Saying goodbye to the Dewey Decimal System

by Alicia Rudnicki, Library Mix

Dewey? Phooey! Colorado’s Rangeview Public Library District is innovating again.

In February 2009, Rangeview stopped charging patrons fines for overdue books. Now it is saying goodbye to the 133- year-old Dewey Decimal System for categorizing and organizing collections. Rangeview said that it made these changes to become more user friendly.

A bookstore browsing model
According to, Rangeview is the first multi-branch library system in North America to begin switching all of its libraries from the numeric Dewey cataloging method to a system based on a bookstore model of completely word-based categories that is called WordThink.

In doing so, Rangeview said, it is emulating the successful experience of the Maricopa County Library District, near Phoenix, Arizona. In 2007, two of Maricopa’s branch libraries decided to try improving patron satisfaction by switching over to a bookstore-type format of classification involving easy-to-browse word categories.

It is also following in the footsteps of the tiny Frankfort, Illinois, Public Library District, which has only one library and began going “Dewey free” in 2008.

Where is Rangeview & why is it doing this?
Rangeview encompasses six libraries in Bennett, Brighton, Commerce City, north Denver’s Perl Mack neighborhood, Northglenn, and Thornton as well as a bookmobile.

The Perl Mack branch was the first library in the district to switch to WordThink. When the new Bennett branch opened on May 30, it became the second to use the new system. Rangeview said that all its libraries will be using WordThink by the end of the year.

Rangeview’s metamorphosis is big news as evidenced by the Library Journal article as well a front page (and above the fold) story in The Denver Post on June 8.

In the Denver Post article, reporter Monte Whaley quoted Rangeview Director Pam Sandlian Smith as saying “For years, we’ve had focus groups and people consistently tell us ‘I cannot, for the life of me, figure out how this library works. So we decided to turn things upside down, and so far it seems to work well.”

I read it in the Post
Whaley’s Denver Post article provides a good example of how the categorical labels on the spines of library book vary from WordThink to Dewey Decimal to Library of Congress (a third classification system most often used in university and research libraries).

It also gives an idea of the flexibility and broad reach of the Dewey system, which it said is “used in more than 200,000 libraries throughout the world and has been translated into 35 languages.” Whaley noted that Dewey, which uses letters as well as numbers, divides all knowledge “into 10 main classes: generalities; philosophy and psychology; religion; social science; language; natural science and mathematics; technology and applied sciences; arts; literature; geography and history.”

Some librarians do not see the necessity for making the change to what is being called a “word based” system of categorizing library materials. Whaley quoted University of Denver librarian K.R. Roberto as saying “I guess I can’t entirely see the reason for switching over to anything else. This idea of grouping items by subject matter, it’s already being done—it’s just numerically.”

Who was this Dewey dude?
One of the most user friendly sites concerning the Dewey system was produced by a group of Arkansas sixth graders
for the OracleThinkQuest Education Foundation, which specializes in encouraging class projects.

Their “Do We” Really Know Dewey? project explains that in addition to inventing the cataloging system that bears his name, U.S. librarian Melvil Dewey also was the founder of the American Library Association. Dewey was born in 1851 and died in 1931.

The students also point out that Dewey established the first library school in 1887 at Columbia University. It would be interesting to hear their opinions about the pros and cons of the Dewey system.

Concerns expressed online by librarians
As many library-related Internet sites indicate, librarians are struggling with questions about the “Dewey free” debate, including potential problems that a word-based classification may pose.

Some wonder whether this shift is occurring due to lack of instruction about how to use the Dewey system.

Certainly, this appears to be true in public schools where few libraries are overseen by degreed librarians and little time is available to teach children how to locate materials. Some librarians say it is also true for librarianship programs that no longer require classes on cataloging.

Responding in 2008 to the Frankfurt Library “Dewey free” conversion, various bloggers at (Library and Information Science News) made the following comments:

“Dewey has a finer degree of granularity than BISAC [book store categories] does. As I seek apparently obscure things, I have a better chance of locating such in a Dewey collection….”

“Although I am certainly aware of the changes in users and promote positive changes, I’m not ready to throw out the proverbial ‘baby with the bathwater.’”

“I would imagine a historical piece about the past hundred years of cataloging experiences might be useful. To quote a line from Battlestar Galactica–Razor: ‘All this has happened before, and all this will happen again….”

[G]oing Dewey-less for print might make sense for smaller libraries. It will be interesting to see how Maricopa and Frankfort evolve over time.”

And it will be interesting to see what happens in the Rangeview Public Library District.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s