Dark Lord Decimal System

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I am taking off my beret and replacing it with my Library Dork hat. This actually works out for the best, because the beret was hiding my blue streak of hair, which hardly anyone can see anyway. Hairdresser Jeff chose a lovely shade of blue for the lock, just lovely, but it falls in the midnight blue end of the spectrum, and is therefore hardly distinguishable from the rest of my head. I’d say that it can only be seen in a certain slant of light, but I don’t like Emily Dickinson, so nevermind.

Because this post shall be devoted to the organization of library materials, I expect that most of you will discreetly close your browsers and instead peruse the Cute Overload story about the dying hamster. I defy you not to cry. And if you don’t cry, I don’t want you reading this blog anyway, as you’re a monster and a blight upon the earth and I don’t like you.

I do however hope that public librarians might at least skim through today’s posting. (If you get too choked up to read because of the hamster, come back later. It will still be here.) I hope that Technical Services folks in particular will keep reading.

I feel toward catalogers the way D. H. Lawrence felt toward women. I hate them, I love them. They destroy my soul; I must have them. I want to dominate them, own them, control them. I am their slave—in the bad sense (human chattel) and the bad-but-nuanced sense (willful bondage).

(Not that anybody really needed that imagery. Sorry. You start with an innocent comparison to a master of the British modernist novel, you end up with whips and chains. Not quite sure how that happened.)

(Not that I am casting judgment on my fine friends in the BDSM crowd. Though I am not sure if I have friends in the BDSM crowd. I may well, it’s only they’ve never talked about it to me. )

Right. Catalogers and me. I am a public reference librarian (“Side of Good”) whose job it is to help patrons find books that were organized by catalogers (“Side of Evil”).

Thing is, the folks in the Side of Evil camp are not deliberately wicked. It’s just that their founder was. (I am not making this up. Melvil Dewey was a miosgynist, a racist, and an anti-Semite.) Most of them really do want to arrange books in such a way that people can find them, but they’re working with a very flawed system.

Also, some of their subject headings are just insane, but I am not going to pick on them about subject headings, not today. Today we are going to restrict outselves to fussing over classification.

Catalogers in public libraries classify books according to the Dewey Decimal System. You may recall having been plagued with this when you were in elementary school. There is no good reason why any normal person should care about the Dewey Decimal System. The best way to find a specific book is to look in the catalog, which will tell you the exact call number you need to locate. If you feel like browsing in a particular subject area, you can get the catalog (or a helpful reference librarian from the Side of Good) to point you in the right direction. No need for you to commit the system to memory; once you have the general call number, you’ll find that similar books are all grouped together.


Except it’s not really like that.

Here, stop reading this for a moment and see what the Swiss Army Librarian has to say.

And if you STILL haven’t looked at the hamster, now is the time.

Okay, did you follow all that? Catalogers (“Side of Evil”) who faithfully follow their dark lord’s decimal system wind up placing similar books all throughout the ever-loving library, and dying hamsters will break your heart.

Did I mention that the Dark Lord’s Decimal System keeps changing every few years? Just enough to be noticeably irritating?

Now we on the Side of Good will sometimes take it into our heads to undermine the Dark Lord DS. When I first got to my library, I noticed that one of my collection areas (004-006, for you library dorks) was guarded by a minotaur. You ducked in to try to find a book on Windows XP, but it was wedged between a Microsoft Excel 2003 book and a book on operating systems, pub year unknown, and the minotaur hadn’t eaten since yesterday. Scary stuff.

My plan involved clumping all of the similar books on the same shelf (i.e., Microsoft Word books next to Microsoft Word books. Fancy that!). This involved assigning more precise Dewey numbers than we had been using—so it’s not like I completely abandonded the Dark Lord, but remember, this was my first recataloging project. I was still in his thrall.

It also involved adding publication years to the spine labels, and—here’s where the dissent gets exciting—I took away the author name from the spine labels because, let’s face it, nobody has author loyalty with computer books.* Instead, the letters show the subject (ACC for Microsoft Access, etc.)

