March 16, 2018

The Dewey Dilemma

By Barbara Fister

In the search for better browsability, librarians are putting Dewey in a different class

By Barbara Fister — Library Journal, 10/01/2009

Not long ago, a mother blogged about her visit to a newly opened public library in Darien, CT. Though she appreciated its soaring ceilings, the fireplaces and cozy nooks, the presence of a café, and state-of-the-art technology, what really excited her was the way the books were organized. “The books everywhere, but especially in the children’s room, have been shelved, labeled, and organized in a way that makes me feel less like a moron and more empowered to find what I’m looking for on my own.” She went on to say, “the Library, which in my mind used to be a little intimidating and kind of like a disapproving Mother, is reaching out to ME. ‘Library’ is saying to ME that she wants to be like ME and doesn’t expect me to be like her anymore.”

It’s not often that patrons express such strong enthusiasm for shelving systems, but in recent years librarians have been embroiled in a classification struggle. The first skirmish occurred in Maricopa County, AZ, when the new Perry Branch Library, Gilbert, opened in 2007 with nonfiction books shelved using a system adapted from the book industry, BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications). Unlike Dewey, which categorizes related knowledge systematically, BISAC is an alphabetical list of categories ranging from Antiques and Collectibles to True Crime. Many librarians feel BISAC’s relative simplicity and user-friendly language have an advantage over Dewey’s complexity.


The BISAC system is maintained by the Book Industry Study Group, which 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.

According to Marshall Shore, a consultant who was at the Maricopa County Library District (MCLD) at the time and played a major role in inspiring the Perry Branch Rebellion, the issue isn’t which system is superior; it’s about the user’s experience. When interviewing nonusers, he reports, “I heard over and over ‘those numbers scare me,’ ‘I don’t understand them,’ ‘they make me feel stupid.’ The goal of having a BISAC-based scheme is to put customers at ease and help them become more self-sufficient and comfortable using the library.”

Jennifer Miele, Perry Branch manager, says the change was prompted by annual surveys. “Over 75 percent of our customers stated that they go to the library to ‘browse’ for materials.” Serving the fifth fastest growing community in the country, the new branch has been so popular that MCLD plans to adopt BISAC classification in all new branches and will convert existing branches as funds permit. At the Perry Branch, circulation continues to rise. According to Miele, for FY07/08, “our average circulation was 28,693 and for [FY08/09], our average was 39,693.”
“Ease, comfort, and flexibility were important parts of the planning discussion, with taxonomy being one piece,” says Shore. “The library was designed to be customer-centric.” That emphasis included placing low shelving at the entrance to draw people into the collection, tripling the number of lounge chairs, creating reading nooks, and adding signage to help patrons navigate. Shore recalls, “On opening day, extra staff were called in to handle the presumed customer confusion. I remember approaching a woman to explain the library, when she mouthed ‘gardening’ and made a beeline to the area, browsed, and left with a stack of books.”

Since the Perry Branch opened, four more libraries in the Maricopa system have gone Dewey-less, with a goal of ditching Dewey in all 18 system libraries.

The rebellion catches on

The innovations at MCLD have inspired other libraries. After attending a presentation about the system’s experience at the Public Library Association national conference in 2008, librarians at the Frankfort Public Library District, IL, immediately began planning a conversion. According to their Freeing Dewey blog, they are “not necessarily saying no to Dewey but, rather, slowly freeing him, something that we, as well as other libraries, had begun to do years ago with our biography and fiction collections.” They chronicled their progress on Twitter, finally posting on September 10 that “our Adults Colls r officially DEWEY FREE.”

Following a visit to the Perry Branch, librarians at the Rangeview Library District, Northglenn, CO, decided to join the revolution and in 2009 became the first library system to adopt a BISAC-based classification for all of its libraries, though with some modifications. Their “WordThink” system shelves books using words—labeling the spine of a book with a broad category such as Art and a narrower term such as Drawing. Within those subsections, books are shelved alphabetically by title. According to Director Pam Sandlian Smith, “Customers often comment that when they visit bookstores, they can find things easily and would like that ease of use in libraries.” Though it took about 1000 hours of staff time, the changeover was well received. “The elegant simplicity of the system becomes evident immediately. People love the idea of simply finding all their favorite books together under a word heading, which is so easy to navigate,” says Smith. “Librarians have visited our library and have immediately fallen in love with this organization.”

