Libraries ditch Dewey’s system in favor of bookstore experience

Poppy Johnson has spent the past 18 months reorganizing books by topic. (Credit: Carrie Miller)
Poppy Johnson has spent the past 18 months reorganizing books by topic. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

As the most widely used library classification scheme in the world, the Dewey Decimal System has reigned supreme since New Yorker Melvil Dewey created it in 1876.

Now, 139 years later, libraries across the country — including a couple in our own backyard — are beginning to retire the long-revered system, instead focusing on creating what they feel is a more user-friendly option. 

Poppy Johnson, assistant director of Floyd Memorial Library in Greenport, has spent the past 18 months reorganizing books by topic instead of Dewey Decimal number to improve patrons’ browsing experience.

So far, she has finished reorganizing the library’s adult non-fiction titles, which make up about one-third of the facility’s 35,000 books. Audio books and DVDs are still in the process of being re-shuffled, she said.

“The Dewey system does not always work for people,” Ms. Johnson said. “It wasn’t meant for the kind of public library where you want people to feel comfortable about being able to find books on their own.”

She said the Dewey Decimal System was designed for what is called a closed stacks system, in which someone besides the reader searches for and pulls titles.

When a book is published it’s given a Dewey Decimal number, which classifies it within a number of specific topics. Each digit holds a special significance, Ms. Johnson said. She explained that these numbers enable a person searching for a particular book in Greenport to look for the same title in the rest of the country or even internationally.

But in a digital age in which information is so readily available, Ms. Johnson — who has been with Floyd Memorial Library for more than two decades — said many readers simpy enjoy just browsing titles.

Becoming more user-friendly has increased circulation of adult non-fiction titles at Floyd Memorial by nine percent, according to library data.

“It’s a nice browsing collection now because people understand the words much more than they understand what the numbers signify,” said library director Lisa Richland. “As librarians, we know what the numbers signify but that doesn’t help the browser.”

Ms. Richland said Shelter Island’s public library has also made the change.

Reorganization is a popular topic among library organizations like the Suffolk County Library Cooperative, which holds conferences to discuss with and assist libraries considering the change, Ms. Richland said.

“I see both sides of it,” said Southold Free Library director Caroline MacArthur. “There are many pros to reorganizing the books; it appeals to the general public.”

And while she said she’s contemplated making the change, there are no plans to reorganize the Southold library anytime soon.

“[That system] may be a bit cumbersome here,” Ms. MacArthur said. “Each library has to make those decisions based on the needs of each individual community.”

Cutchogue New-Suffolk Library director Jennifer Fowler said she would feel torn if she had to decide between the two systems, since she’s partial to the traditional version.

A conversation about reorganizing the Main Road library, which holds about 72,000 books, has not yet come up, Ms. Fowler said, but she doesn’t envision the library embracing the change.

“Mention of the Dewey Decimal System conjures up thoughts of old, wooden card catalogs, librarians with thick glasses and a ‘Shhhh’ environment,” Ms. Fowlder said. “But the truth is that the system has withstood the test of time.

“Ultimately, we all want people to be able to find the material they want,” she continued. “Melvil Dewey gave us a system that does just that.”

Ms. Johnson said that while many people are surprised by the change at Floyd Memorial, most who visit the library end up supporting the reorganization.

“I do think it’s because people can find things, and when you find one thing that you want, it’s likely next to something else you may also be interested in, she said. “So you take the two, and at this price — why not?”

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