March 13, 2011

Is Dewey Still King? A Closer Look at Bookstore Classification

The Chicago Tribune recently spotlighted a handful of pioneering libraries in the Chicago area that are transitioning from the Dewey Decimal Classification to BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications), the organization system used by booksellers. The new layout groups books by subject rather than number, uses signs to highlight popular categories, and displays books by their covers. Several Chicago libraries have switched entirely to the new format or are using it for parts of their collections. Read Chicago Tribune article>>

While the Chicago Tribune article leans toward libraries abandoning Dewey, the reader comments posted that follow it offer heavy criticism. So what exactly is the BISAC system, and is it a simpler alternative for church libraries?

BISAC divides books into 52 general categories, and then further divides each category into subheadings. Categories and subheadings are organized alphabetically. There are 52 general subject categories; within the Religion category there are 250 subheadings.

While the simplicity of BISAC has proven to be attractive to patrons in Chicago and has encouraged random browsing, a major contention is that it makes finding books on a specific topic nearly impossible. When shelved alphabetically, there is no logical progression of titles from one subject to the next.

Is BISAC a user friendly solution for small church libraries? We took a closer look to find out. Its 52 general categories spread non-fiction titles out more broadly than Dewey. Within its religion category, we noted a lack of flow from one (unrelated) topic to the next. This left us wondering how someone even just browsing could find their way through. For example, the alphabetical arrangement intermixes the subjects “Atheism,” “Baha'I” and “Buddhism” with the subjects “Biblical Biography,” “Biblical Reference” and “Christian Church.” Those of us familiar with church library collections can immediately see the problems with this arrangement and
how confusing this would be to browsers.

Here at National Church Library Association, we have received advice over the years from thousands of member librarians using Dewey and from those who have experimented with subject category arrangements. Based on their experiences, we remain convinced that Dewey reigns supreme. With its special ability to be adapted for use by even the smallest library, it is still the best system available for church libraries today.

Several ideas mentioned in the Chicago libraries article, however, are worth incorporating into our everyday practice. Increased signage identifying subject areas, displaying new titles face out and library maps (interactive or static) will make every library more attractive and user friendly.