Shelve under skeptical

When Maricopa made its move, the responses were fast and occasionally furious on library discussion lists and even on Metafilter, where a posting in 2007 about dropping Dewey attracted over 80 comments. One ongoing debate is whether turning to retail for inspiration is a betrayal of core library values. Tom Eland, a librarian at Minneapolis Community and Technical College who teaches courses on the politics of information, thinks that turning to business as a model for libraries shows an uncritical acceptance of market capitalism. “Unlike customer service, which is done by private sector corporations on behalf of the profit motive, public service to library patrons is done on behalf of the civic duty of library workers to serve the interest of citizens and residents of the community who patronize the library.” He’s not surprised that libraries that drop Dewey often display materials using ideas from retailing. “Too bad for the people who are trying to do real research, or who want to explore a specific domain of knowledge by going to the shelves and browsing by classification area.”

Wayne Wiegand, professor of library and information studies and American studies at Florida State University, Tallahassee, says, “In general, bookstores do a better job of identifying newer titles relevant to their customers’ interests, but that doesn’t mean they understand those interests. They are mostly responding toa market demand.” While he thinks libraries should respond to what readers want rather than expecting readers to fit into the library’s way of doing things, he takes a pragmatic view. “Dewey has faults but so does any other classification scheme…. To talk of changing classification systems at this time is unrealistic.”

Joan S. Mitchell, editor in chief of the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC), is supportive of libraries that want to experiment. “I would never criticize a library for making a decision based on the needs of the population the library serves. If you have a popular collection for whichbroad English-language categories such as those used in bookstores are adequate, then perhaps such labeling works in your local setting.” However, she points out that “if you equate ‘using Dewey’ to a physical shelf location device, you are missing the rich layers of access.” Dewey can sort large collections into more specific groups than BISAC can. Moreover, a system that is entirely based on English words might inadvertently send the message that the public library is for English speakers only. A web site ( is under development that will, among other things, provide linked DDC summaries in nine languages.

What librarians think

Librarians in the field are actively trying to figure out the right balance. In August 2009, an online survey posted to blogs, Twitter, FriendFeed, and Rusa-L was taken by over 100 public librarians. Well over half said patron difficulty in finding nonfiction is related to three factors: having trouble understanding the online catalog, feeling intimidated by a classification system they don’t understand well, and wanting to go straight to the right shelf without having to look anything up. Only half believe patrons find call numbers too complicated, and a third felt shelving categories don’t pull together topics in the way patrons want to browse.

There was more disagreement about the best solution. Ten percent agreed with the statement that their library would be better off if Dewey was scrapped in favor of the browsing categories used in bookstores. Almost 50 percent agreed with the idea of keeping Dewey but adjusting categories and adding words to the call number. Just over a quarter thought enhancing Dewey with better signage would satisfy patrons. Ten percent affirmed the statement, “People who want to drop Dewey don’t understand the nuances of classification and are throwing away something valuable and widely used just to follow a trend.” Three respondents felt there was no compelling reason to change.

Respondents expressed everything from “it’s about time” [we gave up Dewey] to “It’s part of the dumbing down of our society.” Others thought nothing would satisfy patrons completely: “We shelve fiction by the authors’ last names, and sometimes by genre, and people still have trouble finding books.”

A number of respondents wondered if the experiment would scale well. “So far the libraries I’ve seen that have implemented a BISAC-like program have all been small branches,” one respondent wrote. “When you get to the larger collections with a much greater subject range, I’m not sure how well one can divide everything into a smaller group of categories.”

Of course, there are those librarians who think libraries already do it better than bookstores. “Dewey allows for a level of ‘granulation’ in topic areas that general subject areas such as those in bookstores cannot duplicate,” one wrote. “I find it harder to find materials in bookstores than in the library.” But others feel it’s time for a change. “It’s not about what I think, it’s about what the patrons think,” wrote one. “And these days, I don’t think Dewey translates well for many of our patrons—the majority wouldn’t miss it at all as long as they could still find books on the subject they’re looking for, especially if they could find it quickly and easily without assistance.”

