Discord Over Dewey
A New Library in Arizona Fans a Heated Debate
Over What Some Call the ‘Googlization’ of Libraries
By ANDREW LAVALLEE
July 20, 2007
By all accounts, patrons of the Perry Branch Library in Gilbert, Ariz., are happy with the new digs.
Since the doors opened last month, visitors have checked out about 900 items a day, far more than the 100 to 150 that typically circulate daily in nearby branches, said Harry Courtright, director of the Maricopa County library district. Part of the branch’s appeal has come from the addition of bookstore-like features, including lower shelves, lounge furniture and displays of popular titles.
But it’s what’s missing from the library that has drawn the most attention: Perry abandoned the Dewey Decimal Classification System for its books, whose spines instead carry labels with plain-English subjects such as “history” and “weddings.” Instead of locating books by the traditional numerical system, patrons use a computerized catalog to find out which subject a book has been filed under, and then follow signs posted throughout the library. Many visitors skip the catalog altogether, and just head for the aisles that interest them.
The opening of a Dewey-free facility has sparked heated debate in the library world. “The day that the Maricopa news hit, I just had to steel myself,” said Karen Schneider, a moderator for PubLib, an online discussion list where comments blasting the move have been running about even with those praising the new library.
In defending Dewey, some have decried what they call the “Barnes & Nobling” and “Googlization” of libraries. On blogs and newsgroups, more than one commenter fumed “Have you ever tried finding something at a bookstore?” Some pointed out that Dewey is already essentially a list of subject headings, whose call numbers specify exactly where each book should be placed on the shelves. Many libraries print those subject headings on shelves under books.
Others, however, praised Perry’s decision, saying doing away with the inscrutable codes makes libraries easier to browse and more approachable.
A Broader Debate
But the debate, say many librarians, is about more than one branch’s organizational system. It feeds into a broader, increasingly urgent discussion about libraries, where a growing number of patrons, used to Google and Yahoo, simply don’t look for books and information the way they used to. Some are drawing on cues from the Internet in proposals for overhauls of cataloging systems, but others are more hesitant, saying that the Web’s tendency to provide thousands of somewhat-relevant results flies in the face of the carefully tailored research libraries pride themselves on.
Although the divide isn’t as simple as young versus old, both have passionate adherents. “It’s a religious war at this point,” said Ross Singer, an application developer at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s library. He has been frustrated by some computerized library catalogs that aren’t as “smart” as Internet search engines, where a query for “Ernest Hemingway” may not yield results when “Hemingway, Ernest” does.
Putting the Dewey debate aside, there is broad agreement among librarians that more can be done in the way of spiffing up catalogs. Such databases often include only three or four subject headings for each book — a throwback to physical card catalogs, which had limited space — making more complex subject searches, which users are accustomed to trying in search engines, fruitless. “We’re not addressing the fact that the world is changing around us,” he said. “Some people just want to find things, without doing a whole lot of work.”
“We may want people to spend hours learning our arcane systems, but the reality is they’re going to default to the path of least resistance,” PubLib’s Ms. Schneider said. “We need to be in that path.”
Developed by Melvil Dewey in the 1870s, the Dewey Decimal Classification is used by more than 200,000 libraries world-wide. Translations have been completed or are in progress in more than 30 languages, including Arabic, Icelandic and Vietnamese, and it is regularly updated. Since 1988, the system has been owned by the Online Computer Library Center, a Dublin, Ohio, cataloging and research nonprofit group, and editors are based around the world, including within the Library of Congress, to discuss additions and changes. It remains very much the law of the land: Some 95% of U.S. public libraries use Dewey, and nearly all of the others, the OCLC says, use a closely related Library of Congress system.
Dewey has come under attack before. Its critics are quick to point out, for example, that the religion section (200-299) overrepresents Christianity, spanning 220 (Bible) to 289 (Other denominations & sects). Other faiths, such as Judaism (296), get just one division, while Islam is lumped with Babism and Bahai Faith at 297. The 600s, which are classified as technology, include everything from hydraulic engineering (627) to leather and fur processing (675), but not topics related to computer science (004-006).
