Thanks, Mr Dewey! (I think …)

Bookshelf, by Alex JohnsonAs you know, librarians live to create order from chaos.

Over the years (centuries) that libraries have been in existence, librarians have developed and tested dozens of different ways to organise books and information on shelves.  Different libraries use different systems, and for different reasons. Here at Christchurch City Libraries, and at many other public libraries and school libraries, we use the Dewey Decimal System for our nonfiction books.

Not in fact named for the middle of the three nephews of Donald Duck, but designed by Melvil Dewey of Amherst, Massachusetts in the 1870s. It was initially published in 1876, with the second edition of his by-now-copyrighted system arriving in 1885, under the eye-watering title Decimal Classification and Relativ Index for arranging, cataloging, and indexing public and private libraries and for pamflets, clippings, notes, scrap books, index rerums, etc.  (Note Mr Dewey’s somewhat unusual approach to spelling – another of his passions!)

I love people who are passionate about things, and use that passion to create something new.  And I do love Mr Dewey and his system. I also LOVE that apparently before Melvil started his masterwork, many libraries had a shelving system based on the height of the books, and the date they were acquired. This would have been very handy for the customers who frequently arrive at the desk here in the library, saying things like, “I can’t remember what it was called, but it was a really big book, and I read it about 5 years ago.”

In my madder moments (and yes, there are a few), I think about how I would go about rearranging the library shelves if given the opportunity.  There was a trend last year for arranging your home bookshelves by colour, which led to some amazing rainbow-type displays.  I have friends who organise by personal ranking, or how many times read, or completely (but purposefully) randomly.

And I think about how Mr Dewey would cope with today’s subjects – things he may never have dreamed of having to choose a number for, like one of my personal non-fiction faves: the Zombie Survival Guide, and the always-contentious sections on religions, self-help and how sugar (or carbohydrates, or CFCs, or coffee) is the enemy. It always makes me glad I am not the person who decides which books end up in the Fiction (made-up) versus the Non-Fiction (true stuff) sections of the library.

How about you? How are your bookcases organised at home? Do you separate paperbacks from hardbacks? True stories from made-up ones? Award-winners from pulp fiction? How would you go about reorganising the library if you had absolute power over the shelves?  And what “non-fiction” subject or title have you been surprised by recently?

5 thoughts on “Thanks, Mr Dewey! (I think …)

  1. Gallivanta 25 July 2013 / 2:56 pm

    If I ever managed to organise my books I might try ‘date first published’. The Earthquakes managed some innovative book reorganisations 🙂

  2. linda blackwell 25 July 2013 / 4:28 pm

    I used to have a very organised bookcase.but since the earthquakes,its a bit of a jumble,thankyou for reminding me,i must do something about that.if I had power over the library shelves,i would have a area just for paper backs,some liibrarys have them with hardbacks,but I think they are better separate.

  3. anonymousse 25 July 2013 / 6:28 pm

    My paperbacks are arranged in reverse alphabetical order by first name – William through to Alfred. My other books are arranged by need – these ones have go here because they’re too big to fit anywhere else, those ones have go there because the bookshelf isn’t deep enough for them etc.

  4. Pat 27 July 2013 / 10:40 am

    I reorganised my whole library after forced shift last year. Now it is organised by the sort of mood I’d be in if I wanted to read a book. Works pretty well and I don’t have any problem finding what I want.

  5. Lynne James 1 August 2013 / 8:51 pm

    Interesting subject. As an ex-cataloguer, you would expect me to have an immaculately ordered personal library, but no; my shelving system is based on the size of the book fitting the size of the bookshelf available. Bigger books can be placed on their sides, but only if the whole pile is horizontal. The only thing I will not do is place books horizontally on top of those shelved vertically. It just looks nasty. OMG, I just realized how anal I sound. Aspergic, even.

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