The Dewey Dumbcimal System

by J.D. Roth

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:

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.

Updated: 26 October 2005

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