DD is set up for professionals in various fields and uses their terminology, not the general public's.

You can't browse for Insects by wandering thru a library--you can only browse all of Science or Natural Science.

595.7 -- Insects -- that's not labeled on a bookcase in any library i've ever been in.
posted by amberglow at 8:11 AM on June 11, 2007


Dewey was a nut. He was 20 years old and decided he would categorize the worlds knowledge. He happened to be a big fan of the decimal system, so he decided that all the worlds knowledge should be fit into categories of 10. So he created levels of 10 for each category, creating topics if there were not enough, or compressing them if there were too many - the most important thing is that there be ten.

Religion for example

290 Other & comparative religions
291 Comparative religion
292 Classical (Greek & Roman) religion
293 Germanic religion
294 Religions of Indic origin
295 Zoroastrianism (Mazdaism, Parseeism)
296 Judaism
297 Islam & religions originating in it
298 Not assigned or no longer used
299 Other religions

"Zoroastrianism" gets to be in the top level, but "Buddhism" doesn't fit in the top 10, so it's somewhere in a sub-category.
posted by stbalbach at 8:18 AM on June 11, 2007


Don't kid yourself amberglow, chain bookstores arrange their collections to maximize profit. These stores have some important lessons for public libraries - magazines (periodicals) next to open windows is one that comes to mind - but their general arrangement of the collection is not something libraries should be emulating. They're ultimately based around buyer patterns.

DDC isn't a perfect system. I work with it every day, and it can be frustrating, I agree. It is, however, most definitely based on relating placement by subject. For the record:

000 General Items
100 Philosophy & psychology
200 Religion
300 Social sciences
400 Language
500 Natural sciences & mathematics
600 Technology (Applied sciences)
700 The arts
800 Literature & rhetoric
900 Geography & history

Yes, some of it doesn't make sense in practise. I have a particular beef with the 100 series - you get the books on Bigfoot and ESP next to the computer manuals, for instance. But it's not a static system.

Here's the Straight Dope on Dewey.
posted by stinkycheese at 8:19 AM on June 11, 2007


Related, and maybe a model for the future? : ...“To get as good at browsing as we are at finding — and to take full advantage of the digital opportunity — we have to get rid of the idea that there’s a best way of organizing the world.” ...We were organizing the world (and, implicitly, privileging our particular organizing principles) long before Linnaeus and Dewey. ... We know what we’re gaining when a photograph is tagged “beach,” “Phuket,” “galangal,” “Christmas,” and “singhabeer.” There’s a whole lot of potentially useful information in those tags, for one thing, and you can simultaneously file it under as many categories as you want. But is anything lost when it’s not called “P & P in Phuket, Christmas 2008?” When a photo has multiple names and infinite existences, and doesn’t let us pretend that, in this very 21st-century world, we can still exert 18th-century control? ...
posted by amberglow at 8:21 AM on June 11, 2007


Yes, DDC privileges Christianity.

Why Dewey's Decimal System is prejudiced:
There seems to be a disturbing message hidden in the Dewey Decimal Classification system, the organizational scheme first published in 1876 and now used in 95% of US schools: Of the hundred numbers set aside for topics concerning religion, 88 — numbers 201-287 — are reserved for Christianity. Jews and Moslems get just one each. But those single-digit religions are still doing better than Buddhists (294.3) who share a decimal point with the Sikhs (294.6) and Jains (294.4), looking up enviously at Christian "Parish government & administration" which gets its own whole number (254).

Why is the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system so embarrassingly behind the times? [...]
posted by pracowity at 8:22 AM on June 11, 2007


...chain bookstores arrange their collections to maximize profit. ...
Everyone knows that about bookstores--they want our money--and we still have an easier time finding even obscure things and authors and subjects in them. And "buyer patterns" are also simply observed human behavior--browsing and finding (hunting and gathering?) actions that are applicable to other places--and used throughout our society.
posted by amberglow at 8:27 AM on June 11, 2007


mrsquid: This is a stupid debate, one about imposing data structures on atoms. Dumb.