*Okay, maybe David Pogue

My full conversion to the Side of Good came about two years later, when I, along with some renegade catalogers, moved our graphic novels the hell out of 751.5.

Once upon a time, all of the books with panel art—from Jeffrey Brown’s wonderful but very smutty grownup nonfiction memoirs to collections of Garfield comic strips—lived in 741.5. I will not go into the details, because it is getting late, and because you can hear about it at the state library conference this year. But the end result is that we threw Dewey in the trash* and arranged the books in a sensible order.

*the recyling bin, actually, but that doesn’t sound as dramatic

We kept the cartoons and comics in 741.5, and moved the graphic novels to three different sections, one for adults, one for young adults, and one for children. Nonfiction comes first with each section, and then the books are grouped by…

Oh get ready for this, this is the great part…

…grouped by recurring character, if applicable (Batman!) or series (Fables!) or, failing that, title (Black Hole!).

It’s awesome.

O’course, that only solves classification problems for one tiny collection in the library. The great unwashed masses of books throughout nonfiction are still to be conquered. We don’t even have books grouped together by subject, necessarily. Thet’re grouped together according to a system that made sense to Melvil the Dark Lord, but folks wanting to find books about home repair are, understandably, bewildered.

Another question I get all the time—“Where are you self-help books?” Damn near everywhere.

And then—and this is a particular peeve of mine, seeing as readers’ advisory is my schtick—all the narrative books are grouped in the with the instructional books. I deliberately chose not to purchase a book for the library the other day, even though the review was good. It was a reflective collection of essays about the trials of moving. I decided not to get it because I knew it would be shelved with books on moving. This makes sense, if you’re going by subject—but in real life, people aren’t going to check out that book when they’re hunting in the moving sectino, because they’ll be busy fussing with packing and boxes and selling their homes. That’s not the appropriate time for a contemplative leisure read.

If we had a section of nonfiction books with collections of thought-provoking essays (and a collection of memoirs, and a collection of investigative exposes, etc.), then I’d have purchased the book. But we don’t have these collections, because our books are organized according to subject, not according to mood or intent. Which makes nonfiction readers’ advisory really extraordinarily difficult.

All right, catalogers. Flay me alive. I’m ready for it.


19 responses »

  1. I like your ideas! But then, I’m still learning this whole library thing, so my brain isn’t stuck in a certain mentality that a school beat into my brain. Although, I do see a difference between the people who want to throw out DDC altogether and the way you explained it. I think you still need SOME kind of labeling system just to keep the books somehow in order, and your graphic novel sections totally still do that. But I read about this situation awhile back:http://www2.tbo.com/content/2008/dec/19/na-libraries-offer-plenty-for-storms-to-stew-over/I couldn’t imagine what she was thinking. I took it as, "let’s just put the books on the shelves and eliminate cataloging altogether!" …*headdesk* So in comparison, your idea is obviously much more intelligent since you know WTF you’re doing to begin with to actually be able to tweak how things are cataloged while still retaining some sense of order.I mean, that whole new RDA thing is being developed, so it’s obvious some cataloging rules are just behind the times. DDC may be, too. But is there anyone working on a way to update it uniformly among all libraries who use it? Or is that one of those things that each library will continue to tweak however they want to fit their own collection? Since libraries using physical card catalogs are becoming a thing of the past, the way things were classified to fit that system may need to be, too. I found it so funny to learn that titles are cataloged with only the first letter in the title capitalized because back in the day, it was less keystrokes to type a capital letter on the index card with a typewriter, so that rule was made to save time… and we STILL use that rule. I think computer keyboards are a little faster than typewriters, so if we capitalize the title properly, is that considered incorrect? Even though if you used that sort of capitalization in, say, a bibliography for a paper in English class, you’d probably get marks off for it not being properly capitalized. I’m still learning cataloging, of course, but some of those sorts of things just make me giggle. It’s like learning an ancient art form, in a way. I mean, card catalog cabinets are considered antiques in the furniture world already! :OOh, one other thing… I’ve never worked with Library of Congress classification – is that more accurate than Dewey?

