Guest Blogger

Done with Dewey

I, for one, am tired of defending Dewey.

Come on down to the 600’s you say. To technology. Where you’ll find dogs and sewing and airplanes. That might have been technology 125 years ago but things change, words change. Ask any person what technology is and we guarantee that they won’t mention domesticated animals or sewing or the human body.

For years we taught Dewey through relay races and scavenger hunts, computer games and posters. We worked to make it as engaging and fun as possible. Our students would eagerly play along. They could answer questions about where to find books on elephants or India and alphabetize 8 words that started with Ar, but the moment we shifted the books on the shelf they were at a loss as to where to go. They had memorized the location of the books they liked, not how the system worked.

Successful systems have clear logic and the different pieces are connected in ways that make sense to people who’re using the system. Students may be able to navigate the numbers if you spend enough time teaching Dewey, and find pieces of it, such as the 636.7 books or the 745.5 books. But the logic, the sense of it, will escape them because it’s based on criteria that are unknown or irrelevant to them.

Why is sewing in 646 and knitting in 746? From a child’s point of view both of these are crafts, skills to learn, ways to make something real. You can certainly teach that sewing is in one place and knitting in another, and teach kids to find them in those places, but it doesn’t constitute a system that is manageable by general principles. The logic, that sewing is in Technology under Domestic Sciences and knitting is in Arts, is hidden and in any case the whole scenario seems arbitrary to children and adults.

It’s no accident that once we had shifted to a new kid-centered system, Metis, many of our students told us that they felt the library was “more organized” or even that “the library is organized now.”

We still teach children to navigate a system, but now that the system we use is more intuitive, our students are able to find the books they want independently. Instead of spending our time walking students to the shelves explaining as we go that you’ll find human body at 612 because Dewey connected medical science and the human body, and medical science is “technology,” now we just say, “you’ll find it in the ‘Ourselves’ section; look under B for the word Body.” With all the time we save we have more time to do readers advisory at a higher level and explore more complex questions.

One has to wonder why this conversation keeps coming up in professional circles. Maybe it’s because librarians have to put more and more effort into making DDC a relevant system in an increasingly information-rich and technologically-savvy culture. Dewey might not be dead yet but now that we have an alternative in Metis we’re taking him off life support.


Our guest blogger today is Tali Balas Kaplan. Tali has been a school librarian at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School for the last 14 years. She is actively involved with ALSC and currently sits on the board as the Fiscal Officer.

If you’d like to write a guest post for the ALSC Blog, please contact Mary Voors, ALSC Blog manager, at


  1. Tamara Cox

    Great post! I ditched Dewey last year and haven’t looked back. Now I’m on a mission to share the benefits with others. Dewey is so treasured by some that this has been difficult, but I put together a list of resources here: Just added this great post. Thanks.

  2. Kiera Parrott

    This fascinates me! On so many levels, I’m going “Yes. Yes! Exactly! Amen to that!” At my library, we have reorganized our picture book collection and our adult non-fiction in a similar fashion- into bite-sized, highly browsable chunks that hack DDC and join like subjects (such as knitting, interior design, cooking) into one logical section. Within those smaller sections, we still have DDC.

    As much as I’m on board with you, I’ve been resistant to reorganizing our Children’s Non-Fiction collection in a similar fashion. We exist in a town with five elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school. All of these schools use DCC in their libraries and the school media specialists work hard to teach them the system. I worry that these kids will be completely confused and not served by encountering a completely different system in their public library. Not to mention what they’ll encounter once they head to college (LC anyone?) Why should our users be forced to learn 2 or 3 or 4 different classification systems whenever they walk into a different library? As flawed as Dewey may be, the one thing it has going for it is that you can walk into (almost) any public library and find what you’re looking for. I’m all for rethinking Dewey. But for it to work and endure the test of time, I believe a large majority of public and school libraries will have to get on board with adopting the same alternative classification system. A tall order, I suppose.