Which is what happens any time we do something more elaborate than point at an object and grunt.

amberglow: Foucault on punisment doesn't belong only in philosophy. Most things don't belong only in one place.

Of course, however EVERY sensible scheme for maintaining a limited collection of objects, real or virtual, involves some sort of tagging of objects with a code to make it easy to find that object. Dewey and LoC are more sensible than ISBN or hashcodes. (And yes, I do mean real and virtual, it makes more sense to store an item of information in a single key-identified bin and provide cross-references than create an additional copy for each and every possible category match.)

Short of having magical hyperspacial bookshelves that automatically rearrange themselves around personal ontologies, this isn't going to change. (And even those will use a key/bin system.)

amberglow: The majority of works in a library are naturally and seamlessly connected to other things and other subjects. Dewey locks things down to one specific place--not always the most natural place nor the best place for students, scholars, or browsers.

Is there a best and most natural browsing scheme that meets the needs of all students, scholars and browsers? I'm not especially fond of Dewey or LoC, but I'm also well aware that designing an alternative will run into many of the same problems and trade-offs.

amberglow: This is Dewey --it's atomized, and sliced and diced, and not at all connected to how people relate things, or think about things or anything.

The fact that books can be tagged with multiple categories, found via parent categories, and all of those connections can be presented as hypertext is also Dewey.

amberglow: In terms of children and their curiosity about the world, i think DD has been damaging and limiting. We're more naturally holistic, and libraries and DD aren't at all, except for the special displays they put out for holidays or history months, etc.

My goodness, as a child, I rather liked the fact that all of the science books ended up on the same three shelves due to Dewey sorting. I think you dramatically overstate the impact of Dewey and the size of most collections. I find Dewey comfortable for browsing because it puts almost all of the chess books on the same shelf, and the next shelf down I have backgammon, and go. Bridge and poker are a sidestep away. My annoyance that Objective-C is shelved under the OS X operating system is mitigated by the fact that it's still only three feet away from Java and C++.

The other side of the coin is that often I am searching for something specific, and I find the lack of granularity in bookstores annoying when I have to wade past a dozen feet of self-help guides to find the single copy of Piaget or Vygotsky.

My experience is that Dewey and LoC is about as holistic as you wish it to be, and about as narrow as you wish for it to be.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:30 AM on June 11, 2007


Heh. My boss made that Dewey page.

Interestingly enough, we are one of the few academic libraries our size that still use Dewey and we are discussing the change over to LC.

Personally I do my damnedest to co-locate works in Dewey and to facilitate browsing, but there are some limits. I have a hellish time finding anything in bookstores because their "logical" subjects are not logical to me.

The main issue I have with Dewey is the changing of the numbers. Over time and throughout editions, numbers are relocated, changed and discontinued. This means if you don't constantly update your catalog, you have books living in places that no longer make sense.

I adore Dewey and I love the way the numbers are built and how they work, but I also understand that no system is perfect. That's why there are a variety of ways to attack classification and organization. In theory, between classification schemes, subject headings, and informal tagging, there should be some way for every patron to get at what they want.

No one system is going to work for everyone. But we do the best we can do with the resources we have.

And don't get me started on the decline of the cataloging record produced by the Library of Congress these days. Sigh.
posted by teleri025 at 8:33 AM on June 11, 2007


amberglow: Natural Science does not at all tell me that Butterflies are in there somewhere. Nor does Zoological Sciences, since Butterflies aren't in Zoos usually. Invertebrates is way too complex too for kids or adults who wouldn't know Butterflies don't have spines. Then, finally you get to Insects, and then it starts into more jargon. Public libraries are for the general public--all of whom have widely varying levels of knowledge. DD is set up for professionals in various fields and uses their terminology, not the general public's.

And, monkeys might (hypothetically) fly out of my ass. Such hypothetical and arbitrary use cases are fairly useless. A kid is just going to go to the shelf with all the animal books, and browse down the row until he or she finds the butterflies. An adult looking for a guidebook for North American butterflies is going to look up 595.789 in the database.

amberglow: Everyone knows that about bookstores--they want our money--and we still have an easier time finding even obscure things and authors and subjects in them.

