Monday, 24 June 2013


Every so often a question comes up on the school librarian network (SLN) about where to shelve a particular book within Dewey which usually ends up in a discussion about the merits, or otherwise, of various library classification systems. In my library, I use Dewey for my information books … okay, it’s a simplified version so that I rarely have more than one number after the decimal point and, in many cases, I’ve used the lowest common denominator for a section to make it even more abridged but it is still the basic Dewey system; ten sections categorised loosely by subjects. I also believe that you have to make it work for your own situation which sometimes means putting a book where it will be found rather than religiously adhering to the “correct” Dewey number; for example, does a book on Tudor theatres go into the history section on Tudors, with your Shakespeare resources or amongst the drama books?
I have to admit that I have very little recollection of ever using Dewey myself, either in my school or public library. I must have done but all I knew then was that if I looked up a book in the card index, it would tell me the number where I’d find that book on the shelves. I also knew that I’d find other similar, possibly useful, books near it. These days, give me a subject and I can tell you, if not the exact number, then roughly where you’ll find it. It’s not that I’ve learnt these numbers by heart, despite the belief of many of my students, but that working with them all day for several years has resulted in me absorbing them by osmosis.

Dewey isn’t complicated. It basically divides all information resources into ten areas according to the subject matter.  And, after I’ve introduced this concept to my year 7s, shown them the subject index and given them an exercise on finding books on specific subjects, very few of them have problems understanding how it works – I also think they rather like being able to come into the Library, use the subject index and find a relevant book without my intervention. This gives them confidence and empowers them as library users and, for those who will go on to FE or HE, skills to enable them to find information in much larger libraries.
But is Dewey the best classification system for school libraries? Would we serve our users better by adopting an alternative system? … and make no mistake, we have to have some sort of system otherwise no-one would be able to find anything (though it would make reshelving quite quick and easy)!

One alternative would be to shelve by curriculum subject (and many years ago I remember going into the children’s section at Guildford public library and discovering that this is exactly what they did, using coloured stickers). That’s fine for subjects that have very clear demarcations but what do you do regarding cross-curricular resources? Books on energy sources that are used by both Geography and Science and never Technology (even though that’s where you’d find them under Dewey). And what about books that don’t come under any curriculum area but are used by a certain department? I have a collection of books on pets that are well used during an English project yet they certainly aren’t anywhere near the Dewey sections for English resources.
A further arrangement that has been suggested is to shelve information books by year group according to the topic being studied during each term; so you’d have Roman books on the shelf labelled Year 7 History Autumn term and Pop Art on the Year 9 Art Spring term shelf.

I guess teachers would like this arrangement – it would be quick and easy for them to just pop into the Library and grab the pile of relevant books. It would also mean that if you had a specific class in for a research lesson then they wouldn’t have to waste time browsing the shelves looking for books but could all just go to the appropriate section. And those students who were lazy and couldn’t be bothered looking up the Dewey number would also be well served. You’d not have to bother making up resource boxes and your issue statistics might also go up. But is this the sole reason we have information resources? I know one of our functions is to support the curriculum but we also exist for a lot of other reasons. And we all know that issue statistics do not reflect book use. In fact, it would be quite easy to increase our stats artificially … not that I’m saying we should spend a couple of hours each week issuing and returning books to random students, but you get my point?
By arranging our resources in this way, are we actually doing the students any favours? Or are we just adding to the “spoon feeding” culture in education that focuses on targets and results, and not equipping students with the research skills needed to function effectively in society?  Arranging resources in this way may have some advantages but I think the disadvantages outweigh these: what of those year 9 boys who are fascinated or obsessed by a topic that happens to be part of the year 7 curriculum, are they going to borrow books from a shelf labelled for younger students? And what about cross-curricular subjects, something I’ve already talked about. Not to mention all those resources that link with personal interests and hobbies that aren’t covered by the curriculum … the list is endless … cars, aliens, dragons, zombies, extreme sports, horse riding, ice hockey, wrestling …
Libraries should be for discovery. For wandering around and browsing and finding something intriguing, strange, unusual, something that you probably wouldn’t find if you just went to the “curriculum section” for your year group. When I do my Dewey exercise with year 7s, I have them roving around all over the place and it’s surprising how many “find” books that they then borrow … books on things that they’re already into but that they “never realised I had these in the Library” or books on something that “just looked interesting so I’m going to borrow it.” This is how we nurture children’s imaginations, dreams, aspirations … by letting them discover for themselves.

