Have you ever wondered why it’s so difficult to find a book at the public library? Why you must use the card catalog or ask a librarian for assistance? I’ll tell you why: the frickin’ Dewey Decimal System.
I just spent four hours sorting a large portion of my non-fiction library in Dewey Decimal order, lightly printing the call number for every book on its back flyleaf. When a book’s title page did not list the call number, I looked it up in the local library system. I did this for about two hundred books. (I set aside another two hundred as not yet worth the effort, and didn’t even touch another four hundred volumes.)
This took time.
Lots of it.
I had supposed that ultimately all this work would be worthwhile because it would yield better organized books. I was wrong. Tomorrow after work I’m going to go home and undo the entire system and reshelve according to Roth Non-Decimal System.
Here are some examples of the craziness in Dewey:
- For many books, there is no one set classification. For example, The Gutenberg Elegies may be classified under 028.9 (reading) or under 302.232 (social interaction). I admit that this makes sense in some cases, but under Dewey, the delineations are often bizarre.
- Barack Obama’s memoir is filed under 973.4 (general history of North America – United States). It’s an autobiography; shouldn’t it be under 921? Elspeth’s Huxley’s semi-fictional account of growing up in Kenya is classed in 921, as one might expect, but Alexandra Fuller’s recent book about growing up in southern Africa is shelved at 968.91 (general history of Africa – southern Africa). These books are nearly identical except for the time periods in which they occur. They’re both autobiographies. Why aren’t all three of these books in 921?
- Hiking Oregon is 796.51, which makes sense; 796 is “athletic & outdoor sports & games”. However, Into Thin Air is 796.52, which does not make sense. (Into Thin Air is about disaster while climbing Everest.) Oregon’s Best Wildflower Hikes is 582.13 for spermatophyta (seed-bearing plants), which makes a tiny bit of sense (but only a tiny bit). The book is about hiking, not about wildflowers. It ought to be shelved next to Hiking Oregon, and Into Thin Air ought to be shelved someplace near The Worst Journey in the World, another book about a disastrous expedition.
- John Muir’s Travels in Alaska is filed under 979.8 (general history of North America – Great Basin & Pacific Slope), but Into the Wild and One Man’s Wilderness are filed under 917.48 (North America).
- The Lifetime Reading Plan, a reading guide to the literary canon, is shelved at 011.7 (bibliographies), but An Invitation to the Classics, a Christian reading guide to the literary canon, is shelved at 809 (literary history and criticism). Other reading guides to the literary canon are shelved elsewhere.
- Gardening books are strewn about through all sorts of classifications so that I cannot even begin to decipher a rhyme or reason. Some are in applied science, some are in natural science, and some are in social science. Some are in art! If I were organizing them, they’d all be together under — and this might be a shocker — gardening.
Admittedly, what makes sense for a home library might not make for a large institutional library. Still, I get the distinct impression that the Dewey Decimal system has long outlived its usefulness and ought to be quietly put down. (I had four years of exposure to the Library of Congress system during college, but don’t know it well enough to be able to state whether it would be any better than Dewey for my purposes.)
It’s a sad state of affairs when I can walk into Borders and find the book I want — without assistance — in less than a minute, yet if I were to try the same thing at my small local public library, I’d have to walk up and down every aisle and I still might miss my subject. Even at Powell’s, the “city of books”, where there are gigantic rooms filled with thousands of volumes, I can generally find what I want quickly.
This seems like a good place to voice another library complaint. Over the past year, as I’ve begun to use the library more, I’ve noticed that each branch in the Clackamas County Library system has its own method of organizing non-book media. This makes it frustrating to locate things.
For example, several of the libraries stock graphic novels (glorified comic books). At most branches, graphic novels are organized by title, so that all Superman graphic novels are together under S, for example. In Milwaukie, however, they sort the graphic novels by author. This is insanely stupid. It is rare that a comic book carries a single author for more than a couple of years. If I want to borrow a bunch of X-Men comics from Milwaukie, I have to look under each individual writer’s name, if I can even remember them. Note that none of these are filed under X, where one might reasonably expect to find X-Men.
Most libraries display their compact discs end-on, so that it is easy to view a large number of them quickly during a search. Not the Oak Grove branch. The Oak Grove branch forces you to flip through drawers full of CDs. Worse, instead of filing them alphabetically by artist name in broad genre classifications, they sort the CDs by Dewey Decimal order! Does a Maria Callas opera compilation come before or after Beethoven’s complete symphonies? And why is Dawn Upshaw’s “Because I Wish It So” collection of popular songs filed nearby? Who knows? You have to flip through a drawer full of CDs (or maybe two drawers full) in order to find out. It’s maddening.