or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Organizing Books By Subjects, Part I

   April 28th, 2009 Brian Herzog

cookery signWhat I want to talk about is supplementing Dewey organization in a public library, to help both staff and patrons. But this post got so big I had to split it in half, so part two will be along soon.

I know there are libraries that have abandoned Dewey entirely, and there are movements afoot to develop a more modern system.

These are good things, but take major effort and investment. We've considered doing this in my library, but decided we just don't have the floor space for bookstore-like subjects and displays. So instead, we're going to start small, think long-term, and hopefully a series of gradual changes will ease us into an improved and patron-centric way to organize our collection.

Subject Sections for Staff
Something I've wanted to do for awhile is to make each part-time reference staffer responsible for the different subjects in the non-fiction collection. The staff librarians primarily do the selection, but I also wanted each subject assigned to a part-time person, who would be responsible for weeding, straightening, and shelf-reading. I also wanted them to assist with selection, by reading the reviews in Library Journal (as well as the articles, to keep on top of the field).

To try to make this easy, I came up with a list of Dewey ranges (see below) that fell into each subject heading that Library Journal uses in their book review section. They lined up with Dewey pretty well, but there are a few subjects that always have patrons checking different parts of the collection for very similar (to them) books.

A couple examples:

  • Career Books: resume/interviewing books are Dewey 650-656, but job/career directories and encyclopedias are in Dewey 331
  • Books for the Home are in a lot of places: gardening is 630's but landscaping is in 700's; repair and construction could be in 620's, 640's, 680-690's or 740's
  • And I won't even mention oversize books, the bane of my existence

After I had the list, I counted up the number of shelves we had in each Dewey range, grouped them in logical chunks, and then let staff choose which sections they'd be responsible for. After a bit of finagling, everyone ended up with about the same number of shelves, and so far things are going well.

Links to my subject listing is below - keep in mind I am a reference librarian, not a cataloger, so this is more from an end-user point of view. Another problem are the subjects in which we only have five or six books. I'm sure this won't work for any library but mine, but it's a start:

It's certainly not rocket science, but creating this list let me see on paper how we might need to rearrange Dewey in order to organize books by subjects. And by counting the shelves in each section, I also get an idea of how much space we'll need. This sets us up pretty well to start pulling subjects out of the non-fiction stacks to make more attractive and logical subject groupings, bookstore-style, instead of just having a solid mass of books.

Tune in on Thursday for our first foray into subject section shelves...

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Reference Question of the Week – 4/19/09

   April 25th, 2009 Brian Herzog

dewey shelvesSince I was traveling this week, I don't have a reference question today. But a fun post over on Closed Stacks can help hone reference skills.

It lists some online quizzes for brushing up on your Dewey and LC knowledge (I got 100% on both Dewey tests, so yay for my masters degree). Really, one of my favorite parts of the job is when someone comes to the desk and says,

Do you have any books on ____________?

and I'm able to immediately say, "yes, I'll show you where those are," and take them right to that subject in the stacks.

Afterwards, I explain why I could find them and how they can use the catalog to find books too, but the initial shock and surprise patrons show when you can seemingly pull a useful book out of thin air is too good to pass up.

Some patrons think I have every book in the library memorized. I try to convince them it's not magic, just organization, but many people still think locating information is beyond them. Maybe it means we need better signage.

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Keeping Up and Moving Ahead

   July 10th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Change Agent badgeBecause of two consecutive weekends hosting visitors, I've gotten way behind with emailing and reading blogs and computery things in general. Of the 174 feeds in my Bloglines account, the ones I've been most grateful for are those I can just click on to make not-new, without actually having to read.

But saying that, one blog post did stand out and demand attention. This was Tim at LibraryThing's proposal for a new open source cataloging classification system to replace Dewey.

I like the idea right off in principle, and I'm very happy that Tim has created a forum to get the ball rolling and get people talking about it.

In practicality, though, I don't know how well it'll work. It seems like the really great ideas are born of one person and their unwaivering drive and passion to accomplish it. I like the idea, but I am not sure if genesis-by-committee can be successful. Something like this (or Craig's List or Wikipedia or Linux) seems to need to be centralized and dictatorial in the beginning, and then opened to the public once it's proven and off and running.

But I hope it works. I'm going to be watching it, and I encourage everyone else to do the same - and contribute. I agree with Jessamyn in that, to get tools that are innately useful to libraries, they will have to come from librarians - everything else is just someone's product.

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The Right Way To Organize Books

   July 12th, 2007 Brian Herzog

cover of Sewer, Gas and ElectricI finished Matt Ruff's Sewer, Gas and Electric last night, and found one more good library-related quote. This one pretty much speaks for itself; especially with libraries trying alternatives.

"The call number was the hard part," Kite said. "The call number we got from the video tape was in Dewey Decimal classification code; this library uses the Library of Congress code."

"What did you have to do, translate it?"...

"It's not that simple," Kite said. "You know I never appreciated it before this afternoon, but library filing systems are remarkably arbitrary."

"There's no one right way to organize books, huh?"


classification, classification system, classification systems, ddc, dewey, dewey decimal, electric, gas, libraries, library, library of congress, loc, matt ruff, sewer, sewer gas and electric

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Shelving By Dewey Guidelines

   June 28th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Melvil DeweyThis is about as far from Library 2.0 as you can get (and perhaps short-lived), but I created a quickie guide for putting books on the shelf according to the Dewey Decimal System.

My library has gotten a few new pages (people who put returned books back on the shelves) and shelf-readers (people who straighten the shelves and make sure the books are actually in order) recently, and when I started training them, found that we had no documentation on the Dewey Decimal System. We had a Dewey test they needed to pass before they were allowed to work, but nothing with which they could prepare for the test.

So I made up the handout below, as a quick overview/introduction to Dewey, and also a reference guide for them to keep with them in the stacks until they get the hang of it. It's designed for double-sided printing, and some of our shelvers even laminated it.

This handout is tailored for the Chelmsford Library, but feel free to modify the Word version to work best for your library. If you have any questions (or notice any mistakes), please let me know.

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