Blogger Program Coordinating Committee

Kid-Friendly Dewey

One of my first realizations as a school librarian was that Dewey nonfiction does not work for kids! Over the past decade, I have been looking for alternatives: I had a whole Pinterest board of Dewey alternatives that other libraries had tried. I also went to a Dewey-Lite program at the ALSC National Institute. None of what I found online quite worked for me, but they gave me a lot of ideas, which led me to create my own modified Dewey system in bins, which works great for my patrons, and great for me! I started the project in early 2023 and finished in October 2023. It was slow-going, but the results have changed how my students use the non-fiction area, and it helps me as a solo librarian.

I recently reviewed Dave Saia’s ALSC blog post about Genrefying Non-Fiction, which is what I always imagined I would eventually do. However, there were a few elements to genrefication that daunted me: changing the catalog, changing spine labels, and simply breaking away from the cataloging of other libraries in my large, mostly uniform district.

My solution was to put all of the non-fiction in bins. This does not require any catalog update or spine label changes, and is faithful to Dewey (including all its flaws). I also enjoy that I no longer need bookends, and shelving is a breeze! I’m a solo librarian, and the Dewey bins cut shelving time in half, possibly more.

Most importantly, the collection is searchable and browsable for children. The shelves and bins all have labels with images, so non-readers can find the topics. The focus of each label is the topic and image, not the Dewey number. The books are still in Dewey order, but the topic labels are more of a description of what’s in each bin, and less focused on the Dewey schedule. I also added numbers and images to the ends of the shelves and along the top of the shelf where each bin can be found. As a school librarian with no assistant, I am often tied to my desk during check-out and can’t walk around to help students find their books. The visual signs work perfectly for me to tell students to go “look in the 700s with the other sports”, and most of the time, even the youngest students can find the bin themselves! I also recently added colored velcro strips with numbers on them to the aisles, which has helped a lot. For example, I can tell them to “go down the aisle with the red lines and look for 100”.

There are still a few frustrations specific to Dewey, specifically that domestic animals are in technology, apart from all the other animals. However, clear signage makes this mostly manageable for students.

There are also some unclear categorizations between book topics and Dewey numbers, but I was flexible with bin topics, focusing on what is actually on the bin, and less of what is on the Dewey schedule. Some topics, like dinosaurs, have two bins. I tried to focus on how students use the library; most students aren’t interested in the division of dinosaurs by species, and two bins is still easy for students to browse through. Another example of an adjustment I made is that 560 in Dewey is technically “Fossils and Prehistoric Life”, but when I looked at the books in the collection, they were all about dinosaurs with a few about fossils. So, I labeled the bins with “560: Fossils and Dinosaurs”.

For each shelf I followed a 4-step process:

  • Grouping/Binning– I binned the remaining books by natural groups- usually this was based on call number, but sometimes there were several call numbers in the bins.
  • Topic – I checked the Dewey schedule to see how the call numbers were described, and I followed that when it would make sense to the students. But, I modified the topic when necessary (because my students don’t know the difference between edentata and ungulates, and neither do I.)
  • Label – I created a label with the number and the topic, plus an image showing what is in the bin. (I used a subscription website for the images, but it is no longer running.) I used a table to keep a working document of the 2-inch square labels. I could edit and reprint them as needed.

The biggest challenge was grouping the books by a single topic description, and flexibility is the key. It was hard for me to break from the rigidity of the Dewey schedule, but once I realized that a single bin could hold one Dewey number, or a range of Dewey numbers, I was able to move forward. This system also has flexibility to adjust to a changing collection. I used book tape to attach the labels, so if a part of the collection grows, I can easily move the label and shift the books to a bigger bin.

The 620s are another example of the need for flexibility. 624 is technically “civil engineering”, but all the books in the collection were about construction and construction vehicles, so I limited the description to “624: Construction”. As you can see in the image, the 624 bin also includes “625: Roads and Trains”. The number of books in that bin is still small enough to be quickly browsable.

There are endless examples of where I got creative with the topics on the bins, but once I was finished I realized that it did not matter. The students were able to understand the organization of the non-fiction in a way they hadn’t with traditional Dewey! The students love the bins, and so do the teachers and volunteers!

All images courtesy of D. Vandersande


Debby Vandersande is the librarian at Franconia Elementary School in Fairfax County, Virginia, where her passion to help the diverse student body see themselves and one another through literature. She is currently serving on her first ALSC committee, the Program Coordinating Committee.


This post addresses ALSC Core Competency number IV. Collection Knowledge and Management.

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