Blogger Kiera Parrott

Reorganizing Non-fiction: A Dewey Hybrid Model

imageAlmost five years after reorganizing our picture book collection we recently decided to commit to a plan and dig in to a full-on rethinking of the children’s non-fiction collection.  The project, called Operation Awesome NonFic Reorg (at least that’s what I call it in my own mind) began about two months ago and is on target for completion this August.

Brainstorming with coworker and fellow ALSC blogger Elisabeth Gattullo, we began sketching out ideas for the non-fiction section about a year ago. Our goal was to address a problem our patrons had been complaining about forever: how to easily find non-fiction books  for elementary-aged children. We have recognized for quite some time that the traditional Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) was not child-friendly. And frankly, not too parent-friendly, either. We researched how other libraries had reorganized their non-fiction for children, visited a few wonderful libraries and spoke to some truly passionate, innovative librarians who had ditched Dewey. I was incredibly inspired by the librarians at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in Manhattan who developed a Dewey-alternative system called Metis.

Although we seriously considered ditching Dewey completely, we ultimately decided on a hybrid model. We wanted to make our collection accessible and inviting for children and their grown-ups. We wanted our patrons to enjoy browsing non-fiction books in the same way they love browsing through fiction. We also knew that we needed to retain strong findability for users searching for a specific subject or title. This hybrid classification system enables us to refine and adapt DDC in ways that make sense for elementary-aged children. We can group like subjects together (Yes! Animals and pets CAN be shelved side by side!) and address Dewey’s antiquated tendencies to be Euro-centric and misogynistic. We opted to keep the DDC shelf addresses, thereby preserving the one thing Dewey does right: locating specific items in a physical location nearby similar items. For our community of library users, this hybrid compromise was the right decision.

We settled on nine distinct sections:

  • Animals
  • Create
  • Facts
  • Fun
  • Self
  • Sports
  • STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math)
  • Then & Now
  • Traditions

(There are also sections for Kids Poetry and Kids Bios, which had previously been separate collections.)

Infamous nuclear disasters: History (Then & Now) or Science (STEM)? These are the types of questions we ask for each title.
Infamous nuclear disasters: History (Then & Now) or Science (STEM)? These are the types of questions we ask for each title.

Each section is colored-coded; a small matte color label adorns each spine at the base, clearly identifying its designation. Each of the above sections has the location built into its call number. For example, the call number for the book Penguins by Lynn M. Stone is Kids Animals 598.47 Stone. The “Kids” prefix indicates the general area in the Children’s Library. “Animals” further specifies the section within the Kids collections. The DDC number gives it a precise shelf location. All of this is further aided by the color-coding on the spine labels and signage which enable better findability and browsability.

Since we will be open to the public and the collection will be actively used during this project, we had to plan carefully for the retro-fitting and conversion process. We purposefully chose to do the majority of the work during June and July, when our non-fiction circulation is typically at its lowest. This will enable us to physically retro-fit and scan the vast majority of the books in our collection. We are going through each shelf systematically, handling each and every title and making a decision about which of the nine sections it should live. Once that decision is made (for tough cases we put it to a quick committee vote) we apply the new labels and then scan the barcode into the appropriate record set in our ILS (we use Polaris.) After that each book is placed back on the shelf in traditional DDC order. Once the entire collection is labeled and scanned, we will move the books into their new color-coded groupings.

By the start of the new school year, our more friendly, child-centric non-fiction collection will be complete. We anticipate a strong increase in circulation and general use. Ultimately, we anticipate seeing happy children browsing and searching in the stacks, expanding their knowledge and discovering wonderful new titles.

Feel free to pose questions in the comments section below- this is a work-in-progress and we are happy to share our successes as well as our failures! Learn & grow!


  1. Ariel Cummins

    I think it’s awesome that libraries are trying out different methods of organizing materials to make them more user-friendly.

    Just want to make sure I’m visualizing this right: after you’re done, you’ll organize, say, all the animal books (which will all have the same color spine dot) on the shelf together, but within that, they’ll be in order by Dewey number?

    I’m wondering what the impact would be on shelving rates. Do you anticipate it will take longer to sort/shelve carts because of the increase in sections? Or do you think the change will be negligible?

    1. Kiera

      You’ve got it exactly right. Within each of the nine color-coded sections, the books will be in Dewey order. For example: Animals will be mostly 500s, with a sprinkling of the 600’s that include pets and farm animals. Within that section the 500’s will precede the 600’s and so on.

      As far as shelving and sorting (good question!) I don’t anticipate it being an added time factor. In fact, based upon what happened after our picture book reorg, I’m thinking shelving might actually be easier. Since we use RFID, our sorting system is technically able to pull the various sections of non-fiction into separate bins. But even if all the non-fiction winds up in the same bin, the color-coding should make it easier to quickly separate into the various sections. We discovered that having small “chunks” of picture books rather than long shelves tightly packed dramatically reduced shelving time and the time it takes to pull holds. I’m thinking the same will be true after this non-fiction project is completed. Perhaps I should do a 6-month check-in post and let you know how things are progressing! :–)

  2. Sharon

    Now that you’ve had the collection organized this way for about 6 months, have you seen an increase in circulation?
    Did you use other metrics to measure the success of this project?

  3. Joanne (California "Library Lady")

    Looking forward to an update too. I would assume that not only has nonfiction use increased, but that the books that were never or seldom checked out before have also seen an increase in circ statistics. This should be a relatively easy stat to figure out with an automated circ system report. Thanks for posting about your experiment, Kiera!
    Also, I am curious about why some libraries now using the hyphenated form of nonfiction (“non-fiction”)? Most publishing companies in the U.S. use the term “nonfiction” as do review sources, don’t they? I’m not sure why some libraries are changing, especially since the gold standard of librarianship is standardization in terms, subjects, names, etc. I guess that many are using it to emphasize the “non” part since it confuses a lot of school children, but shouldn’t kids learn that non simply means “not” as in “not Fiction” or is that too confusing? A lot of teachers now are using the term “informational books” instead.

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  5. Charlotte Sidell

    I want to know if this new subject bin hybrid model has worked or not. Are students able to locate their desired materials more easily or has there been some issues you have had to work out.

    Please be specific.

    Many thanks!

    Char Sidell

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