The mashup solution

At the new Darien Library, the staff decided to work with Dewey rather than abandon it. According to Kate Sheehan, knowledge and learning services librarian, “adult nonfiction has been rearranged in what I like to call a Dewey/bookstore mashup. We wanted to retain the findability of Dewey while encouraging and enabling browsing. We clumped similar areas of Dewey together in eight broad categories, which we call glades,” a concept similar to the innovative “neighborhoods” created in Hennepin County’s, MN, Brookdale Branch. “Dewey does a decent job of organizing, for example, travel books. They get broken down by region and then country, and it’s pretty easy to browse and find,” says Sheehan. “However, Dewey leaves languages on the other side of the library, which doesn’t help travelers who want to browse for materials for their trip. So, we put them in one section and call it Places. It’s a flexible system that we’re still tweaking based on patron feedback.”

How exactly does this work? “In terms of process,” Sheehan explains, “we made each glade a location in our ILS, and we bought stickers the same width as our spine labels, with the glade names. We went through the stacks in the old library and marked off ranges of Dewey by glade. Every book got a glade sticker above the call number. We changed the locations by call number.” The outliers, she adds, were problematic. “The 300s [social sciences] end up everywhere. And in every range of Dewey numbers, there were exceptions.”

In the children’s section, changes were even more radical. Gretchen Hams-Caserotti, head of Darien’s children’s services, used the questions parents asked to drive her redesign. “The most common request we hear in a children’s library is ‘My son is three, and he really loves trains. Can you show us where those books are?’” she says. “The common thread is always a declaration of the child’s age (or reading level) and intent or interest.” So she planned around that need, using open source software to map visually color-coded categories—such as colors, nature, or transportation—making it easier to find books by the categories that interested different age groups. Even prereading children know that books about trucks can be found in the red section, but the location of a particular book can be pinpointed through the catalog.

“If you spend an afternoon at a large bookstore,” Sheehan says, “you’ll see people using it in a couple of ways. The bookstore-as-destination people come in, wander around, get a stack of books, a cup of coffee, and settle in. The grab-and-go folks take a quick look around and usually hop on a computer or ask an employee, find the item they’re looking for, and leave. Dewey is great for the grab-and-goers, and we didn’t want to lose that. Dewey is not so great for the destination users. Cooking is in technology. Gardening is in arts and recreation. Don’t those two make more sense with each other?”

With six weeks to make the switch, it wasn’t easy. In spite of the challenges, Hams-Caserotti would do it again in a heartbeat. “Since we opened in January 2009, the children’s book circulation has been up about 30 percent each month and still growing as we fine-tune the collection and the room.”

Other approaches

The urge to find new ways to make it easier to discover books has spread to many libraries, including the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, KS, and Anna Porter Public Library (APPL), Gatlinburg, TN, which organized a preconference for the Association for Rural & Small Libraries in September, “Dewey or Not?” As APPL director Kenton Temple explains, “We did not drop Dewey. Rather, we split up and moved Dewey catalog numbers to suit an overall shelf location design. I visited ‘bookstore’ libraries and many bookstores to see what subjects were usually placed together since I assumed that some market research had been conducted in the book industry to place subjects where they would sell better. If necessary, Dewey numbers were reassigned to get books shelved where they would ‘sell’ better but not drop Dewey altogether.” Librarians wanted to retain Dewey’s precision and its ability to identify a specific shelf location.

The San José Public Library, CA, has also embraced a bookstore approach, in part to handle soaring circulation and increased funding for materials but no increase in staff. One of its timesaving innovations is a “direct shelving method” that eliminates steps in getting books back to the stacks. Books are roughly sorted from book drops right onto trucks. Lorraine Oback, director of marketing communications for the library, estimates that more than half of the books checked in are never placed in precise Dewey order because they’re shelved in a “Marketplace” near the library’s entrance, which features new and popular materials in general categories.

Right next to MCLD, the much larger Phoenix Public Library (PPL) has taken another approach to integrating BISAC into the library. According to Ross McLachlan, deputy director of technical services, “We didn’t go the route of ‘let’s abandon Dewey.’” Not only would it be too costly, but Dewey is useful. “It is a living thing. There are constant changes, always attempting to be relevant to the development of human knowledge.” To complement the traditional “shelf location with a system behind it,” PPL decided to use BISAC to enrich the catalog with additional metadata and faceted browsing.

