Friday Dysfunctional Roundup: Librarians Rebel Over Dewey Decimal System Dysfunction

Run for your lives! Library branches are rebelling! No one can find any non-fiction!

People born after 1990 have never known life without the internet, probably, and Google more specifically. But, do they know the Dewey Decimal system? Probably not. And,  that pre-digital system for organizing those heavy things (um. . .) oh yes “books” is being moved aside.

The issue seems to focus on book browsing rather than finding things directly according to an article in this month’s Library Journal:  “The Dewey Dilemma : In the search for better browsability, librarians are putting Dewey in a different class” ( by Barbara Fister, LJ, in Library Journal 10/1/09 — a very thorough, engagingly written article with lots of interviews and author-generated polls,  that leaves no stone unturned).  Do people want only the information they say they want? No.  People like to browse, rather than have rifle shot hunting for information sometimes. (Which has all sorts of neuroscience implications I would imagine).

One problem: people can’t find non-fiction books in their library. Here’s a graph from a poll taken by the article’s author:

In 2007, with similar patron dissatisfaction data, a library in the Perry Branch in Maricopa County, AZ library,  rebelled against using the Dewey Decimal System of shelving books, in favor of a more book-browser friendly version, the BISAC system, that

. . . classifies books into 52 broad categories, each with additional levels of specificity. Categories for a book are typically determined by the publisher (a job that often falls to the editor, who knows the book best) and are used throughout the distribution chain by companies like Amazon, Baker & Taylor, Barnes & Noble, Bookscan, Bowker, Ingram, and others. In many ways, it fuses the functions of subject headings with classification. Many bookstores work with the categories to organize their shelves, but the categories and subcategories are also used to create a searchable record of a book. Though the bookseller might decide to shelve the book in one category, that book may have multiple BISAC headings assigned to it in the computer system. Unlike library classification systems, BISAC codes are invisible to the end user, enabling browsing but usually requiring customers to turn to a staffer to locate a specific title.

One of the rebellious branch managers is quoted as saying  for FY07/08, “our average circulation was 28,693 and for [FY08/09], our average was 39,693.”

After the Perry Branch rebellion, other libraries followed suit, fully or partially with the book-store shelving model (BISAC, described above).  The “retail model” is not necessarily the best model, some librarians point out, as it could tends to over-commercialize books, rather than focusing on information.

Some librarians are Dewey-centric, and the Dewiatian philosophy is that Dewey isn’t just for physical book shelving, but is an information classification system. Thus, to de-Deweyize would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater, to the extent anyone actually throws out bathwater with babies in it any more.

At the other end of the spectrum is a crowd-sourced version to replace Dewey, “Open Shelves Classification System, a “free, ‘humble,’ modern, open-source, crowd-sourced replacement for the Dewey Decimal System.”  This would probably work well for factual items – “sculpture” may be next to “painting” rather than “rock climbing” for example. But in general, I don’t know if I like “majority rule” all the time. Sometimes crowds are stupid.  Majorities can railroad minorities who may have a better way. Sometimes consensus isn’t the way to go  — you need unhumble leadership to actually accomplish something that works.  This will be an interesting experiment nonetheless and well worth the effort.

Is book browsing necessary at all?

Book scanning and OCR’ing are  absolutely the way to go for those researching specific issues.   The trouble is key words in fields where the jargon changes over time. This is particularly true where subject matter draws from a variety of disciplines.

Disambiguation is tough. Take “psychopaths” (a favorite subject of this blog).  Psychopaths are studied by psychologists who use the DSM, by shrinks who may use psych-med label indications, by sociologists, neuroscientists, pharmacologists, brain imagers — you name it. No one can agree on the terminology to describe an individual with a fairly standard behavioral and neuro- phenotype, as we are coming to find out. Psychopath, sociopath, antisocial, “mood disorder”, bipolar,  Machiavellian, narcissist, borderline – who knows. All sorts of terms are used, depending on the discipline of the person discussing it, usually.

So, if you browse, you can find adjacent subject matter. In fact, the web information is probably organized so that you can browse information that is “next to” what you actually asked for.

I think there are two neuroscience factors here — resistance to change (or openness to new information) and distractability.

Do we want a book shelving system – or a system to organize information generally — to be useful to people who are wired to be resistant to finding new things? Then close browsing may be the answer, so as to give only a little difference at a time. Do we want an organizational system to benefit those who are easily bored and want to find new things? Maybe the organizational system is a little less granular.

Some people don’t want anything new.  Take people who have a tough time adjusting to change, maybe there’s an issue with a lack of nerual plasticity or something. For those who don’t like change, browsing is really the answer — information  not too different but still new enough to provoke that urge to explore and anticipate some good rewards from finding new things. (All of this is neuro-wiring, the exploration and anticipation of rewards for exploration, coming up in an article soon on another website, will post that here. . .).

Like, say you’re a die-hard ultra left progressive semi-anarchist — you may bump up against libertarians. And then you can both complain about everything. (OK, I kid).

The novelty-seeking factor is also organic. Who wants to work in QA/QC and run the same test on zillions of samples, year in year out? Some people want to do that. Others would consider that living death.   An organizational system may also cater to those who seek novelty.

Perhaps there should be a button at the top of the search — “I want novelty” or “slow down I’m not ready for new things” based on key words, so you can adjust the scope of your search.  And maybe that should be reflected to some extent in the physical world where books go on shelves.