The world is full of systems; if I want to buy macaroni then I know I have to go to the pasta section of my local supermarket. Which isn’t much different from knowing that if I want a book on castles then I have to go to the section on buildings and architecture …




  1. I absolutely agree that Dewey or a personal numbered system has to be in place to encourage browsing opportunities. You can still put collections together for promotional reasons or to enhance a study topic students are currnetly learning about but in my opinion a library is a place of discovery and if you take this away from students of any age then you are depriving them of valuable reserch skills which they may be in need of later in life. It also creates less of a collaborative experience between library and teaching staff as when we are asked for a topic box, we add extra resources to it such as subject sheets, image folders, classroom posters etc. It is hard enough for some librarians to have positive contact with teaching staff without helping that along with as you say "spoon-fed" experiences. Another thing that a proper numbered system does for librarians is help them keep track of which sections of books are used on a daily basis and not just for curriculum use. This is invaluable when completing stock weeds or compiling stock gaps of subjects.
    Keep the kids and more importantly the staff browsing!!
    Beth Khalil, LRC Manager
    Charles Thorp Comprehensive School

  2. I think you miss the point of what a school library and a school librarians role is. We are there to make information easy for people, especially young people to find. In one breath you say we need to be understanding of the context of our school and users but suggest that it has to be dewey dewey dewey and this is the only way to go about it.
    Actually dewey is just one system of many systems used to organise things and it's not even the system used in all libraries and even all university libraries. The skills we should be teaching, the skills that really are transferrable are the skills that allow someone to walk into a place and understand that an ordering system is being used, to know how to find out what the system is and then to use that system successfully to find what they want.
    As you suggest the supermarket is a great example, but knowing dewey does not help in finding the sweets. Knowing that there is a system and how to access it helps. Focussing on dewey, just one system, does a disservice to our students as it is teaching them nothing.
    One the note of 'spoon-feeding' I do not think you apply this situation rightly here. If making access to information easier and making sure that students can find what they need/want in an easier way is spoon-feeding students and focussing on results not only do you miss the point but we might as well build a brick wall in front of the shelves and make it as hard as we can for them to find the information because they can then also learn problem solving and get fit trying to climb the wall too! How can the students be learning if they are not taking the books in the first place. I would rather have all the books borrowed in the library and taking out where they may just be used rather than them sit on the shelves in dewey order never being discovered!
    I completely agree that a library is a place for discovery, but if this discovery isn't even able to happen because users are turned away believing they can't access it then that is the real shame.
    I actually think that by breaking down the system of information books into how they are used in the school is a really good one and the issue of books appearing in multiple areas is only an issue if there were only one book on that subject (in which case you could just buy multiple copies). As it is if a book appears under technology, science and somewhere else then that's fine, put it in the area it will be used most but when it comes to sourcing books for the other subject area then there will be plenty of other books published that will go in that section. Balancing this out then with an area that promotes reading for pleasure, whether this be fiction, non fiction, graphic novels, talking books etc is then the key. These are the books that would get lost in dewey and never discovered in the middle of all the other information texts. But suddenly they come alive when they are taking out of this situation and young people who want to read for facts for fun are then engaged into reading in a whole new way and see that their way of reading is just as valuable as any other way.

  3. One thing I like about school libraries is how different they are. That's no surprise really when you think of the demographics of our user groups ... children/teenagers/young adults whose lives are governed by their hormones and emotions, on top of the world one day, the next snarling at everyone. That's part of what makes the job so interesting and challenging. But it also means that works in one library may not necessarily work in another. Hence the different opinions that always come up whenever anything to do with school libraries is discussed.

    The main thing is that you need to run the library the way that best suits your students. And if they find Dewey difficult then I guess putting books into curriculum areas per year group does make it simpler, although I'm not sure that many schools have either the budget or space for multiple copies on different shelves. However, this is still a system. And I wonder, having learnt what subjects they are taught when and in what year, how useful this information will be to them in the future? As I said earlier, Dewey is not complicated. And rather than students leaving school with the knowledge that "we did Romans in Year 7" maybe them learning that books on Romans are in the Ancient History section with books on Greeks and Egyptians might be a bit more useful.

    However, if you're finding that Dewey is preventing them from browsing and finding resources then obviously you need to rethink things. Maybe my library is unique (although I'm sure it's not) but I have a constant stream of students taking out information books, not only for school use but also for personal interests. Yes, I have pulled out some sections and put them elsewhere ... I think any system should be adaptable, a bit like our library spaces ... which means I've put the fun poetry books in the lower school fiction area, I've also got shelves in this area where I have an ever-changing display of n/f books that tend to be overlooked, and it's a real eclectic mix that ends up there! I've also pulled out my biography section and totally relabelled it, with 920 and a category depending on the type of person (eg: sport, media, war, writer, etc). This has revolutionised the section and it's now kept amazingly tidy!

    I think Dewey encourages lateral thinking and wider searching but I guess the question is ... does Dewey not work because it's wrong or does it not work because we're not explaining it properly?