Friday, May 30, 2008

of Dewey, Dust-Bunnies and Findability

Point 1:
Things they never tell you in library school: wear your paint clothes when you weed!

I've spent the morning going through the 100-350 section, and gardening leaves me cleaner than this does! Pants, shirts and hands are covered in grime, and the kids who were sitting behind me emitted a loud , harmonic "eewww" when I pulled out a handful of books trailing a 3 inch pile of dust, spiderwebs and who knows what else. I guess that 1967 set of "Great Philosophers of the Western World" didn't get read much....

Point 2:
Things they tell you in library school that you should ignore: Never weed your first year.

I thought I had a general understanding of Dewey because I'd memorized the 100 categories for my practicum, and I could find anything I looked up in the card catologue. Hadn't I done plenty of my own research in grad school? No problem! I started the year eager to begin those research papers, filled with visions of me bestowing stacks of useful books and articles upon students glowing with gratitude.

Then they started asking for help. "Where do I look for stuff on Henry Ford's effect on America?" "How do I find information about the Weathermen, and what influenced them, and how they changed society?" Or my favorite: "I need seven primary sources about Zulu warriors."

Suddenly, all those precise Sears subjects headings and Dewey categories fell to pieces as students research crossed curricular areas: Is the Harlem Renaissance in 800's or 900's or (as proved to be the case) both? I would find materials on the Civil Rights movements in the 973 AND in the 340's, and I couldn't tell what determined where it went.

Worse the 973 section was a mess, because it was mostly classified as 973, with nothing past the decimal, so American Revolution jumbled together with the Civil War and the Cold War, forcing one to look through all 20 shelves to find a specific text.

I knew my library was a mess. I also knew it needed a serious weeding. I didn't know that the two bits of information would start me thinking about findability.

I remember my practictum teacher saying nothing helps you know your own collection like shelving. I'd respectfully disagree. When shelving, I'm only looking at numbers, not the actual book title and contents.

Weeding, however, has been an eye-opener. It forces me not only to evaluate every book in the library, but also to see it in relationship to the books around it. I have a better understanding of the collection and the gems within it, a far better understanding of how the books are organized, and a solid grasp of how it fits our needs and where it falls apart.

Dewey may be systematic (we won't go into its inherent biases), but it doesn't organize books in the same way users like to find them. Especially kids brought up in Borders and Barnes & Noble! I have a history section dealing with the 60's (973.92), but the material dealing with the Vietnam war is thirty shelves away in 959.7, and Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement leaps clear across the library to 303.4.

And that's just Dewey. Never mind the mess created from the several different librarians' different views of how to organize. There's a separate biography section, but just as many are mixed in with the general collection. The 900's mix fiction with criticism and drama and poetry and essays--and while American Literature seems to be grouped by time period, British Literature is alphabetical. AARRGH!

So I'm spending my summer re-organizing, a hefty chunk of Dewey, but a bow to Borders and Amazon, and thinking more in terms of broader general categories than specific subjects.

The biographies will all be in the Biography section, and I'll pull the poetry, drama and essays and short story collections to each have their own section. The seniors do a big literary research paper; hopefully, this should make it easier for them to find the literary criticism.

My biggest headache this year was the history requirement for a minimum 7 primary sources in the student research papers. Weeding turned up myriad collections I didn't know we had, buried in an obscure Dewey category. I'm pulling all of them to affix large, fluorescent green stickers on the spine, which will scream at students: "I'm a primary source!"

Then, books that are subject specific (e.g. WW II diaries) will return to the general collection in the appropriate section. Books that are collections covering a wide area or range of topics, will go in a special Primary Source section, easy for the students to find.

It would be interested to hear what some of you have done: what are your problems with findability? How have you solved them?

BTW: As to the photo? It's from an artist in San Francisco who re-arranged the 20,000 volumes in the Adobe Book Shop by color. Talk about no findability! I found it on the Made By Many blog.


  1. I feel your pain. Last year we finally became automated and in preparation I had spent the two previous years weeding. Now the collection is lean and mean. My best weed? "Home Taxidermy", perfect for my city kids!

    The most powerful tools I have for finding the right resources are forewarning and time. It's hard to get the teachers to let you know ahead of time what their classes will be doing but it makes such a difference.

    I no longer have a say in how books are catalogued as it is done centrally in our district. When we automated I was without a working online catalogue for almost 3 months. Talk about working blind.

    I always make lists of which books go with which assignments and keep them in a binder. I may not get all the titles onto the list but at least it's a starting place the next time around. It also helps me see where I need to build the collection.

    Hope you don't have to spend all summer herding dust bunnies!

  2. I love the booklist in a binder tip. I'll have to do that next year.

    I just pulled a book today about the "controversial" topic of plate tectonics!