Monday, July 23, 2007

No Dewey in the Desert

In case you hadn't heard, there's a library in Arizona that has gotten rid of its Dewey classification system and put books on the shelves in the semi-random way that bookstores do. Doing so is a way to make it easy for people who don't know anything about libraries and who don't care about finding any particular book to feel more comfortable when they enter a library. They'll feel more like they're entering a big box bookstore, and will thus be more likely to plunk down $7 at the coffee bar for a skim latte and an oversized cookie. Then they can randomly browse the shelves and not worry so much if they spill their coffee on that gardening book. Of course I don't worry about that in chain bookstores anyway. If I spill my latte on a book at one of those big chain stores I just put it back on the shelves and get another one. That's the reason I shop at the big chains instead of the local bookstores where I'd feel bad about doing that kind of thing. I'd still do it at the local stores, but I'd feel bad about it. Besides, the coffee at my local bookstore is terrible.

I guess people who might want to do some research and be able to find specific books relatively quickly are out of luck, but those people probably wouldn't bother with the local public entertainment center anyway. They'd head off to a college library, where presumably the librarians are still interested in bringing order out of chaos instead of making the chaos more comfy. Saving the time of the reader isn't very important when the readers don't know what they want anyway.

This has been in my queue to write about for a week or so after it appeared in the New York Times. The Times has such great stories about libraries these days. They're just obsessed with how hip and happening libraries and librarians are, and, as many hostile critics implied during my last foray into Times territory, there's no such thing as bad publicity, no matter how stupid it makes you look. I'm surprised some of these hip young librarians don't let the paparazzi photograph them as climb out of the bookmobile without underpants. As long as librarians aren't portrayed as helpful, overweight, middle-aged white women, everyone seems to think that's a good thing. If librarians will just wear hand-me-downs and quit being so anal about organizing things, the Times thinks they're the bee's knees.

And now I see the Wall Street Journal has an article on this Deweyless library as well. This is big news, apparently, though I'm not sure why anyone in New York would care what some libraries out in the middle of the desert are doing. I searched Google News for news in other big city papers, but didn't find any. Perhaps New York Public is considering getting rid of its classification scheme to be more like Barnes and Noble as well, but I guess the Boston Public isn't interested. Cleveland libraries are probably too busy disinfecting their keyboards after the onanists finish up with them to worry about their classification scheme.

Supposedly this is some big debate in library land. The WSJ article quotes a number of library bloggers who are semi-prominent but much less caustic than the AL, and they try to put forth the terms of the debate, if there is a debate. They seem to do a good job, so no criticisms of them this time, but I wonder if there really is much of a debate. I mean honestly, who of us really cares what some library system out in the desert is doing with their public libraries? So they get rid of Dewey. They could start shelving by accession number for all I care. It's a public branch library, after all, not a research or college library.

Public branch libraries don't exist to serve a clientèle of researchers; they exist to provide bestsellers and how-to books for the adults, kiddie books for the kids, and computer terminals for the onanists and the poor folks from the wrong side of the digital divide. How many books could this branch library have, anyway? It's not like the patrons are going to be heading into the stacks at the Library of Congress or the New York Public Library or the Harvard library and trying to find specific books under the topics of "weddings" or "computers" from the millions available. They don't have a research agenda. These are people who just want to browse around for some random books to kill some spare time and maybe to figure out why so many people are moving so quickly to the desert when there isn't any water there.

Most public libraries I've been in have already shelved their biographies alphabetically, so Elizabeth Taylor and Zachary Taylor sit next to each other on the shelves. If public librarians haven't been bothered by that sort of historical dissonance, why should getting rid of Dewey for the rest of the collection matter?

31 comments:

David, Library Tech. up. North said...

"Public branch libraries don't exist to serve a clientèle of researchers; they exist to provide bestsellers and how-to books for the adults, kiddie books for the kids, and computer terminals for the onanists and the poor folks from the wrong side of the digital divide."

That's the funniest thing I've read in weeks! Tea almost came out of my nose.

Anonymous said...

If librarians are concerned about salaries perhaps they should take care that the public library not come to look too much like Border's and Barnes & Noble, lest they come to look so much like bookstore clerks that they end up getting paid the same as a bookstore clerk.

public librarian said...

The library branch is question is fairly small, so it might work out just fine for them. Of course, it is a combined public and high school library, so you would think the high school kids would be doing research and looking for specific titles, not just browsing...

Anonymous said...

I've never understood what the big deal is with Dewey anyway. Organizing by subject and author seems more intuitive. Of course, this only works for small collections. It's kinda how my own personal library is organized (well, as close to organized as it's gonna get).

But this is a perfect example of a librarian listening to the desires of patrons and acting on them. It actually increased circulation. Now, if only librarians will quit defending porn on the basis "intellectual freedom", more people will be less frightened to use the public library and may actually enjoy coming to the library. I'd also kick the bums out, but I'm a meany like that.

--Chris

Anonymous said...

Is it a good thing for professionals to always bend to the whims of their clientele? Although, I guess I should ask my doctor about a new medicine I saw a commercial for.