  3. Dee Crowner

    We just celebrated “Decimating Dewey” on April 13 (how appropriate). It is a time consuming project but we love our subject based system and our patrons are finding it easy to navigate. It takes ” a while” to convert from Dewey. From decision to switch to now was around three years. We did change every part of the collection including the A/V and relabeling all of the fiction to match the nonfiction. Every piece of material in our collection was relabled which took a lot of time but things sure look great! Changing signage to WORDS is cool also and a lot easier for the patrons to follow. Our Adult Services and two Youth and Teen Services Librarians were the superstars of the project. This system is much more user friendly as material on a subject is all in one place instead of scattered all over. BTW, we are a mid size library in Iowa but much larger libraries have done this also. The times they are a-changing and Dewey isn’t working anymore for many libraries. Make life easy for your patrons and go subject based.

  4. Lorna Flynn

    Dewey is used worldwide. It is a brilliant system considering when it was created. For instance, what is technology, the 600 mentioned above? It is man impacting and manipulating nature, the natural world. That includes farming, medicine, pets, inventions. I get the point about knitting and sewing. But I believe that Dewey is more flawed by its narrow U.S. cultural perspective. That can be fixed. So can the knitting and sewing. Because it is based on numbers, all language systems can use it. Therefore, it is found in libraries worldwide. It’s a common language so to speak.

    1. Sue Giffard

      [Disclaimer: I am a colleague of Tali’s and worked on Metis with her.] You are right: Dewey has issues/problems from a number of perspectives. The cultural/religious/geographical bias is one of them. I don’t believe it’s so easy to take care of these issues; certainly all of the editions of DDC over the years have not done so. The issue of the sewing and knitting goes even deeper in Dewey, I think: Dewey looks at information largely from the point of view of discipline. That is the source of the separation of sewing and knitting, as well as many other topics which are closely related from our users’ point of view. The connections between concrete topics in Dewey are often abstract. The fact that Dewey has a number-based notation makes those connections opaque. If Dewey is a language, it is not a language that anyone outside of the community of librarians can speak or understand. That is the power of using BISAC: anyone who reads the language being used can read the words that make up the spine label notation on the books and the signs and make sense of it.
      Any classification system has bias, or a particular point of view: the question is, which perspective or lens works best for your community of library users? The perspective we used was the viewpoint of the children who make up the vast majority of our library users. That was why we did not use a modification of BISAC. We felt that it was important to start from the ground up, with how children approached books and information. We added into the mix our experience of how the library is used, the nature of our collection, the school curriculum, and the issue of encouraging children to think more abstractly as they get older. (In the process we were also able to fix (from our perspective) many of the cultural biases that we found in Dewey.)
      It’s true that our students will no longer have experience trying to navigate long strings of decimal numbers in the elementary years. But they will take with them experiences of being able to navigate the library independently, of being able to move from one area of interest to another with ease. They feel empowered. That, we decided, was more important and closer to our mission as a library in a progressive educational context.

  5. Mary Voors

    I love the conversation that is going on! It’s great to see the passion we all feel about offering the best possible access to library collections.

  6. Kathleen F. Lamantia

    What I don’t understand about this is that it seems that you were expecting your students to understand Dewey in order to use it. I think this is a lovely and worthwhile goal, but it presupposes a misunderstanding of Dewey’s function, as least insofar as it pertains to those seeking materials.

    Catalogers of course must understand Dewey in order to create the call numbers. Searchers only need to have the number in hand and understand how to count so that they can find the item on the shelves.

    It is the subject headings, and nowadays keyword searches, that would yield the records. The records have Dewey numbers attached which instruct the patrons where on the shelf to find those things they are interested in.

    Dewey may then lead to browsing of similar materials, which, if it has been used correctly, will be in close physical proximity to one another.

    I weary of the insistence that Dewey is irrelevant and/or unwieldy. As I said in a post on tha ACLSTS discussion re BISAC I think it is both simple and elegant.

  7. Stacy Dillon

    I do still teach Dewey and I try to do it through hands on activities that make it fun. As Lorna and Kiera said, it is used world-wide and brings a common language to the library. Our students have taken time thinking about how they would arrange a school library if it were up to them, and we have also had in-depth conversations about the bias found in the 200s, for example.