  2. BTW, darn you for making me think about work on my Saturday morning off before I’ve even had my coffee. ;P

  3. the lesbrarian

    Hi Cara, and thanks for speaking up for the Side of Evil,Oh, I totally believe in organization systems. I invite to visit my apartment sometime, to see the exhaustively precise org system I have for my personal books. Classification systems need to serve the patrons. We shouldn’t expect patrons to learn complicated systems like Dewey– and even if we did expect it, we’d be disappointed, because they won’t do it. And quite honestly, I’ve got an MLS and have worked in a pubic library for several years, and I still don’t know Dewey all that well. (But that’s why we have a catalog, see?)The thing about the catalog is that it’s not very easy to use. I’m not just picking on our catalog; I am picking on all public OPACs everywhere. Folks go to the catalog, do a general word search for "bicycles" or whatever, and get a gajillion hits. Until someone develops a library catalog that is easy for the average person to use, the primary method for finding books in a library will be browsing. That’s why it’s so important to get similar books grouped together on the shelf.I [heart] LC. I know it way better than I know Dewey, probably because I was a shelver at an academic library. I think it works much better than Dewey; it’s more flexible, it has more info on the spine labels, and it isn’t so Eurocentric.But it’s not quite fair to compare the two. Public libraries serve a different type of audience. Just about nobody goes to an academic library to browse for pleasure, and generally the topics are more specific than what public patrons are looking for ("oh, you know, something good to read…").And making innocent people think about library issues on their Saturday mornings is a perverse pleasure of mine.

  4. Fighting the good fight one subject at a time, we did the same thing with our computer books. And we include the pub date on the spine labels of our computer, travel, test prep, and tax/financial books. My little saying of the moment is, "the shelves are for browsing, and the opac is for research."

  5. the lesbrarian

    Brian: we too have pub dates on travel, test prep, and tax books. Next battle, I think, should be the health books.Shelves are for browsing, the opac is for research: yes. Quite. Couldn’t agree more. But this to work smoothly, at least three things have to happen:1. The opac needs to be usable. If you type in "home repair" and get two hundred hits, you need to be able to sort them quickly and efficiently. Folks are accustomed to the speed of google. No opac anywhere even begins to approach that.2. The subject headings need to make sense. I’m sure you know the infamous example about World War II, the subject heading for which is "World War, 1939-1945." And yes, I had to look that up just now, I can never remember the dates, nevermind my degree in history.3. Because nonfiction books are shelved by subject, browsing for nonfiction pleasure reading ONLY works if your interest is subject. If you’re in the mood for nonfiction with good characters, or survival stories, or memoirs of crappy childhoods, you will not find them by browsing. Nor will you find them in the catalog, because that sort of information isn’t recorded in the catalog….already I’ve written enough in the comments here and in the original post to justify an article. Too bad I can’t publish it somewhere. Editors frown on crude jokes in professional publications. No sense of humor, that lot.

  6. Very interesting – post plus comments. Here are some other considerations:1) In general, catalogers are very service-oriented in the sense they want to create products (catalogs, records, etc.) that help users find what they are seeking (with whatever methods they use).2) Ideally, catalogers would have the time, skill level and supervisory support to assign classification numbers that physically organize materials into browseable collections that make sense to users. This is rarely (never?) the case. Most of the time cataloging involves accepting a bibliographic record with minimal editing in the interests of speed and keeping costs low. Also less training, documentation, work review and independent-decision making is required. 3. On the other hand, there is no reason why local practices can’t be instituted that improve classification, online searching, etc. The benefits just have to be weighed against the costs. 4) Some local practices are relatively easy to implement, are quick and do not require a lot of decision-making/training (e.g. adding dates to call numbers). 5) Some enhancements such as adding summaries to records for non-fiction or reclassifying items are time-consuming and require some decision-making/training.6) The implementation of some enhancements can be fully or partially automated.7) Revising subject headings to improve subject/keyword access; adding local headings, tags, cross-references, and series entries (important for children’s and research materials); and making collection decisions (subject area, genre/form, level, location on shelves, etc.) are the most time/labor intensive and require the highest amount of training and decision-making. 8) Staff that work with the public should advocate for changes in cataloging practices they think would be beneficial. Cataloger’s are not mind-readers. 9) There are so many new developments in the works that it is difficult to gauge even what the immediate future will be like. The general trend, however, seems to be toward decentralized/distributed bibliographic control with the consumers of bibliographical products participating in their creation and maintenance (the products, not the consumers!)That’s enough.