Dances With Books said...

"I guess people who might want to do some research and be able to find specific books relatively quickly are out of luck, but those people probably wouldn't bother with the local public entertainment center anyway. They'd head off to a college library, where presumably the librarians are still interested in bringing order out of chaos instead of making the chaos more comfy."

Well, academic libraries may have librarians interested in bringing order to chaos. It does not mean that they will let any Joe or Jane Blow with a research agenda (who is not a student paying tuition, a faculty member or staff, and even some staff are questionable) come into their hallowed collections. Sure, it may work with some limits if it is a state university, but a private university not beholden to taxes, not as likely. Odds are good they may get sent back to the public library where they belong anyways. Oh wait, you mean that place that is pretty much an entertainment center?

I think I also agree with Anon. @ 2:02p. The "profession" keeps up this bs of wanting to be like B&N, they may end up getting paid like B&N clerks. If they are lucky. To some in the profession, I bet if libraries became like Amazon and Netflix, it would be fine. Though it might leave the onanists on the street.

nuther anon said...

MILTON! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
O raise us up, return to us again,
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power!

William Wordsworth,"England, 1802".

Or Dewey, or Dana, or Cutter, or Countryman, as the case may be.

Anonymous said...

I ask you, what organization is more important to a community than the library? The library is there for the community. Each public library tailors itself to support the needs of the community, be it helping the elderly understand and apply for new health care plans, or helping Katrina survivors fill out FEMA forms, or helping adults get their GED, or helping immigrants apply for citizenship, or having computers available for personal use, or just offering story hour to children. You all know that the list of what libraries do for their community goes on and on.

So why don't the people who are working for change utilize us more? Why don't they tell others about what the library has to offer? Why don't they ask us to order books, CDs, DVDs, they would like to read/hear/watch? Why aren't more of them booking rooms for meetings in the library? And why aren't more of them telling their city officials why it is important to fund libraries? I think it is because we have not gotten our message out to the activist communities. Some may be aware of what libraries have to offer but many activist are not. I discovered this first hand when I took my permaculture course in 2005.

My fellow permie students, who were very savvy people, many who functioned as leaders in their community, did not know that they could go to their public library and ask them to order books on topics they wanted to research. They did not know that the library was there for them and that they could have influence in the selection of items purchased by libraries.

What stood in their way was the Dewey Decimal System, and unfair, biased and archaic system created to thwart the progress of the people. We must all stand in solidarity with Phoenix until the Dewey is eliminated, and we can organize information to ensure that the people receive only infomation devoid of corruption.

The Simplified Total Oversight Organization Etymology will always support the will of the People!!!

--Taupey at the Kitchen Table

Anonymous said...

Simplified Total Oversight Organization Global Etymology

Doh

Anonymous said...

I'm kind of like 'so what?' on this one. It's not like public libraries really are being used for research today. Instead, they're more free civic centers with books. Heck, why not start carrying books for sale while they're at it? Not only can they read if beforehand, but buy the copy if the like it. Barnes & Noble can't offer service like that!

Brent said...

Since it is a small library, why don't they have a wall of books people actually will read? That will cover 75 percent of them.

If the patron is adventurous enough to read something not popular, they can venture to the stacks. They must be adequately literate since they are curious of what else is in the library. I know, Dewey is complicated, biased, and blah blah. But I believe patrons can do it!

contrarian said...

"Taupey at the Kitchen Table"

That is hilarious. Yes, the Dewey Decimal system must be racist and anti-union. Power to the big bottom librarians at the kitchen table who want a socialist agenda in their libraries and communities!!

AL said...

Yes, very nice. As everyone knows, any classification scheme is just a way for the Man to stick it to the rest of us. The best way to classify books is just to let people deliberate about where they should go. Anything else is fascism.

Privateer6 said...

I've made comments on this subject at other places on this topic, so I will be brief.

1) If the Dewey Decimal System is so complex to use, why did I start learning how to use it in elementary school. It wasn't that difficult using the old card catalog system, and now it's so much easier with OPACS. After all once you located the book's call number on the card, you go to the stacks and find the book. As long as you knew how numbers worked, you could find the book. Unless that is the book is already checked out because you waited to the last minute to do your research project and a classmate beat you to it. And OPACs solved that problem because they tell you if it is check out or not now..

2) Has anyone ever had a easy time finding a book they needed at a book start. There were two occasions I needed a specific book, and it took time to find it. Once was as an undergrad and it took approx. 20 minutes. The other time took over 45 minutes and asking for the clerk to help me find it before giving up. I get a call three days later saying they found it, by which time I had ordered it and had it overnighted to me.

3) I've actually used the public library systems for research while pursuing my MA. Several of the 14 required books for one class could not be located on campus, but the three public library systems I had access to did have them. Saved me over a $1000 bucks.

As for small libraries not using Dewey, it's hogwash. The "stacks" in my library consist of five panels of 6 shelves, a turnstile, and a display table. Essentially one wall's worth of materials. We use a classification system more complicated than Dewey, NLM, yet no one seems to have problems finding the materials needed, unless they are placed on the display table for this month's theme.

