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Monday, September 20, 2010

Browsability or Findability?

Guest Blogger: Patrick Steele
Patrick is the former Collection Development Coordinator for the Cuyahoga County Public Library. Patrick has worked in Acquisitions, Technical Services, and Reference departments in and around the Greater Cleveland Area.  He now serves as a library consultant for Midwest Tape.

Over the past couple of years, many libraries have experimented with putting the Dewey Decimal System on the back shelf, so to speak, in favor of organizational schemes similar to a bookstore. The Rangeview Library District in Colorado and the Maricopa County Library District in Arizona both have traded the Dewey Decimal Classification for systems based on the BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communication) subject headings used by bookstores. Such was the topic of a program at the PLA conference this spring in which both libraries presented the pros of this type of a changeover: specifically, increased browsability and a more intuitive way to find materials.

The real benefit of the bookstore method is that it requires very little previous library training or the initial need to use the catalog or even to consult with a librarian. The intuitive style is especially useful to patrons who may often be rusty in their comfort level using Dewey to find items on the shelves. They can just head directly to the shelves in the general area and begin browsing. It can be similar to going to a supermarket and finding general areas for baking, canned vegetables, and produce. I can head to the general area I’m interested in and browse until I find either what I was initially looking for or anything else that’s piqued my interest while browsing. If I can’t locate my item in that section, then I can ask a staff person for help finding it. I feel empowered to take the first step in the process. And, even more important, I feel as if I know what I am doing with the everyday skills I already possess. 

Traditional librarians can be skeptical of this type of change saying the bookstore model lacks the specificity of Dewey and that it can be harder to find materials without an exact address like a Dewey number.

An alternative solution to making a change without choosing between just using Dewey or going to a bookstore model can be the “mashup” or hybrid method in which items are gathered in broad categories similar to bookstores which encourage browsing among the patrons while maintaining the specificity of Dewey. Items are labeled with the category section as well as the Dewey number. Patrons can go to general areas such as “Home and Garden,” “Antiques and Collectibles,” or “Travel” and then browse or find specific items using Dewey numbers. The dual labeling can work for libraries with floating collections in which all branches are not using the bookstore model. 

Size and depth of the collection are also factors to consider before abandoning Dewey completely. Such boutique or bookstore collections work better in smaller, popular libraries rather than extensive research collections that truly require specificity to keep materials orderly.

It will be interesting to see how this trend continues to expand. My experience has been that library patrons just want to find what they are looking for with the least amount of stress. Librarians need an efficient way to get specific titles and to group similar items together. There are strong points to each type of system which is why I favor the hybrid in which the merits of both systems can be incorporated and provide something for everyone, hopefully increasing library usage. After all, isn’t that what it is all about?

What are your thoughts?  Which system does your library use?  Which do you prefer?

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