    Each library really has to figure out what works for their patrons, and the underlying idea of an organizational system seems like the most important aspect of the whole thing. Teaching Dewey doesn’t take time away from our other lines of librarianship like readers advisory, database searching, or educational technology. It’s simply a part of the curriculum that we teach to help our students to be library literate.

  8. Charles Schweppe

    I must admit, I am not familiar with the details of Metis. The main reason that I have been a (silent) supporter of Dewey is that it does the two things for successful cataloging: colocation and shelf location. Most alternatives to Dewey that I’ve heard of, except Library of Congress, do wonders for putting like things together (colocation) but stop there, and make finding a specific title difficult. Dewey, when used with cutters, can at least tell you specifically where Giles Sparrows’ “Destination Saturn” should be on the shelf, rather than saying it is “somewhere in with the books on planets.” I only hope that Metis is able to do this as well.

    1. Sue Giffard

      Rather than a classification system, such as Dewey, which frequently synthesizes classification numbers by combining different aspects such as discipline, topic, place, time, etc. in a single long number, to which of course libraries add author cutters, we see Metis as a categorization system. Metis occupies a kind of middle ground, which is appropriate for the age of our students (PreK-5th grade). Our system is very much built upon our actual collection, and is very flexible, allowing for easy growth and change. We constructed our sub-categories carefully, so that they were not too large. Our aim was to make it possible to look up a call number in the catalog and find the book on the shelf reasonably easily and quickly. While in fiction and poetry we have held onto author cutters, in other areas we have dispensed with them. That means that we don’t have the same specificity in shelf location that we did with Dewey and author cutters. However, some of our large sub-categories, such as Baseball, were just as large when we had Dewey (796.357: we never got more detailed than that). The only difference was the author cutters, and given the fact that the books were heavily used and thus always out of order, we’ve experienced very little difference. (I’m considering splitting up that subcategory, in fact, into books about playing baseball and books about baseball teams.) It is definitely a different way of looking at classification: we are no longer aiming for specificity in the same way. I know that this works for us in an elementary school context. I have no idea how it would work, or how BISAC-based systems are working, in middle school and high school libraries. We chose to take the sub-division of categories only part-way because of the age of our users and the size of our collection (approximately 20,000 titles): one could take it as far as one wanted. There would be no reason that “Saturn” could not be a subcategory of “Planets” under what we’ve called “Space,” if one wanted to take it that far.

  9. former mediaspecialist

    I agree with Kathleen. In my mind, the important skill is to be able to search for an item in the catalog, and then locate it on the shelf. This should be transferable to any library using any system, and I still fail to see why so many are unhappy with Dewey. Some of the activities mentioned by Stacey Dillon sound fantastic. These are the “teachable moments” with Dewey. I’m not opposed to these new organizational systems, but cannot agree with any system that does not have specific shelf locations for each book. This is exactly why I detest shopping in large bookstores – the maddening scenario when I have found a book that is in stock but doesn’t have a specific location on the shelf.

  10. Pingback: #ala12: I Want a Truck Book! Reorganizing Your Picture Book Collection | ALSC Blog

  11. Karen T Morris

    I find this system and conversation EXCITING!!!! I’m thinking that even college students who are teacher candidates would find this a lot more useful. Of course it would have to be adapted, but could integrate K-12 textbooks, kits, and professional books with the juvenile literature.

  12. Kristina

    I have been thinking about doing this for a couple of years, and the article on Metis in SLJ this month put me over the edge. 🙂 I am a middle school librarian, though- is anyone using METIS in a MS or HS library? I would love to look at your online catalogs to see where you have put things in the Metis system. THANK YOU to the awesome librarians who have made this conversation more “out there.” I thought I was a lone ranger with this!

  13. Shannon Thompson

    It’s so refreshing to read about other libraries who are moving away from Dewey. We just finished up our transition and I couldn’t be happier. My library is a much more patron-friendly place and the feedback I’ve received has all been positive. Several other libraries in my district are considering leaving Dewey or are in the middle of leaving.

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