Archive for July 2007

Dewey or don’t we?

2007/07/28

So some of the Maricopa County (AZ) public library has done away with Melvil Dewey’s classification system. Now all of the books carry a big tag on their spines that shows a one-word topic: HISTORY or BIOLOGY, for example. They try to shelve everything at eye level. The idea is to make the library more like a bookstore, so that ordinary folks can locate the books that interest them. What?

Have you people in Maricopa ever actually tried to find a book in a bookstore? It’s NOT easy. That’s why Melvil, at the young age of 24, tried to organize about 5,000 years of human knowledge into a system: Learn the system, and find anything. Dewey based his system on the work of Diderot, who wrote the first encyclopedia in the days of the French Revolution. The word “encyclopedia” is from the Greek, and means “circle of knowledge,” and that motto, and its inherent philosophy, guided Dewey’s method.

People tend to think of the Dewey system as arcane and difficult, but the Dewey classification system is really a way of looking at the universe. The earliest number, 000 (pronounced “zero hundred), includes all sorts of generalities, as librarians call them, and begins with the possibility of living organisms on places other than Earth. The system then gives a number to all areas of knowledge, and ends with number 999, the topic “life on other planets.” Dewey’s description of human knowledge is a circle, lacking beginning or end.

Anything will fit into Dewey, often into more than a single place. In libraries, the librarians use their judgment to find the best spot to place a book or other item. Dewey, like the real world, often has more than one right answer. Idiosyncrasy and diversity flourish within Dewey, yet manage to follow elegant rules–again, something like organic life.

In ancient times and during the Medieval and Renaissance eras, libraries were not organized into anything like Dewey’s system. Books, in the form of scrolls and codices, were placed alphabetically on the shelf. Callimachus, a Greek curator in the library at Alexandria in Egypt, invented alphabetical order, and little changed until the nineteenth century. In some old libraries, there was no real order to the books.

However, these older systems worked less effectively as the amount of knowledge and books increased. Scholars and others–even the librarians in charge–couldn’t find what they needed. Melvil Dewey was one of the people who intervened to create a system that would work not only during his era, but for hundreds of years after.

With Dewey, every book has a specific address: it’s not merely on that shelf, it’s at that particular spot, just like your house, condo, or apartment, which are also designated by numbers. Your telephone number reaches only your phone. Dewey works the same way.

To lump all of the history books together, like a bookstore, means that the various parts of history, or of any other discipline, are shuffled like a pack of cards. You perform much more searching to locate the one card that you seek.

Those people in Maricopa need to examine the mission of the public library once more, if they ever did know what that mission is. Librarians exist to guide people and to both preserve and organize the human record, making that record accessible. They are there to enlighten the electorate in a democratic society.

The library is not a bookstore, nor should it be confused with one. Bookstores exist to make a profit. That mission distinguishes them from public libraries, even from proprietary libraries. The public library’s primary mission is education. Librarians should not be so afraid to teach people how to use Dewey’s taxonomy, which acts as a gateway to all knowledge.

The art of the librarian is not to make the library like a disorganized bookstore (yes, they are!), but to open the gate and show the patron the path. It is up to the patron to decide how to walk the path and where to linger.

Eliminating Dewey is to create a riot of paths, and return to the disorganization that people rejected before. Placing disorganization into a digital form, like a library catalog, makes an book or other item no easier to locate.

The mission of the tool–both the catalog in any form, and Dewey–is to find the book. The public calls it “cataloging,” but librarians call it “organizing knowledge.” Yes, it’s hard work, and you must think, even if you are a user, and not a librarian. Librarians bear the responsibility to think and organize their collections so that everyone can find what he needs.

Disorganizing knowledge is another name for dereliction of duty.

Hey! You guys in Maricopa with the lazy patrons and misguided librarians! If you have enough space to shelve everything at eye level, then your building is underused! The job is organizing knowledge, not reinventing the wheel. If it’s that hard to find something, then paint a sign. Librarians are supposed to be educated people, not intellectual sluggards. Go forth and organize. 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