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

Organizing Books By Subjects, Part I

   April 28th, 2009

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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11 Responses to “Organizing Books By Subjects, Part I”

  1. Deb Hanson Says:

    This is a great start. I’ve been wanting to do this at my school’s middle school library also – but especially with FICTION. The kids are always asking – where are they mystery books, humor books, etc. But I can’t imagine quite how to make it work without putting a subject label on every book (which I despise). Plus I have NO staff – only volunteers to help shelve and straighten… any suggestions?

  2. lesbrarian Says:

    When I get to be Queen of All Libraries, I’m going to reclassify all the nonfiction into a hybrid of the bookstore model and my own fell plans. Specifically, I’m going to make a great big whopping obvious distinction between narrative and non-narrative nonfiction.

    For example: Freakonomics is at 330 Lev, keeping company with “Contemporary Economic Issues” and “Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One.” Now it is true these three books are all vaguely similar, in that they deal with economics, but they were all written and marketed to appeal to different audiences– Freakonomics to catch readers who like quirky social science, the other two to readers (probably students) who need a formal understanding of economics.

    Or how about Seabiscuit? It’s in the 790s, with horseracing, which is accurate– but how often do people who enjoy true adventure stories think to go browsing in the horse section?

    My point here is that engaging narratives will appeal to a variety of readers, no matter the particular subject matter. It’s a shame they’re interfiled with more informative or instructional titles. Finding a way to make a distinction there will be my first step in the nonfiction classification revolution.

  3. Liz Says:

    Hi Deb – I’m not a librarian by any means, but I wonder, maybe if you have some down time one day, could you create a list of authors or titles by subject? Maybe make a leaflet / brochure with the most commonly requested subjects and some suggested reading? That way you don’t have to reshelve anything or teach volunteers a new system until you come up with a more permanent solution – you can just give students the handout, or have them sitting in different places.

    You can make a basic word processor document, or make it creative and teen-themed with graphics and fonts. I included my (painfully out-of-date) website so that, if you like, you can feel free to email me some raw data and I’d be happy to make a few templates or pdfs for you. Good luck!

  4. new order « bibliotamus Says:

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  5. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Deb: I agree with Liz – it might be easier to leave the books shelved as they are, and just create bibliographies for the different topics. Our fiction collection does have separate sections for westerns, scf-fi, romance and mysteries, but that might work better for adult paperbacks than in a school library. We do use genre spine stickers with Young Adult fiction – they have to be very noticeable to be effective, but it’s a start, and you could build the bibliographies at the same time.

    @Lesbrarian: if you are able to solve this problem, you will be my hero for life.

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  8. bsw Says:

    I want to manage an army library in Nepal, what can be the tools, what new system is to be developed? Pls suggest.

  9. Brian Herzog Says:

    @bsw: I think that depends on how big your collection is, how it will be used, and what you’d like to accomplish. For classification, you could use either the standards Library of Congress or Dewey Decimal System. Or you could try a more patron-centered approach such as the Open Shelves Classification system, or even custom-create your own, like many libraries are doing.

    If you’re talking about software, there are also various options on that front, too. There are traditional software vendors that will sell and maintain your Integrated Library System (ILS) for you, or you could try an open source option like Koha or Evergreen. There are other options as well, depending on how big your collection is and what you’d like to let people do. For smaller collections, you could also use a system like LibraryThing – but really, it all depends on your needs.

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