Where does Borders put the butterfly books?

Natural History->Animals->Insects.

With some exceptions (notably the religion and music) Borders structures its collection by topic area in a very similar way to the Dewey Decimal system.

On a recent search for books on bookbinding I was forced to browse across four shelves of "miscellaneous crafts" that were stacked in no apparent order. The order went something like: wooden boxes, scrapbook, scrapbook, leather, bookbinding, scrapbook, knitting, furniture, scrapbook, bookbinding, papermaking....

Browsing the same topic at my local library takes me to 8 volumes located on the same shelf. 6 feet away was typography. Papermaking on a different shelf in the same stack. Origami was also at hands-reach to my memory.

Tagging of items with multiple descriptors was old hat back when I was bumbling around libraries in my diapers. But if you scratch under the surface, flickr and del.icio.us are still key/bin storage systems. Tagging is good, tagging is great, tagging has been around since the bloody middle ages. The most efficient use of resources involves tagging to augment key/bin systems.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:57 AM on June 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


LC is not a step up, teleri025. It resorts to *shudders* alpha in the end.

Amberglow, i don't know if you've noticed this, but if you're looking for butterflies, you can go to the catalogue to find out where precisely butterflies are in the stacks, go there, and look on either side of the first book you tracked. And from there you can browse along the shelves, because you've just hit the treasure-trove of butterfly books, and there will be related items all around it. This is browsing.

No matter how simple you make your system, there isn't going to be a sign at the front of the library that points you to the books you're looking for; everyone looks for different things, and the best we can do is make sure they're put together in some semblance of a rational fashion. I am one of the first to stand up and criticize classification schemes; it's well-known that Dewey is inherently racist in colonial in its logic, and LC isn't much better. Classification is political, and there is no value-null way to manage it. The idea that the library is some kind of objective creature filled with books filed in a neutral way is one that needs serious unpacking.

As for "books in multiple places"; let's consider how this would work in practice. You're looking for Discipline and Punish. The one in philosophy is out, so you look it up in the catalogue again and get another call number, and head to a different section, say, crime and law. It's not on the shelf, someone is using probably using that copy in the library. Okay, so back to the catalogue again, where's the next one? You head off to history, two floors up. That one has been damaged and you didn't notice when you looked up the record. Back to the catalogue. Again. Someone thought it would be good to put all French writers together, so there's another section to check. Back down to the first floor.

Most people are not going to appreciate that you were trying to organize your library for easy browsibility. In fact, many people don't recgonize that they books ARE in order by subject. They will be annoyed with you for not putting all those copies in one place, because they knew just what they were looking for and didn't want to traipse all ove the place to get it.

I'm all for rethinking the classification schemes, but there's a point where we have to cut the stacks a bit of slack. They're just not so easy to reorganize.
posted by Hildegarde at 9:04 AM on June 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


An adult looking for a guidebook for North American butterflies is going to look up 595.789 in the database.

That's not the easiest or best or most intuitive way to find knowledge. That's the point. And you can't browse for it unless you know the general numbers.

The general point is that if knowledge and access to knowledge is extraordinarily valuable--and it is--why have this system that atomizes and segments it so? How you organize knowledge has a great affect on how it does or does not get to people. How you separate disciplines and fields and topics also does. What kinds of systems act as barriers to making connections? What kinds of systems facilitate the acquisition of knowledge? What kinds lead people further ,or let them know that Foucault for instance, isn't just a French 20th Century philosopher, but also important for many other fields and topics and subjects? What's a primary source? What's a secondary source? Why are they together or separated in Dewey? What is the importance of one topic to another? Why aren't DaVinci on flight, and the Wright Brothers, and Butterfly wings, and anatomy, etc, anywhere near each other in Dewey? ...
posted by amberglow at 9:13 AM on June 11, 2007


They will be annoyed with you for not putting all those copies in one place, because they knew just what they were looking for and didn't want to traipse all ove the place to get it.