  7. "If we had a section of nonfiction books with collections of thought-provoking essays … then I’d have purchased the book."How about 818.6? (Essays, 21st century, U.S. or whatever essay number fits best?) It’s where our library has "Are you there vodka? It’s me, Chelsea [memoir]" as well as "Sleepaways: writings on summer camp" and other unrelated non-fiction essays. Do a call number search on 818.52-818.6 and see if that range fits.Do you have users asking for memoirs/essays? Do you ever suggest that people may want to browse the 818 section for interesting non-fiction essays? Dewey isn’t as rigid as you sometimes (often) make it out to be. As you may have guessed, I loved Jean Marie’s reply! Point 8 is especially important (and yes, I’m very glad that you advocated for a change for the computer books and for the graphic novels!)JeanettePS- That hamster would have made great hawk food!

  8. 814 is essays. 818 is miscellaneous writings.

  9. Just saw this, thought you’d enjoy that it’s further proving your point. ;Dhttp://www.swissarmylibrarian.net/2009/05/02/reference-question-of-the-week-42609

  10. We all need to get a life.However, as a journeyman do-it-yourselfer and the collector for our library in the 643 and 660-699 area, the swiss army librarian’s example really rings my cherries. I can’t tell you how much money I’ve spent on my collection but could never find the books because they wound up in the 740s. Hard to justify your existence when your collection is being weeded and not replaced.The marvelous instructor of cataloguing at UNC-Chapel Hill (the mighty imp Jerry Saye), once told us that the most important cataloguer in the world is the mailroom sorter at the Library of Congress. When he sends a book to their cataloguers, they catalogue it according to their personal specialties. Sounds about right to me.All that being said tongue-in-cheek, I have a huge amount of respect for the creative, flexible, and detailed attention paid by our cataloguers to the books we have coming in, and can attest to their good nature in making changes to our local records. <mwah> to Tech Services!

  11. the lesbrarian

    Sides of Evil and Good, thanks for playing! This is a wonderful conversation. Seems to me we don’t talk with one another often enough; like Jean Marie says, catalogers aren’t mind readers. (If you promise not to tell anyone, I’ll confess that reference librarians aren’t, either.)We ought to make a point of having our departments meet together maybe once a year, to see what’s what. Actually, it would be good for TS to meet with Youth Services and circ, too. A whole lotta questions would get answered.I also think we should cross-train. I’d like to see the catalogers working with patrons directly, to get a better feel for the questions they ask, and the ways they try to answer their own questions. I’d like the reference librarians to catalog so that we could better understand the system we use; that way, our suggestions for making changes would be better informed. Also, that would allow us to make some of the changes ourselves. That would relieve the time crunch for Tech Services, theoretically giving the catalogers more time to make the complicated decisions involved with cross-references, series, and the other bits from Jean Marie’s comment #7.Cross training. I really think that’s the ticket. (Do you agree, Jeanette? You do it regularly.)The 800s are a great place to browse for nonfiction reads, you’re right, and I too often forget about it. It’s a great place for memoirs; after all, most collections of essays ARE memoirs of some stripe.(I think, probably.)If I were devising my own nonfiction classification system, my priority would be separating the instructional/how-to books (which one would find by subject) from the narrative books (which one would find by… subject? Or some other appeal factor? Dunno.) This blithely ignores the fact that some books fall into both categories, but anyway. I might also have a separate section for memoirs, because those tend to get lost in Dewey. Unless a story about a person is in Biography, it can be difficult to find.Again, great discussion– lots to think about, and I really do think we should find a way to get our divisions communicating together more. Maybe some kind of committee…?

