Words in Boxes

Nouns, verbs, and occasionally adjectives.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Dropping Dewey

I’m a bit of a library nerd, so I was interested in a New York Times article about the Maricopa County Library District, which is phasing out the Dewey Decimal System in favor of something they liken more to the subject-matter “neighborhoods” of a Barnes and Noble:

So at the 24,000-square-foot Perry Branch, there is not a hint of a card catalog. (Mr. Courtright says most people do not know what the numbers mean anyway.) Visitors may instead search for books using an automated computer system, which classifies them by subject and author.

That sounds about the same as every library I’ve ever been in since the age of 12. I don’t really see an advantage to dropping Dewey, even though it is completely outdated, Western-centric, and reflects Melvil Dewey’s eccentric sense of the universe. For eample, check out these sections:

  • 129 Origin & destiny of individual souls
  • 130 Paranormal phenomena
  • 131 Occult methods for achieving well-being
  • 133 Parapsychology & occultism
  • 135 Dreams & mysteries
  • 137 Divinatory graphology
  • 138 Physiognomy
  • 139 Phrenology

(Contrast this to Hinduism, which while the religion of hundreds of millions of people, didn’t, in Dewey’s eyes, merit its own section. )

But even so, somebody using the catalog still has to find a book on the shelf; whether they look for a number or scan alphabetically by author within a “neighborhood” doesn’t seem a practical differnence, at least in a small library. In a large library, need some kind of indexing system to physically locate the book in the stacks once you’ve found it in the catalog. And as far as staffing, I imagine that having a custom system instead of the industry standard makes it harder to get people up to speed. It will be interesting to see how it works out, even if the decision is high on idealism and low on practicality.

[Image from Flickr.]

I'm James Sulak, a software developer in Houston, Texas.

You can also find me on Twitter, or if you're curious, on my old-fashioned home page. If you want to contact me directly, you can e-mail comments@wordsinboxes.com.