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Find more Notes from the Field
Rebecca: Tell us a little about yourself and your position.
Melissa: I took a well-traveled route to becoming a librarian—starting out as a shelver and working my way up. When I realized that there was a library job out there that would let me focus on buying books, I was ecstatic! I’ve been the collection-development manager at Kent District Library (KDL) for eight years now and oversee the Collection Development Department’s centralized selection of all materials for our 18 branches. Along with analyzing the collection, budgeting, and working on new projects, I also currently select adult fiction and adult audiobooks (print and digital) and large print.
Rebecca: How has your position changed over the last few years?
Melissa: It’s changed a lot! Since I’ve been in this position, we’ve implemented centralized selection and floating collections and greatly increased our digital collection. Collection development is never boring!
Rebecca: Recently, KDL undertook the large project of making the 18 branches “Dewey Free.” What exactly does that mean?
Melissa: We converted our entire nonfiction collection (books, audiobooks, and DVDs) from Dewey Decimal call numbers to subject-based call numbers (GARDEN, COOKING, etc.).
Rebecca: What can you tell us about that process?
Melissa: Maricopa County (AZ) Library District and the “Anythink” libraries of the Rangeview (CO) Library District implemented similar projects, and I was really inspired by them. Using a subject-based system seemed like it would make the library easier to browse and make it a much more welcoming place for patrons. I’m pretty sure the average person does not have the Dewey Decimal system memorized. After talking with Maricopa and Rangeview, visiting bookstores, and doing some additional research, I felt pretty confident this would be a good fit for our popular-materials library. KDL’s administration agreed and supported the project.
We started slowly and expected to take several years to convert all 18 branches, but we found that it was confusing for patrons to encounter different systems when using multiple branches (and confusing for staff working in multiple branches). As a result, we decided to hire temporary staff to help with the conversion and ended up finishing the project in two years. It cost a little over $30,000 for new signage across the branches.
Collection-development staff ran reports on the existing collection and assigned BISAC categories. New labels were constantly being printed, and then staff would work at the branches three days a week to assist in changing over collections—at the rate of 500 labels per hour! All of the branches stayed open for the conversions.
Branch staff were given daily reports to pull outdated material that the collection-development staff found were too old for conversion, so this was a weeding project as well.
Rebecca: How is this different from a straight “bookstore” model?
Melissa: Collections are shelved alphabetically by category, then subcategory (if applicable), and, finally, by author’s last name. This is located on the spine label and in the catalog.
Because the library still uses a catalog for materials and librarians assign the categories, it is easier to find an item without guessing where it might be. Our signage should help patrons with browsing as well as with finding a specific title when they have the category information from the catalog.
In addition, our signage is a bit more plentiful and helpful than in an average bookstore. There are signs on the ends of ranges that detail the first and last categories in an aisle. At many branches, there is aisle or bay signage that indicates the subject category as well. And, finally, shelf clips have the categories and subcategories on each shelf. The signage is meant to help people realize that everything is alphabetical.
Rebecca: What has the response been to the project?
Melissa: Overall, the response has been positive! A detailed Q&A document with talking points was provided to staff. They took complaints graciously (and passed them along as requested) and supported the public through the change.
Patrons love the library’s self-service options, and they don’t have to guess as hard with an alphabetical subject system as they did with a numbered system. The negative responses from patrons tended to be more about us moving their stuff to a different shelf than about changing the call number. They just knew the books they liked were in the fourth row on the second shelf, and now they weren’t. Once they found the books again, they were fine. Of course, there were some people who actually knew the Dewey system, and they haven’t all appreciated learning a new system.
Staff could quickly see, hands-on, how this method benefits patrons and elevates their library experience. Many staff were skeptical in the beginning, but we expected and embraced their feedback and made changes to the project based on their concerns.
Rebecca: Can you share some of the pitfalls?
Melissa: When deciding on what subjects to use, we thought that we were going to group like subjects together, but patrons quickly let us know that it was too confusing to find things this way, especially in a large branch. Consequently, we started shelving all subjects alphabetically. So now subjects like PETS and ANIMALS aren’t near each other.
If I could do it over again, I would have integrated some similar categories that are currently separate from each other. We have tweaked some of our subjects already, based on staff and patron feedback, and will continue to do so.
Rebecca: And what were the best parts?
Melissa: We have some amazing staff members who rose to the challenge of figuring out the logistics of relabeling and shifting the collections. I really appreciated their enthusiasm and hard work! Also, I love that the subject-based system gives us the flexibility to put items together that would be all over the place in Dewey. Wedding books are a great example of this. Now we can put wedding etiquette, flowers, cakes, etc., all together under WEDDING instead of having them spread all over the collection. At the end of the day, I feel like we made the library less intimidating and more welcoming for people, which is what we should always be working toward.
Rebecca: What advice would you give to libraries wanting to emulate such a program?
Melissa: Prepare your staff and the public, and explain why you’re doing it. Use lots of signage. Determine your categories with the assumption that they will be shelved alphabetically. Solicit feedback, and be open to tweaking your shelving and the subjects you’re using.
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