In 2005, PPL was the second in the nation after North Carolina State University, Raleigh, to choose Endeca as a replacement for its OPAC. By working with OCLC and vendors, BISAC headings were imported into MARC records. BISAC levels of specificity complement Library of Congress Subject Headings, allowing patrons to drill down into a topic in an intuitive system of guided navigation.

Though adding BISAC headings to the catalog was labor-intensive, it should be easier for libraries in future. According to DDC’s Mitchell, “We have a mapping under way between BISAC and Dewey to support the association of Dewey numbers with metadata early in the publication stream.”

On the far end of the innovation spectrum, an experiment has begun at LibraryThing to build a new system from the ground up. The Open Shelves Classification project aims to create “a free, ‘humble,’ modern, open-source, crowd-sourced replacement for the Dewey Decimal System.” (Both Dewey and BISAC are licensed proprietary products.) As of this writing, the project seems to have hit the pause button, but the online discussion demonstrates the conceptual and practical difficulties involved in designing a classification system.

How broken is it?

There is no doubt the library world is in a dilemma about Dewey, but the system is hardly dead. In his 2007 book, Everything Is Miscellaneous, David Weinberger said bluntly, “It can’t be fixed.” In spite of that, Dewey is currently the most widely used classification system in the world, employed in 138 countries by over 200,000 libraries. But the Perry Branch Rebellion and experiments in serving both browsers and “grab-and-go” patrons have spurred a spirited discussion of how to make a singular knowledge system work in a world full of miscellany.

Author Information
Barbara Fister, LJ Academic Newswire‘s Peer to Peer Review columnist, is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her next mystery, Through the Cracks, will be published by Minotaur Books in 2010



Advice from the Trenches


Jennifer Miele, Maricopa County Library District The top four most important suggestions I would advise for the next generation of potential “non-Dewey” libraries are:

  1. A clear and concise understanding with library staff of the BISAC-based schematic you are adopting. You need as much staff buy-in as you can in order for that to translate effectively to your customer.
  2. Most certainly you need a plan to work closely and continuously with any vendor, if you outsource your material, or cataloger(s) to keep them apprised of changes and additions in your BISAC-based scheme—they can’t read minds! In return, the vendor and/or cataloger(s) need to be held accountable when you have communicated any necessary changes. This point is especially vital if you continue to add libraries to your BISAC-based scheme in a consortium or system.
  3. You absolutely need clear and bold signage for this to work, just as you see in a bookstore. If you don’t, you run the risk of losing the actual purpose of the BISAC-based scheme.
  4. Continually respond and listen to the feedback, positive or negative, that your customers give you about their library. Those who are not “happy” with any change you implement need to be educated as to why you are effecting the change (i.e., to improve the service for them) and how you can make their transition easier.

Kate Sheehan, Darien Library When we were working on the glades, we tried not to think about comparative size of sections. We started to break up larger sections to make them more equally sized, and we found ourselves reinventing Dewey, probably approaching BISAC. So then we began to think about big, overarching groupings that made sense. However, when we finally got everything into the new building, we realized that Life & Times was gigantic. It’s so big that patrons get disoriented trying to find books, even when they have the glade and call number. Right now, we’re working on breaking it into two glades, Lives (for biographies and memoirs) and Times.

Joan S. Mitchell, DDC Some questions I would ask myself before abandoning Dewey entirely (as a shelf location device and/or as a discovery tool in metadata) are: Am I serving a multilingual population for whom a language-independent representation is useful? Could I use the multilingual nature of Dewey to provide access to materials in more than one language? Would it be useful to shelve a work virtually under more than one category, or more than one facet of a topic? Do I want to provide a consistent browsing tool that users encounter elsewhere (e.g., for children, is the same system found in the school library)? Is a bookstore model more expensive when I take into consideration the advantage of using numbers already assigned by other libraries? Do I want my library’s holdings to be represented by an international standard understood worldwide in union catalogs and bibliographic utilities? Is contributing to cooperative cataloging important to my library in the greater context of the library community?

