Ditching the Dewey Decimal System

I have SO much information to share with you that I’m going to have to break it up over a series of posts, but for now I want to talk about a major change in the library.

For anyone who has used a library in the past 100+ years you’ve probably used the Dewey Decimal System (DDC) to find a book. And after books, it is probably the second most identifiable word associated with libraries. When people learn that I went to graduate school for information and library science, they always ask, jokingly I hope, if I just took classes in the Dewey Decimal System. It is a classification system that has done an admirable job in the library for many, many years.

And now I’m ditching it. Gone! Kaput! Outta here!

Why? The big thing I want to do here at OVS is encourage reading, both fiction and non-fiction, and to make research a bit easier. Freeing up the books from Dewey will help facilitate both things. Dewey is sometimes wonky, makes it difficult to browse, and is not really all that intuitive to use. Sure, things are grouped by topic, for the most part, but what would make it easier for a student to browse: going to the catalog, looking up a number, then going to the shelves to find that number OR going to a shelf that is clearly labeled with a topic. For example, I am setting up sections for all things literature, which are normally in the 800s for Dewey. With the new organizational system, I’ve come up with a couple of subject headings, including:

  • Poetry
  • Drama/Plays
  • Criticisms
  • Shakespeare
  • Essays


Now if a student wants to find a poetry book, they just go to the poetry section and browse the books, ideally organized by author’s last name. Doing a project on Shakespeare, just go to the Shakespeare section. You don’t have to look up a number, remember it, and then go retrieve it.

Another big reason I am doing this is because we are undergoing a ton of changes, weeding a lot of books, and (potentially) implementing a new circulation system, so now is the time to make such a switch.

If I’m honest with you, I have always been quite dubious of ditching Dewey. When I had my first real conversation about it with fellow librarian and former co-worker Pam Harland, I was very much on Dewey’s side. I came from the school of, “If it ain’t broke…” but then I saw her implement it at her school and saw real world application. Her circulation numbers exploded and her students love it.

Check out Pam’s various blog entries on the topic:Putting Dewey on a Diet, Breaking Up With Dewey, and Dewey Decimal RantAlso, check out her conference presentation on the topic.

There has been a great deal written about this topic, both good and bad, so check out the links below, search online for further information, or talk to me about it; it makes for lively discussion.


8 thoughts on “Ditching the Dewey Decimal System

  1. One problem with “ditching Dewey” altogether is that it is still widely used – in public and school libraries alike – and therefore it’s a tool students should learn. There are ways to work within the Dewey framework to make it more intuitive and user friendly, for example, just to clearly and creatively mark sections of the nonfiction collection: 133 Ghosts, 398 Folk Tales, 796 Sports, 811 Poetry, etc. The Dewey Decimal System is a system that works, and there’s nothing wrong with learning how to use a good system. Ask our second graders where to find pet books and they’ll tell you…636! And when they head to the public library to look for more, they know right where to go…636!

    • Valid points but let me ask you this: why do students need to learn it? When they go off to college, they won’t be using Dewey; they’ll be using LoC or some version of it.

      And what are they truly learning? How to memorize a random number associated with a subject? Wouldn’t real world keyword searching/browsing be more effective?

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  5. I think any system you come up with is going to get complicated fairly quickly as you begin to accommodate different subject areas. Take animals for example. What do you do with your 591 section. You have books about migration, hibernation, animal defenses, physical characteristics etc, which all benefit from being kept together. Do you lump all of these into a giant animal section or a big animal characteristics section? Either way, browsing becomes more difficult. What about history? Are they all lumped together? How do you differentiate.

    Why not continue to do the Dewey but increase your user-friendly signage?

    Ditching the Dewey? Foolhardy if you ask me.

    • Animals are broken up by things like insects, birds, marine life, reptiles/amphibians, and mammals. Simple enough. History is broken up by major subjects. US History (organized by decade), Native Americans, Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Government, Law, Crime, Presidents, Early US Wars, Civil Wars, WWI, WWII, etc etc. Again, simple to browse, simple to find.

      Just think of this system as Dewey without the numbers which eliminates a potentially confusing step for my students.

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