Monday, September 22, 2008

Dewey overdue for a makeover, librarians say

Southtown Star: 2008 September 21

In the sober, settled atmosphere of a library there is a radical movement afoot that is knocking books off their long established shelves and throwing Dewey out the window.

At 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning, when most library patrons are pulling the covers over their heads, refusing to acknowledge the rising sun, two bold and daring librarians are stirring at the Frankfort Public Library, shuffling books and tearing off those time-honored Dewey Decimal System numbers that no one really understood anyway.

"We know it's a little radical, but that's OK," said Melissa Rice, head of adult services, who along with reference librarian Joanna Kolendo is leading this revolution. Frankfort is the first library in the United States to retrofit its collection and go "Dewey-free," eliminating numbers and categorizing nonfiction books by topic, she said.

It's an idea so new, the Illinois Library Association was not even up to speed on it.

"You're telling me they are throwing out the Dewey Decimal System? What are they doing? Organizing books by size?" said Bob Doyle, the association's executive director. "This is the first I heard of it."

Melvil Dewey might be spinning in his grave, but these ladies said they can still put their fingers on any and every book a patron wants. "After all, we are librarians," Kolendo said. Learning the code established by fellow librarian Dewey in 1876 and embraced by public libraries everywhere, is "archaic," she said.

What? If news of Dewey's demise is causing cardiac arrest, check out a 612.12 or a 616.123 or peruse the books under "health and fitness" in Frankfort's new system. By the time you track down the Dewey number, (assuming you didn't know that the 600s were technology and applied sciences) and locate the book on the shelf, it may be too late.

That's the point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's all designed to make the collection "intuitive, browseable and accessible," Rice and Kolendo said.

"What's the point of having a collection if no one checks it out?" Kolendo said.

They want to get people "back into the stacks," have them check out more books and make the library a place where people feel comfortable.

They eventually would like to create "nooks" among the shelves with comfy chairs or couches and a computer for additional research.

Rice said she is figuring it will take one year to complete the project, which started this summer, but she hopes it will be sooner. It's a process that has been "evolving," they said. Fiction, biographies and compact discs are already organized by topic. In the meantime, they have a map to guide patrons through this major move. The hardest part is figuring out which collection to put where.

The books that circulate the most have been moved up front. Biographies will become neighbors with history books. Foreign language will mingle with travel tomes.

Dewey has not been the only game in town, but it was believed to be simpler than the Library of Congress classification system, widely used in academic libraries, and the Universal Decimal Classification, which incorporates punctuation marks with decimals. The Dewey-free revolution grew out of Europe, and word of it is slowly spreading here. It's already proven to be successful in Maricopa County Library District in Arizona, which ditched Dewey when it opened a new library last June.

In Frankfort, this radical notion grew out of talks about building a new, larger library. "We were talking about new concepts and what we would want in a new library," Rice said. What transpired is the reorganization of 36,070 nonfiction books.

Rice acknowledged that Frankfort has generated a "lot of buzz" in the library community. She welcomes other librarians to tour their building. It will have no impact on the interlibrary loan system. When a patron looks up a book on the computer, they simply will see Frankfort's new classification.

"I see other libraries moving in this direction," Rice said.

As a library science student, Kolendo said she learned that the purpose of being a librarian is to make access to information easy, to eliminate the hoops.

"The Dewey Decimal System was easy. But when does easy become difficult? What is the purpose of classification?" she asked.

May Melvil Dewey rest in peace.