That's just it tho...multiple copies in different places increase the chance that different people looking into different topics would have actually found it while browsing a shelf. Their knowledge and their access to knowledge would have all been enhanced.

I have this problem at work with an archive. It turns out they built it specifically for people to retrieve exactly what they knew they wanted and when it was from and where.
As a resource, this library stinks, because now we all use it as a general archive, and go to it for general queries--say "granite kitchen counters" to see what's there and what's been done, etc, or what manufacturers were used, etc, instead of going there specifically to get that one specific story on granite kitchen counters that ran in one specific magazine in July 2002 on page 85-88, called "Set in Stone". Or we use it to see "Art Deco living rooms," etc. Because the library organizes by use and date and title, it's horrible for these general queries. I think Dewey is horrible at that too.
posted by amberglow at 9:26 AM on June 11, 2007


Most public library catalogues will let you see hyperlinked subject headings that the book has been catalogued under. If you click on these, you'll see a list of everything the library has under that subject heading.

Example:
I checked the web catalogue for NYPL, which is what I assume you'd be using. Entered 'foucault punishment' into the default search field, and of the three results, I picked, "Discipline and punish; the birth of the prison".

This book record not only displays three hypertext subject links (Prisons; Prison discipline; Punishment), but has four each for Google and Yahoo (the above, plus an author link, which is of course redundant in the NYPL record, as every item entry will have a hypertext author link higher up on the page).

That won't get you French authors, or Philosophy of course. But it's pretty great as far as subject-related searching goes.
posted by stinkycheese at 9:30 AM on June 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


And you can't browse for it unless you know the general numbers.

Lots of libraries put labels on the stacks, either on the sides or hanging from the ceilings. If not, that's why you start with the catalogue to find out where your starting point is.

Some libraries are big yanno.
posted by Hildegarde at 9:32 AM on June 11, 2007


It turns out they built it specifically for people to retrieve exactly what they knew they wanted and when it was from and where.

That's not what libraries are. If that were true of libraries, our lives would be much easier; we would just alphabetize the collection. I get it, you don't like Dewey, fine. We agree that classification schemes for libraries aren't very fluid and are too rigid for many people. But it's nonsense to say they are designed strictly for people who know exactly what they're looking for. They are browseable and have been browsed successfully for years. You just have to start somewhere.

I think what you're looking for is actually a better online catalogue; if you want to do complex searching where books can be rearranged based on your particular interest or project, we can do that digitally much better than we can in analogue.
posted by Hildegarde at 9:38 AM on June 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


Everyone knows that about bookstores--they want our money--and we still have an easier time finding even obscure things and authors and subjects in them.

No, we don't. I have a dickens of a time finding stuff in a bookstore because the books aren't organized in any useful way and the stuff I want is always mixed in with 500% more of stuff I don't want, so I can't browse. I can find stuff in a library, with Dewey or LC, easily, and the stuff that surrounds the book I'm interested in won't be 99% unrelated dross.

Natural Science does not at all tell me that Butterflies are in there somewhere.

I suppose we could go all Idiocracy and have a big sign for "NATURE AND SHIT" with smaller signs for "AMINALS" and "BUGS AND CREEPY SHIT" and "PURTY FLUTTERBIES."

Or, we could put up a big sign with the overall Dewey categories, and leave it to the reader to decide that butterflies probably aren't in social sciences, or literature, or philosophy, and that any random jackass should be able to figure out that, among the categories, natural science is the place to go.

You're also completely ignoring the way that people might actually use a library. Any non-moron will walk up to the terminal, and type BUTTERFLIES in the search blank. And lo, when they get to the right number, they'll find butterfly books, with a whole fucking bunch of books about moths right next door, in the midst of even bigger bunch of books about bugs.

You're also also ignoring that while Dewey and LC might be set up for professionals, those selfsame professionals ARE IN THE VERY LIBRARY and have an almost pathological wish to help people find stuff. A simple cry of "LIBERRIAN, HOPE ME!" will bring experts a-runnin'.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:46 AM on June 11, 2007 [5 favorites]


This post is pretty interesting. It would never have occured to me to rearange the library, but I immediately liked the idea.

