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The un-Dewey-ing of a library

NORTH LIBERTY– Before the North Liberty Community Library began making big changes with its expansion, staff was busy making some important changes to its content.
The library did away with the long-established Dewey Decimal system of shelving and cataloging books and other materials, changing to a system that organizes them by their subjects.
While the staff members say it will make it much easier for patrons to find things, it was not an easy undertaking to make such a huge transformation.
In fact, it took over a year to complete the change-over.
More than three years ago, Library Director Dee Crowner and Assistant Library Director Jennie Garner attended a public library association conference in Portland, Ore., where they heard about subject-based cataloging.
“I though, it’s kind of innovative, and we try to be on the cutting edge of pretty much everything,” said Crowner, who brought the idea back to her staff. After learning more about the few libraries elsewhere in the U.S. that had made the switch to subject-based cataloging, visiting a library in Frankfurt, Ill., that had changed part of its collection to the system, and obtaining a guidebook from the Anythink libraries system in Colorado, the library staff was ready to turn the page on Dewey.
“We decided if we were doing it, we were going to do all of the library, and not just one section,” said Crowner.
Crowner volunteers at the Herbert Hoover High School in Tama, which has a very small library, and she was able to practice, implementing a subject-based system there.
“So they are the first school system in Iowa that has this,” said Crowner.
“What we like about this is that in the old system, things might be found in three different places in the library,” said Crowner. “Now, things are all under one heading, and then broken down by subheadings. So you can go straight to one place, and not have to look all over the library.”
Dewey is outdated, Crowner said. The library cataloging system was developed in the 1800s, and for subjects like computers that weren’t yet invented, a library had to make a place for them.
“You can find numbers for them, but sometimes they don’t make sense,” Crowner said. Dewey is scattered. Dewey has too many numbers that patrons can’t always relate to.
The Dewey system breaks the entire collection into 10 main classes, and each class is subdivided into 10 divisions, and each division into 10 sections– giving 10 classes, 100 divisions and 1,000 sections. Sometimes, the numbers after the decimal point become extremely long.
In the subject-based system, on the other hand, someone looking for a book on civil rights will simply go to the subject heading, Civil Rights.
“Subject-based is a lot more intuitive than numbers,” Crowner added. “For years, book stores have had their nonfiction books arranged by subject, so people are used to it anyway.”
It was more of a process than simply moving books from shelf to shelf. Adult Services Librarian Elaine Hayes was in charge of un-Deweying the adult nonfiction section.
“We adapted the guidelines to our collection,” said Hayes. It required picking up and examining every book in the library, essentially. “First we found each book and decide what category it fit in. Then we changed, the spine labels, and then had to change all the call numbers to the words we chose, and go into the computer and change the call numbers to the words we chose. After that, the subjects were put into alphabetical order.”
For the complexity of the process, the outcome is an ease of accessibility.
Fiction books are now color-coded, rather than sporting icons like magnifying glasses and unicorns. Nonfiction books are classified by their subjects, and patrons read words rather than numbers. Music CDs are even reorganized for easier location.
“We found that some of the books that never used to go out– like some of the art books– go out now,” said Hayes, perhaps because under Dewey, they were stuck in a place that wasn’t connected to other art-related books.
Youth and Teen Services Librarian Andrew Frisbie rearranged the primary and juvenile sections and helped fellow Youth and Teen Services Librarian Melanie Stewart in rearranging the teen reading section. Frisbie said the subject-based system has helped kids, particularly younger children, in finding certain books.
“It’s nice because animal books and dinosaur books used to be kind of spread all over different sections, and now they are all in one spot,” said Frisbie. “I think most kids tend to see the topmost heading and begin to browse that section.” It also allows them to see the sub-categories, which might help to expand their interests or make new connections between topics and sub-topics.
“I’m not sure you would get a kid to admit it helps, but I’m sure it will,” Frisbie joked.
And the library staff all hopes it helps patrons of all ages to find books and materials more readily.
“Now that everything is in its place and clearly labeled, I think people will be able to see how much easier it is. And I hope they can appreciate it,” Frisbie said.