Finding Your Way to France
But Dewey loyalists are far from extinct, even among younger librarians, who worry that simple subject headings aren’t specific enough to keep a collection organized. For example, looking for books about traveling in France leads right to 914.4 in any library using Dewey, while those books might be scattered throughout a travel or European section in a less-specific system, said Sarah Houghton-Jan, a San Mateo, Calif., librarian.
Dewey’s consistency across language and regional barriers is another advantage, said Joan Mitchell, the OCLC’s editor in chief for the system (and in case there’s any question about where her loyalties lie, a link off the official Dewey blog1 lists her interests as 641.5; 746.432; 782; 787.87; 796.935; 800 and 914-919). A German librarian launched that country’s translation, she noted, after visiting U.S. libraries in metropolitan areas and an Indian reservation and finding the books were organized the same way in both.
The outcry over the Perry library didn’t surprise the district’s Mr. Courtright, who also introduced self-service checkout and check-in at the district branches. “We’ve done a number of ‘innovations,’ and every time we do something, there are those that think it’s heresy,” he said. The fast-growing area southeast of Phoenix is projected to open a new branch each year for the next 10 to 15 years, he said, and they will all use the Dewey-less system.
Last month, Michael Gorman, a past president of the American Library Association who recently retired as dean of library services at California State University, Fresno, penned an penned an essay2 on Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc.’s blog that, among other things, criticized the Internet as a research tool. Search engines return too many irrelevant and disreputable sources, he said, and students have become dismissive of the idea that libraries provide information beyond what’s online. “I honestly thought that these were not controversial ideas,” he said.
Mr. Gorman, whose writing has provoked technophiles before, was roundly criticized in librarian blogs and other online communities. The responses he’s read, including ones disagreeing with him, were “very solid,” he said, adding that even raising these concerns can get a person marked as a Luddite.
But even tech-savvy librarians often have a complicated relationship with Google. “Google’s great. Find me a librarian that doesn’t use Google,” said Jessamyn West, a Bethel, Vt., librarian who runs the blog Librarian.net3. What bothers those in the profession, she said, is that increasingly, patrons only know about keyword searching, when catalogs provide several other ways of looking up entries. “There are other ways of slicing information that aren’t the way Google decided to slice it,” she said.
“I think older patrons, they believe you have to kind of rassle with the online catalog a little bit, and it’s OK to spend a little bit of time to get exactly what you want,” she added. Young people are more likely to stop after a “good-enough” search. “It’s the difference between scholarship and ‘I just wanna kinda know about something,'” she said.
Millions of Results
Anthony McMullen, a librarian at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Penn., said he’s heard colleagues scoff at searches that result in millions of pages, which they think bewilder users, as well as searches that direct users to illegitimate sources of information.
But Mr. McMullen encourages keeping an open mind, noting that most users focus on the first 10 to 20 results and don’t get overwhelmed. And the Internet doesn’t have exclusive rights on inaccuracy, he added. “I could compile a lengthy bibliography of published books that support the notion that the Holocaust never occurred. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use books.”
The discussions over Dewey and Google are similar, said Michael Casey, in that they both relate to serving people who don’t want to learn a complicated system. Mr. Casey, a librarian and information-technology director in Gwinnett, Ga., who writes a blog called LibraryCrunch4, said that during a new branch’s recent construction, he began asking plumbers, inspectors and other construction workers whether they used libraries. Most said they couldn’t figure out how to find a book, he said. Although it didn’t give up Dewey classifications, the branch incorporated more subject signs as a result.
“Librarians like to think that we’re indispensable,” he said. “While I think that is true to a point, I don’t think we should continue to propagate the idea that we’re indispensable by keeping a complicated cataloging system.”
Write to Andrew LaVallee at firstname.lastname@example.org
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