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09.04.01

DEWEY IS DEAD

“Is Dewey dead?”  The question came up during a talk to a community organization about the Library’s new downloadable audio service.

“No, we love Dewey,” came the automatic response.  Every school child learns about Melville Dewey, a scholar and librarian who designed a system for classifying books to arrange them in subject order.  Every public librarian takes a course in cataloging and classification and learns the mysteries of the Dewey Decimal Classification system intended to bring order from what could be complete chaos.  The Dewey Decimal system, developed in 1876, has been used by virtually all public and school libraries since the 1930s. (Most academic libraries use the Library of Congress scheme, which is better suited for large collections.)

Then, an article in the library press gave pause for reflection.  A Florida legislator stormed over the frustrating nature of Dewey: “If Barnes & Noble organizes its books more simply, why can’t libraries?” 

That brought to mind the much-publicized decision of the Maricopa County Public Library (Arizona) to pitch Dewey out the window and use a bookstore-style arrangement for a new branch. This library has lots of island shelf units, each one dedicated to its own topic: gardening, cooking, health and fitness, music, American history, sports.  So inviting for browsers.  Hmmm.  Wonder whether the listener who asked about Dewey’s demise wasn’t kidding but dead serious about her question?

That certainly could be possible.  In the digital age, downloadable audio and other electronic materials need no classification for shelf arrangement since there is no physical item to shelve.  As long as they are findable in the library’s catalog, by author, title, subject(s), that is all that is required.  And with more and more materials becoming available electronically, the application for classification is diminishing.  So, yes, the questioner probably was serious, she asked a legitimate question, and all she got in response was a flippant, ill-considered answer.

Getting online articles for school assignments and downloadable books for leisure listening is very appealing.  On the other hand, though, how many people want to read their books on a computer screen? And, if they do, can they all afford computers and Internet connections so they can read online books?  And, if they can, what if all members of the family want to read at the same time?  Will they be competing for time on the family pc, or will each one have his own computer?  Or, if they can afford Kindles, do they really want to pay for every book they download to read?  These newest electronic gadgets do have their appeal for people who travel and don’t want to lug a lot of books around with them, but they aren’t practical or affordable for most people at this point.

Libraries still have an important place for readers, for a variety of reasons.  And, as long as libraries exist, they will continue to need to arrange books and other materials on the shelves.  As Maricopa County is demonstrating, the form of that arrangement may vary.  Some libraries may adopt the bookstore-style plan to satisfy browser interests.  But what if a patron is looking for a particular book?  Where will he find “The Botany of Desire: a plant’s eye view of the world” or “In Defense of Food: an eater’s manifesto” or “Omnivore’s Dilemma: a natural history of four meals” by Michael Pollan?  Or “The Essential Guide to Growing and Cooking with Herbs”, or “Fed Up! winning the war against childhood obesity”?

No classification scheme is perfect.  One book can relate to many other books in many conceptual planes on many shelves.  A book is not a two-dimensional flat file (like an Excel spreadsheet) but a rich, multi-featured three-dimensional database (like an Access file).  A cataloger uses a single relationship for classifying a book, but identifies other relationships by assigning subject headings.  These give the searcher several options for finding a book, through browsing books on one given topic, and through searching the online catalog using a variety of keywords and subject headings.

Dear Melvil (he advocated for spelling reform) is long dead and buried.  We know because he is listed in what librarians fondly call DAB, the “Dictionary of American Biography”, one of whose criteria for inclusion is that the subject is deceased.  But his legacy lives on in the scheme adopted by so many libraries, not only in America, but around the world.  While not perfect, the Dewey Decimal Classification system is sufficiently sound to have persisted through 22 editions and 133 years of use.

Melvil was active in numerous endeavors that might surprise casual library users.  He founded Library Bureau, a furniture company (by which our own main library was furnished 43 years ago).  He founded the American Library Association.  He was the chief librarian at Columbia University, and established a school of library economy.  He contributed to the revision of New York State laws on higher education.  He founded Library Journal and edited it for years.  He was an activist in reform movements, not only for simplified spelling, but also for adoption of the metric system, for temperance, and against tobacco.  He and his wife founded the Lake Placid Club in 1895 and turned it into a successful health resort.  A winter sports promoter, he helped bring the 1932 Winter Olympics to Lake Placid.  He also founded the Adirondack Music Festival and was a trustee of the Chatauqua Institution.

And his legacy lives further on, in books like “Dewey Decimated”, a murder mystery by Charles Goodrum set at the Library of Congress, “The Dewey Decimal System of Love”, an amusing romance by Josephine Carr, and in “Dewey, the Small-Town Library Cat That Touched the World” by Vicky Myron.  Dewey is headed for the big screen, starring Meryl Streep as the librarian who adopts this frozen, bedraggled kitten who appears one winter night in the bookdrop.

Ah, Dewey, we never knew ye at all, but we love ye still.

So, Dewey is dead, you say?  Oh you April Fool.

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