the do-we-do-Dewey hat




To Dewey or not to Dewey?  Or even modify or simplify this scheme developed by American librarian Melvil Dewey in the late 19th  century that is still used in libraries around the world today.

In an age where there is a belief that “everything is available on the internet” so non fiction print collections are being discarded at worst, and reduced at best, this is a question that has vexed teacher librarians, particularly, for some time.  Even with the access to records that are already catalogued and just there to be downloaded through service like the Australian Schools Catalogue Information Service (SCIS) so that time that was spent on original cataloguing can be used for other essential tasks, there are still those who grapple with this issue.

There are some who feel that it is not a problem because their non fiction collections are so small that finding what is required is easy, but it bothers me that non fiction collections have shrunk so much particularly in the primary school. Others say that they have just completed post-grad tertiary studies and didn’t consult a print non fiction text once, perhaps forgetting that they had sophisticated search skills that littlies don’t, and one would have to question whether that is a reasonable reason to deprive students of access to their first source of information after asking their parents.  

Some years ago, lead by publishers such as Dorling Kindersley and Usborne, the format of non fiction became much more user-friendly particularly for young readers, and today, publishers have this age group firmly in mind because they understand that

  • not everything is available on the internet
  • what is there is not necessarily aimed at the curious minds of the very young and so is not accessible to them
  • not all young readers have easy access to internet-enabled devices and don’t have the knowledge or skills to search for what they want
  • young readers get as much from looking at the illustrations as they do from reading the text and so an attractive, graphic-laden layout is essential
  • young readers like to look, think and return to the same topic or title over and over and the static nature of a print resource allows this
  • that not everyone prefers to read from a screen, that print is the preferred medium of many, and there is research that shows that many prefer to print onscreen articles so they can absorb them better
  • that research by people like Dr Barbara Combes shows that screen-reading and information -seeking on the internet requires a different set of skills and those most able are those with a strong foundation built on the traditional skills developed through print
  • young readers need support to navigate texts so they offer contents pages, indices, glossaries and a host of other cues and clues that allow and encourage the development of information literacy skills, and again, the static nature of a book enables the young reader to flip between pages more easily
  • the price of the book covers its cost and so there is no distracting eye-candy to distract the reader from their purpose and pursuit
  • the content of most non fiction books is designed to inform rather than persuade or challenge, and so the young reader doesn’t need to be searching for objectivity, bias and undercurrent messaging
  • that young children are innately curious and that exploring the answer to a question via a book with the child in charge is a unique bonding experience shared between parent and child that is not the same as looking at a webpage where the parent controls the mouse
  • that children know what they’re interested in and a range of resources gives them a range of options all at the same time; that one question leads to another and the answer might be in another resources on the same topic but with a slightly different slant
  • that children don’t know what they don’t know so browsing an interesting display of books  with bright covers and intriguing titles can open gates to new pathways

And so, publishers continue to publish brilliant non fiction – over 500 have been reviewed on my blog in the past few years – and as much as I use the internet and have done since 1996, I believe we still have a responsibility to purchase, organise and offer a robust well-rounded non fiction collection to those who wish to use it, thus making its classification and notation critical if users are to find what they want efficiently and effectively.  

For more whys. wherefores and ways to update and promote your NF collection , read this blog post  from Madison’s Library.

There are some who want to or choose to genrify their non fiction collections, a concept that completely baffles me because IMO Dewey has already done this by putting like with like under his system and so beyond imploring TLs to ask and answer the questions in Questioning Change so they are clear on why they are doing it, the impact it will have, and the evidence for it can justify any challenges, that approach will not be discussed here.

But, even if we choose to use Dewey as the basis for the classification of the collection, there is a school of thought that suggests that we should only use the first three numbers with no decimals after it, particularly in a time of shrinking collections and in the primary setting.  The reason commonly given for this change is that shelving is time-consuming and tedious especially when there is no paraprofessional assistance in the library.

So, once again, I find myself returning to the The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven R. Covey, a book I was introduced to by an enlightened principal nearly 30 years ago and which has influenced me so greatly.  In it, Covey suggests that we should “begin with the end in mind” so all the steps we take are in the right direction.  So the basic question to be answered is

What do we want to achieve by organising the non fiction collection?

To me, there is one answer that stands above all others

  • to enable users of the collection to be able to locate the resources they need effectively and efficiently

Having established the why then we address the how and given the time restraints we all face, surely it makes sense to use a system that is not only used in more than 140 countries around the world, but one that is continually monitored and updated as required by the changing society we live in by OCLC (Online Computer Library Center) a global library organization which owns all copyright rights in the Dewey Decimal Classification, and licenses the system for a variety of uses.  Although it was first published in 1876, it has undergone 23 hugely significant revisions, and each year changes to the core are made through “number building, interoperable translations, association with categorized content, and mappings to other subject schemes.” made accessible to subscribers through WebDewey so the updates are readily available.  ( Introduction to the Dewey Decimal Classification, 2019)

Because the DDC is used so widely by such a variety of libraries and an even larger variety of patrons, its notation can become complex, overwhelming and even unwieldy in some circumstances, such as a primary school library.  So, as the professionals in the field in the school, we must decide what is appropriate for those who use our collection and thus we return to our original question – What do we want to achieve by organising the non fiction collection?  and its answer -“to enable users of the collection to be able to locate the resources they need effectively and efficiently”

In the article cited from OCLC, the following definitions are offered..