Bookstores are for sure more intuitive than libraries. I can walk into a bookstore and walk right to the section I need. If I have to ask for help, it's generally enough to get pointed in vaguely the right direction.

I think a big part of why is simply that there is better signage.

I wish more libraries had large signs listing what topic could be found on each shelf (rather than just signs with dewey decimal numbers).
posted by serazin at 9:50 AM on June 11, 2007 [2 favorites]


And you can't browse for it unless you know the general numbers.

Sure you can. You type "butterflies" into the search bar, and go where it says. Is typing a simple subject keyword really that hard?

Or you walk up to the nice librarian and say "Butterflies?" and (s)he points at, or walks you to, the relevant part of the library.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:50 AM on June 11, 2007


amberglow: That's not the easiest or best or most intuitive way to find knowledge. That's the point. And you can't browse for it unless you know the general numbers.

The OCLC for my public library has a nice, simple google-like interface with a search box and a submit button. If you can use google to find web pages about butterflies, you can use the OCLC to find books on butterflies.

amberglow: The general point is that if knowledge and access to knowledge is extraordinarily valuable--and it is--why have this system that atomizes and segments it so?

Well, the reason why both Dewey, LoC and the Borders classification system (yes, they do have one, read the 6pt fine print on their shelf tags sometime) exist is to make it easier to find specific items. None of these systems are perfect, but a system that attempts to orders items by topic is better than a system that arbitrarily orders items by some arbitrary value.

amberglow: That's just it tho...multiple copies in different places increase the chance that different people looking into different topics would have actually found it while browsing a shelf. Their knowledge and their access to knowledge would have all been enhanced.

Yes, when we all have magical psychic hyperspace bookshelves, then this would be feasible. But meanwhile, in the real world, libraries are limited in funds and resources. Most resources will be represented by one and only one copy. The permutations of reasonable bookshelf orders approach infinity. How do we get around this?

You use a key/bin system to store the resource, and provide an index that lists the resource under multiple keywords. This is how flickr does it. This is how del.icio.us does it. And this is how libraries have done it for the last century.

amberglow: Because the library organizes by use and date and title, it's horrible for these general queries. I think Dewey is horrible at that too.

Silly me, I use a periodical index, many of which will not only allow me to search by headline, but also the lead paragraphs as well. And actually, this is how I have my own article library organized. Each file is named by primary author/date, and I let indexing software take care of the rest.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:01 AM on June 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


For instance, a biography of Rosa Parks isn't near the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the US, or the Montgomery Bus Boycott...

They're not beside each other in any bookstore I've ever been in either - biographies are always together.

Even in bookstores, people are always asking 'Where are the history books?' etc. - much the same way they'd ask the computer terminal 'Where are the butterfly books?' in a library. They get a point or a number and wander over to the general area and start looking around. Some guidance is needed in both systems. Although a lot of libraries could profit by hanging subject-related signage for people who really didn't want to mess with the OPAC.
posted by frobozz at 10:15 AM on June 11, 2007


And I must admit as a person who browses the local Dewey-based library for pleasure, I just don't get the idea that it's a system which is so horrible for browsing.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:18 AM on June 11, 2007


It's a couple of years old, but this article by Megan Shaw Prelinger talks about the genesis and development of the Prelinger Library.
posted by tellurian at 4:59 PM on June 11, 2007


And you can't browse for it unless you know the general numbers.

Sure you can. You type "butterflies" into the search bar, and go where it says. Is typing a simple subject keyword really that hard?

I'm sorry. "Browsing" is the same as "waiting for a terminal to open up and typing a term in and getting a very specific result in a narrow subject area" how exactly? Since when?

serazin gets it--
I wish more libraries had large signs listing what topic could be found on each shelf (rather than just signs with dewey decimal numbers).


