Tuesday: how it could revolutionise the Dewey Decimal System

I keep meaning to write this post when it’s not Tuesday. I also keep meaning to revolutionise library classification, but it’s slipped down my to-do list a few notches. Between looking for a new job, organising an overseas trip, writing a conference proposal and studying my last three MIS subjects, I’ve had a fair bit on. Happily, however, I’ve managed to find a spare hour for this most important discussion. Never mind the fact library cataloguers and researchers have spent entire careers on this topic, I’m an Enthusiastic New Professional™ and I can accomplish anything! [citation needed]

The inspiration for this post came from Hugh Rundle’s hilarious @lib_papers Twitter bot. It spits out nonsensical fake conference paper titles which, if you squint hard enough, could almost be real. Fortunately, however, I have the self-awareness to never style myself as an ‘entreprevational full-stack cybrarian’.

Now, to business. Plenty of authors before me have written on how terrible DDC is. It’s an antiquated, anglocentric, angst-inducing mess of a classification system. It assigns whole numbers to arcane topics and relegates vast areas of inquiry to lengthy strings (e.g. the etymology of classical Greek is awarded 482, but climate change, arguably one of the gravest issues of our time, is assigned 363.7387). It demands books on similar subjects be located far away from each other for reasons known only to a nineteenth-century white American man with a misogynist streak and a penchant for spelling reform.

DDC is so awful that growing numbers of libraries (mostly public) are choosing to do away with Dewey altogether. By ‘genrefying’ their collections, librarians and technical services staff are reclaiming their shelf order and reasserting their right to shelve a book where they see fit, not where ~Dewey~ sees fit. I’ve read many a report on the outcomes of genrefication, particularly in fiction collections and in schools, and so far I’ve been very impressed.

My first exposure to genrefication came with a visit to the (then temporary) City of Perth Library as part of a CSU study trip. (I don’t live in Perth, in case you were wondering how I had never visited the city library there.) Like any good mid-degree LIS student angling for a career in technical services, I was suitably horrified by the library’s decision to sort their print collections by genre. On reflection, however, I think the idea outraged me only because it was completely foreign. I was so thoroughly immersed in the Dewey-centric narrative promulgated by library schools everywhere that I had never considered the idea that classification could be done differently.

Certain stripes of librarians take classification really seriously. Perhaps too seriously. And I say this as someone who genuinely enjoys cataloguing. As long as a patron has a reasonable chance of finding a given book on a shelf, armed either with OPAC search results or an ability to read directional signs, and that such a book is located adjacent to other books on similar topics and/or in a reasonably intuitive place, who gives a shit what call number it’s got?

This is not to say that I support eradicating call numbers entirely. I don’t. I believe that we as librarians owe it to the public to come up with a system that doesn’t completely suck.

There is absolutely no need for library users to have to learn such a convoluted and inconsistent system. In Dewey’s day, libraries were typically closed-stack affairs anyway — the only people who had any need to learn the classification system were the library staff, for whom the idea of ‘browsability’ was not an issue. In an age where bookshops are organised by genre and video rental shops (R.I.P.) were similarly classified, why is it anathema for libraries, especially public and school libraries, to arrange their wares in a similar manner?

Dewey is easier for librarians, not for patrons. Dewey means technical services staff don’t have to classify every item from scratch if they don’t want to or can’t. Ostensibly, Dewey also means that any book on a given topic will have roughly the same call number anywhere Dewey is used. Yet I’ve come across numerous examples in the course of my work, in a library which uses Dewey for its modest physical collection, where the same item was given wildly different call numbers depending on the cataloguer. I found one edition of The Best Australian Science Writing, a monograph in annual series, in 500 and another in 800. Learning the implementation of Dewey in one library does not guarantee it will be the same elsewhere.

Alarmingly, I’ve reached almost 800 words and have yet to present any kind of workable alternative to Dewey. I know there’s one out there, though. In the coming weeks and months I intend to devote some of my spare brainpower to the idea, once I’ve finished all the other things I noted above. But the @lib_papers bot has, amusingly, almost come full circle. I look forward to one day genuinely presenting a paper on how Tuesday will help revolutionise DDC. Further thoughts on that will, alas, have to wait for another Tuesday.