Classification provides a system for organizing knowledge. Classification may be used to organize knowledge represented in any form, e.g., books, documents, electronic resources.

Notation is the system of symbols used to represent the classes in a classification system.

It is the degree of notation that seems to be main sticking point for school libraries – how much is too much but how much is enough?

To me, as well as keeping the end in mind, we must also keep the students is mind because, ultimately, that’s who we are there for.  So I offer these thoughts…

  • If students are to be independent, efficient and effective creators and users of ideas and information then we must offer them the means and the tools to be able to locate the resources that will support this, and initially, this means being able to find things in their own school library.  Using a system that allows them to do this is common sense and teaching them how to use it properly is part of our specialist teaching remit.
  • Students are more likely to use what they understand,  So while they don’t have to manipulate Dewey to the depth that they need to classify resources, understanding that each number has a meaning helps them realise there is a purpose to them and that purpose empowers them to use the system for themselves. Emphasisng that all they need to do is to be able to count in order from 0-999 is often all it takes for them to believe that they can master the system. 


Click on this link below to access a slideshow that introduces the DDC to young users
  • Being empowered to find things independently not only gives the students confidence but also promotes the concept that the library is a place for them to visit, use and enjoy. There are not many things that an 8-year-old has control over and so to feel able to find what they want when they want it is powerful. So as both teachers and librarians we have a duty to support them in doing this.

Imagine being a young person who has just signed up to play for their first soccer team and you want to learn some of the basics of the game.  You go to the library but instead of being able to find what you want immediately at 796.334 (because you already know how to use the OPAC) you are confronted by books about all sports, their guides, rules, and players and so forth, because they all have the same notation of 796. Are you likely to thumb through all of them to find the one that meets your needs, or are you like to turn to Google instead? And not bother with the library again?

Because that’s the reality if we choose to just use the main notation and not bother about decimal points.

It may make shelving less tedious and less time-consuming in the short-term, but how is it impacting the thought processes and research practices of the students in the long term?  Do we just teach for the ‘now ‘and not for the ‘then’?

We cannot underestimate the power and the importance of students feeling comfortable and confident in using the space, and dumbing down the curriculum to suit ourselves is not an option, in my opinion.

In fact, I believe we should go as far as we can to support students in their independence so anyone using the library has the potential to find what they want for themselves, even if that is just generally browsing because browsing can lead to wanting to know more about a specific topic that will most likely have its place on the shelf.  I liken it to being invited to a birthday party and being told that it is in Main Street, but without the specific address am I to knock on the door of every house in the street?  Kids understand that analogy and they understand that each book has its own “address” on the shelves.   

When, in 1996, after 26 years as a classroom teacher. life circumstances compelled me to make a switch to being a teacher librarian, I met the preschool daughter of a colleague, now BFF. Molly had just been diagnosed with severe, life-threatening epilepsy which resulted in significant learning difficulties.  But all she wanted to do was come to school and be in the library. And so, inspired by her, I vowed that the brand new school library I was establishing would provide physical and intellectual access to all, enshrining my belief that the library was for everyone and my intention to make it so in our mission statement

Thus, as well as teaching those who were able how to use the OPAC and the Dewey system in tandem, we created signage that meant that even Molly and her friends in the special ed unit could find the books about the things that interested them.  Using cheap, lightweight objects, commercial index blocks and MS Publisher we created a variety of signs that matched our library and our students’ needs. Molly was in heaven!

As well, we introduced a program that encouraged students to become shelf-angels.  They took responsibility for taking care of a shelf to ensure that resources on it were in the correct order, and before long, they were scouring the returns trolley to see if there were any books to be returned to “their” shelf.  Every now and then we would do random checks and little  shelf-angel certificates were awarded to those whose shelves met the standard. Given these were accompanied by other library-based privileges, they were well sought-after. 

And those that were the most proficient?  Those in Year 3 who were so proud of being able to show they could count to 999, make a contribution to school life, show their parents their prowess and feel ownership of the facility.  

So if you are one who is contemplating “ditching the decimal”, as with any major change to the way the library operates now and into the future, read, ask and answer the questions posed in Questioning Change   and consider the short and long-term impact of your decision.

In the meantime, Order in the Library has been a very popular shelving game for many years. And NSW teacher librarian Louise Mashiah recently shared this new game she created for her youngest students and which has become a favourite, even during breaks., and which she has given me permission to share. 

I painted some ‘bookshelves’ onto calico and added some Velcro. Printed ‘books’ onto iron on transfer paper and also put onto calico with Velcro on the back. Made some shelf labels that I could change to use for non fiction at a later date. Kids loved finding and shelving the books in the correct place.

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