Monday, July 16, 2007

But It's Never Been Done that Way

In Gilbert, Arizona, a library has (gasp!) abandoned the venerated Dewey Decimal System in favor of one used by bookstores. Books are now sorted according to categories you'd find if you were looking to purchase a book.

It was Harry Courtright, director of the 15-branch Maricopa County Library District, who came up with the idea of a Dewey-less library. The plan took root two years ago after annual surveys of the district’s constituency found that most people came to browse, without a specific title in mind.

“The younger generation today is wired differently than people in my generation,” said Mr. Courtright, 69. “What that tells me is we as librarians have to look at how we present materials that we have for them the way they want it.”

Interestingly, Mr. Courtright decided to model his changes on a system that appeared to work. Bookstores don't use the Dewey Decimal System because most people don't actually understand it, and customers are not inclined to spend time looking through card catalogs for specific books. Why not walk over to a big sign that says "Travel" if you're looking for travel guides?

This has incurred the wrath of librarians nationwide. After having spent such a long time learning this system, it's tough to give it up. I'm no expert, but I find it easier to locate books in stores than in libraries. I suspect that's true for a lot of us non-librarians.

And the fact is, librarians have little to fret about. Despite Dewey's absence, I see just as many people seeking help in bookstores as in libraries.

What do people want in schools? Generally, they want good teachers, reasonably sized classes, and a safe and clean environment. It would be great if someone like Mayor Bloomberg were to actually offer such services. Unfortunately, it's far cheaper to trot out superficial untested "innovations" year after year. Since the sleepy press corps allows people to believe they constitute improvement of some sort, there's little point laying out valuable stadium funds for what actually works.

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