Personally I'ld hate to do an inventory, let alone having to catalogue the collection when patron's start complaining.

Anonymous said...

I agree with privateer6. I don't understand why people want to shelve books by subject "like bookstores", when the Dewey system already kind of does that... No wait, exactly does that, except with some numbers attached. If you're too lazy or stupid to wrap your head around the fact that biographies have stickers on the side that say "921", maybe you should stick to the board books in the kids' room.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. No one has bothered to explain to MY patrons that their public library is not to be used for research purposes. In fact, they yell because we don't have more research material for them to use. Some of them are in grad school and get really annoyed when I tell them to use their university libraries. Patrons seem to feel that they can walk into any library in existence, including small branch libraries, and have the world of scholarship sitting on a shelf to be checked out. This is why they are fans of Google books.

Anonymous said...

All I can think about this is... why ditch the cataloguing system when all you have to do is PUT UP SIGNS? The books are already arranged by subject, anyway! Just put up a big friendly sign saying "World History" over the D section for browsers, and put the books there in order for the people who are actually looking for them.

(And can you imagine trying to pull holds in that chaos?)

Grr. Public librarian here. We do NOT shelve bios alphabetically, and if they try to pull them out and separate them, they're going in LC order, mmkay?

AL said...

"Grr. Public librarian here. We do NOT shelve bios alphabetically, and if they try to pull them out and separate them, they're going in LC order, mmkay?"

I don't know what the norm is, but I know I've been in at least a couple of public libraries that do this, as well as shelve the fiction in alphabetical order by author's last name, often within broad genre divisions, very similar to what this library seems to be doing. Maybe it was some weird small town libraries I visited or something. I haven't been in that many public libraries, though, and I can't remember the last time I looked for a book in one, so I will humbly accept correction on this issue.

Robert M. Lindsey said...

Our public library has bios by last name as you indicated. Also fiction.

Why do you have so many anonymous posters? Is that the Anonymous Librarian?

Anonymous said...

Oh, yes, that's common, which is why I'm so dead set against it. :P I worked in another library where they were set up that way, which made it a little difficult for kids whose assignments were to find bios on people who worked in X or Y field. I could see separating out the bios, but let's try it by subject.

The fiction is almost always alpha by author, though I'm a big fan of genre grouping, as long as it's reflected in the catalog for the poor circ people who have to actually find specific books to send around.

Anonymous said...

Great headlines:

Chicago Tribune, 1948:

DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN

New York Times, 2007:

GILBERT DEFEATS DEWEY

Anonymous said...

Classification system debate aside, I think there is a tacit point being brought to the fore in this post; and, it can be classified as an “us and them” distinction based on a now outmoded distinction between low and high culture, i.e. the public vs. the academic library, the former is plebian and should be abolished because it panders to the bewildered and vulgar public (that public who, in the utopian past, were apparently all once as educated and well read as Harold Bloom—who himself stopped reading after Shakespeare—but now only read vacuous novels and astrology How-to books) and the latter being Aristocratic because it panders to all the smart and valid people who conduct research on institutionally sanctioned subjects.

This, of course, does not reflect the true reality of the differences between the public and academic library and their respective patrons, but I feel, AL, this is your point.

soren faust

AL said...

Soren, I think instead that's the point of libraries like this abandoning classification schemes, and I'm reinforcing the stereotype they apparently like, as the local infotainment center good for browsing. Maybe they can completely abandon subject headings in their catalog as well and use this bookstore approach as well. Libraries set up for research would not use this bookstore approach, and thus any library that does it is saying people aren't there for research. They're here to browse for leisure reading, and if they're not, then they should be because that's what we're here for.

AL said...

As an object lesson on why one should revise prose, please see the repetitive phrasing and unclear pronoun antecedents in my previous comment.

LittleJennLibrarian said...

"Of course, it is a combined public and high school library, so you would think the high school kids would be doing research and looking for specific titles, not just browsing..."

High school kids don't use books anymore. Sheesh!

miriam said...

In my experience, college students use the public library for research all the time. The reasons: they are home for vacation and have a project to complete; they find us friendlier than their college libraries; they feel more at home in the public library.

Anonymous said...

Just another case of elitism from an academic librarian. After this entry, she returned to the other passion for academic librarians: Proving to the world they really are professors. They really, really, are!

AL said...

Obviously a comment from someone who hasn't read what I've written about academic librarians. Oh well.

Besides, what's wrong with elitism? It seems to be considered a "criticism" only by people who resent the fact that they are obviously not part of any elite whatsoever. For everyone else, it's just a statement of fact. Envy and resentment are such unattractive vices.

Anonymous said...

Oh for gods sakes. Why do we worship Dewey to such a ridiculous fashion? Most universities are using LOC ANYWAY. And, most researchers now do some form of keyword search. All that really matters is that you can find the materials on the shelf after you find it on the computer catalog. I'm sure there will be some way of arranging for that.

William E. Dudley said...
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William E. Dudley said...
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