  12. the lesbrarian

    One other thing: cataloging was the most important (the ONLY important) class I took in library school. The rest of the classes were a waste of tuition money; there’s nothing I wouldn’t have learned on the job. Cataloging, though, made me learn more about the library and how it works than any other class.And I realized straightaway that I could never be a cataloger. I LOVE organization, but I love it too much: I know that I would go crazy with each new item I cataloged, trying to give it the perfect subject headings and call number. I’d never get anything done.

  13. Note to Andrew (and anyone else)When you select a title, can you include a notation of the preferred subject area (e.g. class 643 or class 600s) for titles you think might end up elsewhere? The notation would end up on a printed workslip for the cataloger. For journals, you could write it right in the journal.In the not too distant past, Neil asked that biographies of composers be classed in the 700s rather than in B. You may have some subject areas that would lend themselves to this approach.As lesbarian said "we should find a way to get our divisions communicating together more. Maybe some kind of committee…?"

  14. A very interesting post, Lesbrarian. I must say that in all my dealings with the public, I never minded showing people the vagaries of the OPAC or our library shelves. Perhaps this is why I’ve never had the energy or interest to have this particular fight. Dewey or LC, once learned, seemed like fully workable schemes to me.Perhaps this is because I hold catalogers in very high esteem for at least two reasons:1. Bless them, catalogers deal in the tangible. At the end of the day they recognize that one physical book must go in one physical spot on the shelves. There’s none of this tagging or natural language bullshit. They make up a subject heading, they stick with it, they know it, and then they say that’s where it belongs. Not where it ONLY belongs, mind you, or perfectly belongs, but that one physical spot where it, for the most part, fits. I find that very comforting in a hyperlinked, re-sort, everything is miscellaneous digital world. That’s also at least 95% of my appreciation for books.2. I did horribly in cataloging in library school. I mean horribly. I have slightly less natural aptitude for it than I do for swimming, and I can’t swim at all, after repeated attempts at learning. Indexing, fine, teaching, fine, any of the other stuff librarians do, fine, but cataloging? Couldn’t do it.As a devotee of nonfiction I’ll agree with you that browsing nonfiction stacks for NF recreational reading stinks. But, and here’s the rub, Lesbrarian, that’s exactly why people need us (and why we as librarians need tools like book blogs, the Reader’s Advisor Online, the Genreflecting books,and Novelist). I mean librarians as readers. Isn’t it nice to be needed? And, frankly, bookstores and their "interest categories" aren’t any more helpful than Dewey and subject. At least in a library I’ve got half a shot, once I get a Dewey number, and knowing that the shelves run in numerical order from smallest to largest. Even if I use a computer at the bookstore to find out the new Langewische book is in "Current Affairs" (perhaps the least useful interest category ever), who the hell knows where "Current Affairs" is? Not me.Anyway. Good questions. And good on you for finding solutions to cataloging problems, especially in the graphic novels section. In a way I think that’s the answer to cataloging’s problems–intelligent, creative, and thoughtful public service staff who do what they can to make the system more user-friendly. I’m a big believer in local action so I couldn’t be prouder of you.