It's not idiocracy, and it's not unheard of for people to expect a public place full of books you can take home and read and learn from not to have this enormous and limiting barrier in front of it that you have to learn, and negotiate first before you can actually find things. And for it not to be an inexplicable place for many who don't know Dewey Decimal first. Libraries are for all of us. I think of a place like the Strand or any bookstore really, which just has cardboard and hanging signs everywhere, and it works just fine. Why don't Public Libraries? It's a real barrier--to browsing, to discovering, etc.
posted by amberglow at 5:50 PM on June 11, 2007


"Browsing" is the same as "waiting for a terminal to open up and typing a term in and getting a very specific result in a narrow subject area" how exactly? Since when?

Browsing has to start somewhere. I suppose we could follow the bookstore model of wandering around and around until you see a book that seems vaguely related, in some way, to the things you're interested in that you home in. But God help you if those books happen to be shelved in the middle of a row.

Are you really asserting that we should expect library patrons to be so helpless that they can't, or won't, type in a single word and go to where that number is shelved?

t's not unheard of for people to expect a public place full of books you can take home and read and learn from not to have this enormous and limiting barrier in front of it that you have to learn

I want to live on your planet where the following is an enormous and limiting barrier:

You, to librarian: where are the books on butterflies?

Librarian: They're over there, in the row of shelves that says "Natural sciences." I can take you over there if you want, or I can show you how to use the catalog if you'd rather.

Why don't Public Libraries? It's a real barrier--to browsing, to discovering, etc.

Where there isn't anything preventing it, having hang-signs seems useful. But, I suspect that lots of libraries will have things preventing it. Taller shelving, if nothing else. Little subject-oriented signs for at least the basic subdivisions likewise seems useful or at least harmless.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:42 PM on June 11, 2007


You type "butterflies" into the search bar, and go where it says. Is typing a simple subject keyword really that hard?

Or you walk up to the nice librarian and say "Butterflies?" and (s)he points at, or walks you to, the relevant part of the library.


Just for the record modern bookstores work in an identical fashion. 'Cept the clerks aren't librarians. They're helpful anyway. And

I suppose we could follow the bookstore model of wandering around and around until you see a book that seems vaguely related, in some way, to the things you're interested in that you home in.

I'm not sure which LEGO kit you saw that model in, but again, in modern bookstores there's ample signage on every level (hanging from the ceiling, on bookshelf endcaps, and all the way down to individual shelves) indicating where what you're interested in is. In plain English. Yes, in the very small type there's some code stuff, but always, always next to it are plain ol' words describing what's on the shelf.

In my experience, which is in a bookstore and not in a library, patrons/customers are clueless no matter what. If the place they go to for books doesn't have what they want front and center they probably can't find it on their own. I know that sounds like a terribly pessimistic view of readers everywhere, but it's true. No amount of organization or direction is going to get them past that barrier. What's needed is a dedicated force of human beings who are willing to know exactly where to find what their patrons are looking for. Lucky we have librarians. (And cranky Borders employees.)

Which isn't to say we shouldn't try to organize our body of knowledge in the clearest, most logical fashion. That's a given, and people waaay smarter than I have been working at it for a very long time. Many of them disagree and I couldn't say which is the best way to do it, but I'm perfectly willing to learn whichever system I must use to help others find what they want to read.
posted by carsonb at 7:05 PM on June 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


amberglow: I think of a place like the Strand or any bookstore really, which just has cardboard and hanging signs everywhere, and it works just fine. Why don't Public Libraries? It's a real barrier--to browsing, to discovering, etc.

It sounds like the problem has less to do with having an ordering system, (which Borders has, but doesn't widely advertise) and more to do with a lack of appropriate signage.

The obvious answer to the question is some libraries do.

Heck, I don't know the DDS, I just know that computer science is at one end, fiction at the other end, and hobbies are somewhere in between.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:25 PM on June 11, 2007


I'm not sure which LEGO kit you saw that model in, but again, in modern bookstores there's ample signage on every level (hanging from the ceiling, on bookshelf endcaps, and all the way down to individual shelves)

You seem to have better bookstores than I do. 'Round here, they have little nameplate-sized signs at the level of BUSINESS or SCIENCE FICTION, and that's about it.