Working with Vendors

Vendors have been heavily involved with the Maricopa branch’s experiment. Though much advance planning was done, “being a pilot of any sort makes it a gamble on how well it will go from a theoretical planning stage to practical use,” Jennifer Miele, Perry Branch manager says. “Brodart was more than happy to accommodate our request for the change and worked very closely with us to make this happen—Baker & Taylor was quick to jump on board as well. We gave them the taxonomy and worked via email, conference calls, and in person with reps to work with the team to effect this new change. Perry Branch Library had reps from the vendors on hand when our opening day collection was delivered, to accommodate last minute issues before opening.”

As George Coe of Baker & Taylor said in an LJ interview last month, BISAC codes are provided for all of their titles, as well as additional subject codes. There’s no additional fee for this enhancement on their end, but fees apply when a library wants to customize BISAC further.

Marshall Shore, formerly of Maricopa and now a consultant, found the collaboration with vendors to be an ongoing process. “When a draft schedule was a completed, it was sent off with a sigh of relief, to the vendors. In a short time frame there were emails from the vendors asking about exceptions or clarification.” But beyond setting up a new system, librarians need to continually make changes. According to Shore, “the taxonomy is not static.”

Brodart’s Lauren Lee explains how the company has worked with both the Perry and newly-opened Queen Creek branches of Maricopa as well as the Deweyless branch of the Gail Borden Library in Elgin, IL. “What we have found is that each library system that opts for a BISAC-based scheme makes their own tweaks to it,” she says. “It may be related to the size of the collection (e.g. small libraries may do fine with a pets section, but larger libraries need to distinguish between dogs and cats and other pets). Gail Borden had some creative category names like ‘Vroom, vroom’ for children’s books on transportation.”

Maricopa staff found that BISAC categories needed to be modified to match their community’s needs and the size and complexity of different parts of the collection. Working from their knowledge of local demographics—a large teen population, many families, a close
connection to a high school—the team working on the project particularly focused on areas that needed refinement—”categories that would be most prominent at our facility and ones that were general enough that they would cross over when we added other libraries,” notes Miele. Maricopa librarians found that in many parts of the collection, broad categories are adequate for browsers, but social sciences and history required more refinement.

Vendors report that libraries take a variety of approaches. “Some libraries include the BISAC classification in the bibliographic record as a local subject heading,” according to Brodart’s Amy Bartholomew. “Others stick with a traditional Dewey classification (082 tag) or Library of Congress Classification (050 tag) in the bib record, but use the BISAC classification as the call number at the item level.”

But not all libraries rely on vendors for cataloging. The librarians at the Frankfort IL public library have taken a DIY approach to converting a collection from Dewey to a word-based scheme. According to a (naturally brief) tweet from their Freedewey Twitter account, “We r responsible 4 cataloging. We do not have to deal w vendors. Though I no vendors r willin 2 do precats w any taxonomy.”



Maricopa Perry Branch, AZ

Video and photo tours of the Perry Branch

Infopeople Webinar Podcast on the Deweyless Library, with Marshall Shore

Darien Public Library, CT

All About Darien, blog post about the new library

Children’s Library reorganization photos

Children’s Library video

The Glades

Photo tour

DDC resources

025.431: The Dewey Blog

DDC presentations

Dewey Info

An experimental project to develop a web platform for Dewey; includes selected DDC Summaries in nine languages.


Frankfort Public Library District, IL  

Freeing Dewey blog

Slideshow of labels


LibraryThing’s Open Shelves Classification Project


Phoenix Public Library, AZ

Phoenix Public Library’s Endeca site and catalog

Family and Relationships category


San Jose Library, CA

The San Jose Way in pictures

Marketplace photos

Topeka and ShawneeCounty Public Library, KS

“Why We Do Dewey”

Travel Neighborhood photos

Travel Neighborhood video

Crime Neighborhood photos


SalemChurch Branch of the Central Rappahannock Region Library System, VA

Merchandising photos

Blog posts

“Don’t You Know the Dewey Decimal System?” Metafilter

Karen Schneider, “Raising Arizona” ALA TechSource


Press coverage

“Arizona Library Shuns Dewey,” NPR

“County Library Embraces Dewey-less World,” ArizonaRepublic

“Dewey? At this Library with a Very Different Outlook, They Don’t,” New York Times

“Discord Over Dewey,” Wall Street Journal


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