  15. the lesbrarian

    Citizen Reader! Cataloging class WAS hard, wasn’t it? I spent hours and hours and hours on any given assignment. Just thinking back to that class gives me the shivers, and reminds me that the catalogers have the hardest job in the library. They’ve got to follow the cataloging rules, while also making materials accessible to the patrons, and they’ve got to do it with too few staff. (I’ve never, never encountered a library that has enough catalogers.)Part of my problem with Dewey is that it is incomprehensible to a lot of people. Normal folks–even the bright ones– can get lost in a library (not lost in the good way), because Dewey is a very specialized, very nuanced system. It’s awfully complicated for the non-librarian to understand.Another part of my problem is that I think I could do it better. I’ve got no real basis for making an incredibly arrogant statement like that, other than to acknowledge that I really do like organizing stuff. It’s one of the perks of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. But I’m not offering any viable alternatives, so maybe I should learn to grin and bear it until such time as I start a reclassification revolution.Another thing, and I just can’t stop thinking about this– having the recreational reading mixed in with the instructional just… just doesn’t work so well, because most people are looking for one or the other. An example: you know those Weird travel books, like Weird New Jersey or whatever? Conceivably, someone going on a trip to NJ would want that book… but more often, it finding it on the shelf just irritates the people who are trying to find the books about accommodations and restaurants. I think books like that would get more readership in a section of Quirky Humor books.Which is why I love to do displays, especially nonfiction displays, of books from all the Dewey ranges. Those displays ALWAYS circulate well, and I know they showcase titles that people might otherwise miss. That’s exactly the point you made, of course, about the value of librarians. It’s nice to have real human beings who know and love books to help people toward pleasure reads.But then I stop and realize how few patrons actually approach librarians for help with finding good stuff to read. We only directly reach a tiny fraction of the people who use the library.My brain will explode if I continue thinking about this tonight. I have lots more to say, enough for a whole book, but at least I know enough not to try THAT route again.

  16. Andrew – Thanks!Lesbrarian – As I think we discussed once before, I wouldn’t mind trying out the BISAC system, the system used in big box bookstores. The problem, as we mentioned before, is space and/or signage. I’m not saying I think the system would be better — I don’t know. I think it would be what some (only some) users are used to. http://www.bisg.org/standards/bisac_subject/major_subjects.htmlI think it would be fun to change them all. Lots of fun!BISAC does biography/memoirs/autobiography better than Dewey. http://www.bisg.org/standards/bisac_subject/biography.htmlThe House and Home section is where most of Andrew’s 640s would go, though the interior decorating/design books would be in a separate section, just as they are here in Dewey (747s).

  17. Interestingly enough, I recently wrote a (significantly less eloquent) rant about the Dewey Decimal system and why it is the bain of my existence, at least in one of my jobs (the other uses LC, and that’s a pain in a whole different way). It is Dewey’s anti-Semitism which causes me the most heartache: I’m re-cataloging a synagogue library (I am not a cataloger, just an MLS candidate).If you’re interested, the post is here: http://gilibrarian.blogspot.com/2009/06/problematic-cataloguing.htmlAgain, not as eloquent, but I think we’re expressing the same frustrations. Down with Dewey!Oh, and the hamster totally made me tear up, but I’m at the reference desk, so bawling wouldn’t be a good plan (though reading blogs has been approved).

  18. the lesbrarian

    Gilana,Using a system designed by Melvil "Antisemite" Dewey in a synagogue library. It’s like a terrible, terrible joke… I am largely of the opinion that special collections and/or small libraries ought to develop their own classification systems. LC and Dewey work for broad collections, not for small collections of, say, religion materials (unless you want your call #s to start exclusively with a 2. THAT’s mighty useful.)

  19. Lesbrarian – Well, the library, though very badly done up, was already in Dewey, so we did keep it that way, also because we decided LC was too complex for some people and we wanted the library to be accessible. I may eventually decide that we should have just friggin’ used LC, especially when I find yet another book that has an LC call number listed in WorldCat but no Dewey call number. Honestly, though, in the interest of making a library which isn’t 60% 296, we did a lot of faking and a lot of "This is a book on Jewish, not necessarily *biblical*, laws. 296 is too full…let’s put it under the call number for law books.", so the library is not quite as dull in its call number set as it might otherwise be. We’ve also taken advice from some other Jewish libraries re: the best call numbers to give certain books. But yes, using Dewey in a synagogue is very, very silly.


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