You wouldn't think that finding a copy of the Consumer Reports Buying Guide Issue would be an ordeal, but it was. In two bookstores. In the end, a staffer found it in the middle of a bunch of THINK YOURSELF RICH IN 18 MINUTES books, since they were both apparently "BUSINESS," their finest level of sorting.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:32 PM on June 11, 2007


You have a very different experience of libraries than me, Amberglow. I've been to lots and I can only think of one (a small one) that only had dewey numbers or LC on the shelves. The rest all have subject headings - both large, encompassing ones like "Science" and then smaller ones "biology", "chemistry" etc. I've also used realia in some libraries (filling up empty shelves that are too high for use as bookshelves but perfect for a visible display) to indicate subject matter (a castle above 940 to indicate medaeval times, a model of the solar system above 530, etc etc) as well as hanging realia from the ceiling (an airplane kite above 629).

I also can't think of any public libraries that don't have the non-fiction bookcases lined up in numerical order, making it easy to find the correct dewey aisle; the numbers get larger as you walk along the main walkway. Bookshops I've been in and worked in have shelves arranged in all crazy sorts of ways, plus they move the topics around depending on how much the publishers paid for a shelf near a desired spot (cash or facing the entrance) or combine topics (automobiles and the occult!) to maximize use of space. So each time I go in a bookshop I have to wander around looking for the section I need(bookshops are staffed worse than libraries and there aren't the helpful "wanna-be librarian" patrons in bookshops willing to help a lost-looking person). My local public library has better signs than my local bookshop, and if you look at the library porn in American Libraries you will see a lot of public libraries are getting much better at signage.

If your public library is not meeting your needs than write a letter to the Library Board and agitate for change, I never have to wait for a terminal and neither should you. That picture of the Strand was actually kind of scary - maybe fun to wander on a day off there but what if I only had a lunch break or a cranky toddler and I needed a certain book? Do they provide Booksherpas to guide me? I just don't see the subject connection with plays and literary non-fiction (?making value judgements about reading?) and occult. I can't make out the other signs because they are waaaay too small.

Many of my patrons had never been into any library until they came to Canada, you would think they would find it very un-intuitive but they take one look at the signs and the books in subject order and just go like gangbusters. We only have two public catalogues for our 600,000 non-fiction titles but most people skip them and just browse successfully and succinctly. I'm sorry, I just can't imagine your experience of libraries.

And in my library Rosa Parks (323.092) is shelved with the Civil Rights Movement (323.0973), a couple of books over from Martin Luther King Jr (323.092) and beside Civil Disobedience (322.42), across the aisle from Race Relations in the 20th C (305.800973) and Racism (305.488960973). African American studies stuff is in there as well but we have integrated our collection so that books on African American Scientists(608.99607) are kept with science and African American Military Heroes (355.00996073) are kept in the war section. Your complaint actually reminds me of the people that want our novels arranged by the author's nationality because their assignment says they need to read a foreign author. Which is odd to me, especially for authors with more than one nationality (Rohinton Mistry). Or better yet, I've had a couple suggest novels should be organized by the setting so they can find all novels set in China on one shelf. In those cases, I use our indexes. I guess you just can't please everybody
posted by saucysault at 7:36 PM on June 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


I've also used realia in some libraries (filling up empty shelves that are too high for use as bookshelves but perfect for a visible display) to indicate subject matter (a castle above 940 to indicate medaeval times, a model of the solar system above 530, etc etc) as well as hanging realia from the ceiling (an airplane kite above 629).

That's really cool!
I haven't seen that approach before. It makes me want to run a library just so I can get to work implementing that! :)
posted by -harlequin- at 7:59 PM on June 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


*giggles happily to see so many people engaged in talking about libraries*

I am all for exploring new ways to classify books, but I would like to point out that for over a hundred years now, thousands of highly educated individuals have been trying to usefully encompass the totality of published work (or the percentage that might be in an individual library, anyway) in one comprehensive classification system...twice. (DDC and LC). That's not counting specialized systems like the National Library of Medicine classfication, used mostly in medical libraries, also old, also constantly being worked on by underpaid and overeducated professionals. Refinements happen daily; they are argued over by people who LIVE this stuff. It's not like we use the DDC in precisely the form Dewey handed down. He wouldn't recognize the thing, trust me.

I am all for tweaking a system if it doesn't seem to work for one library's situation. But inventing a new one? You couldn't PAY me enough to even try.

Organizing information is HARD, people. Computers are revolutionizing the process, but a) it can't happen overnight, and b) it still takes people to make human decisions about how things are organized, and then teach the tools to others. And in the end, it's when people refuse to learn the tools that the whole system breaks down. (Agreed on the dumbing-down thing.)

Very much appreciate the few who pointed out that online catalogs (and, before them, card catalogs) have used subject tags for years, otherwise known as the Library of Congress Subject Headings. It's even better than Flickr because it's controlled, see, so when you type in butterflies in the subject field on your OPAC (=online public access catalog, not OCLC, which is something else), it comes up with:

1. Everything about butterflies, and
2. Nothing NOT about butterflies (nothing about butterflied chicken breasts, for example).

This is the magic of a controlled vocabulary. You may not think this is special. Try searching Google for something on a really popular topic, like, "golf", say, or "cake decorating", and when you're sick of 1,973,352,440 results and only a few that are anything like what you want (or not trying to sell you something), go back to the library catalog and do a subject search. 181 items...aaaaaaahhhhh. Heaven. And that's before you narrow it down usefully.
posted by gillyflower at 8:18 PM on June 11, 2007 [3 favorites]


I'll go take pics of the signage in my local branch (mid-Manhattan, NYPL, vertical--all nonfiction is upstairs on various floors, and fiction's on the ground floor, it's the "real" library diagonally across the street from the famous beautiful one) sometime this week during lunch and post it online. I actually haven't been upstairs there in ages. Maybe it got better?

It really is a signage thing for non-fiction, maybe, and a need for more and different ways of organizing and displaying material. I'd be happiest in a library where it all was set out like special displays, and shelves for holidays and events and seasonal things or anniversaries or even just because a staffer has an interest in something, or they went to the numbers that were least frequently checked out or something, and/or rotated things to the front or down to the ground floor near fiction once in a while, or simply highlighted more areas/topics, etc. If i ever win the lottery, i'll start experimental branches of the NYPL that don't play by the standard rules.

(i won't even start on whether what you find on the shelves is a good resource or horribly dated or wrong or not--that's entirely another subject.) : >
posted by amberglow at 9:42 PM on June 11, 2007


Do they provide Booksherpas to guide me?

Off-topic, I know, but: the Strand's book sherpas are some of the best in the business. I actually kind of dislike browsing there, because it's such a morass, but every time I've gone in and asked for a specific volume, they've known whether and where they had it off the top of their head, without consulting any catalog.
posted by RogerB at 9:49 PM on June 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


It really is a signage thing for non-fiction, maybe, and a need for more and different ways of organizing and displaying material.

Oh. More and better signage is always better, and good temporary displays too. Sorry I overreacted.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:52 PM on June 11, 2007


No biggie--you'll spend a day being my library browsing sherpa as penitence, ok? Start memorizing all those numbers and categories. ; >

It's so funny (but totally expected--flickr has 10,000 pics of the beautiful reference library but only a very few of the inside of the midmanhattan)
posted by amberglow at 4:49 PM on June 12, 2007


and while i was looking for those pics, i saw that most libraries are like mine--they usually only have numbers, like 200-234 and 234-266, etc, on each side at the ends of rows, going down the line, and sometimes a subsection in the middle of a row marked with only the number--usually a round number. I saw no subjects listed along with those numbers in all my searching.

Public llibraries are the only places on Earth that are like that, i think. All other public places and publicly-used places usually have extensive signage. All other places with books do too. Public Libraries have secret code.
posted by amberglow at 5:15 PM on June 12, 2007


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