De-emphasized Dewey: Finding a Balanced Approach

De-emphasized Dewey: Finding a Balanced Approach

Over the last several years, I’ve been working on changing up my non-fiction section.  I already genrefied my fiction collection a few years ago, and I knew I needed to tackle my non-fiction section next.  I got the push I needed to get started with my school’s adapted schedule in the 2020-2021 year for COVID protocols.  Since the library space was primarily being used as a high school history classroom and to store furniture I had a lot of time to really dig deep into the collection and start reconsidering things.  I spent a lot of time reading about what other librarians and schools had done (resources at bottom of post).  I did a lot of soul searching and considered what was going to work best for my students, for myself, and for future librarians in the space.


Ultimately, I decided on what I’m calling a De-emphasized Dewey approach.  Technically, my books are still have the Dewey decimal labels, but they’re no longer organized strictly in Dewey sections.  Some sections (ex. Civil Rights Movement) I recataloged into different dewey areas.  


Here’s some of what I recommend if you want to go through this process:

De-emphasized Dewey: Finding a Balanced Approach

Weeded books on a cart
A deep weed of your collection makes this so much easier.

Deep weed your collection first

Don’t waste time on books that aren’t circulating or are out-of-date.  I had already weeded my collection heavily, but for my big weed during 2020-2021, I was ruthless.  After looking over my data, I decided to go the more labor intensive route and hand-scanned every book in my non-fiction collection.  I looked at publication date, number of checkouts, date of last circulation.  Anything that wasn’t moving, anything that was out of date, I weeded.  I also considered our online resources and removed items where we already have databases that better serve those research needs.  I HIGHLY recommend finishing your deep weed before starting to ditch or de-emphasize Dewey.  As I weeded, I took notes on sections I knew I wanted to move, or new subject sections I wanted to create (i.e. STEM and Makerspace books).


Consider How Your Students Look for Books

I think this is so important because many of us take for granted that students are looking up call numbers, checking the shelves in order, finding items in the catalog, etc.  I decided to send out a survey to all my students looking at how they find books.  A focus group would also be an excellent way to get student feedback.  What I found from my survey was enlightening.


Catalog use

About 30% of my students surveyed had used our library catalog to search for a book before.  I’m expecting this number to go up since I’ve been teaching the catalog during middle school orientation, but I probably need to focus more explicit instruction on this.  Students like the catalog to place holds, but they don’t often use it to find books in the space – they usually just come ask me where something is.


Spines of books
A mix of fiction and non-fiction spine labels in our library.

Dewey Decimal System

30% of my students said they had a basic understanding of what the Dewey Decimal system was and how to use it, but only 15% knew that science books could be found in the 500s. The majority of students had no idea what number they’d find the science books under.  While it’s true that I could focus on teaching the DDS, I think there are better ways to use my time and my students’ time, and I don’t think that’ll help them to be independent readers in the long run.


Bookstore browsing

The last question on my survey was the most interesting.  I asked students how they look for books when they visit a bookstore.  An overwhelming majority (76%) said that they usually just browse until they find something they like.  46% said they look for signage to help them find the books they’re interested in.


My conclusions here: Most students never look at the call number and don’t know what it means.  Teaching students how to use the catalog (regardless of Dewey) is important in creating lifelong readers.  Good signage and browsability (more face out books) is critical.


Consider the librarians

As much as you may love your school, you won’t be there forever.  Whether you move on or retire, someone else will eventually be in your space.  So when I was considering what I wanted to do with my De-empahsized Dewey, I thought about my own labor and the labor of future librarians.  I wanted to make sure that I set up a system that would work well and continue to work and adapt in the future.


What information does the librarian and/or library assistants need?

  • The most crucial piece of information is knowing where to shelve items.  With the system you come up with, you want to make sure that it’s easy to locate where an item goes. This could be the call number, a label or a color.  I chose to avoid any type of organization that makes me look up the book in the catalog or open it up to find where it goes.
  • Running reports – how will your new cataloging system work for running weeding reports?  Circulation reports?  Since I use Follett Destiny, I chose to give each book a sublocation (specific place to shelve) and a category (the larger grouping – I currently have nine of these)
  • Inventory – This will depend on your circulation system and how you usually run inventories.  I like to inventory the whole collection at once, so my process hasn’t changed.  But if you like to inventory one section at a time, you might want to consider how a new system would affect this.


How much labor do I want to put in?

This was a big consideration for me in deciding what I wanted to do and how much work I wanted to put in.

  • Do you want to change all the spine labels?  
  • Do you want to scan all the books into categories/subcategories? (sometimes this can be done in batches)
  • How much work can be done by volunteers?


For myself, I opted to leave the Dewey number labels on my books, since no one really looks at them, and I added labels and translucent colored stickers (from Demco) to show what sections books went in.  I did scan all the books into categories and subcategories.  Once I had books in the sections I wanted, some student volunteers helped with the stickering and labeling.


I know that some librarians choose to create new, non-Dewey spine labels.  But I’m a solo librarian with no aide (as many of us are) and I knew that was going to be a huge undertaking of labor and time that I felt could be better spent elsewhere.  Also, since most vendors use Dewey spine labels for non-fiction, I was going to have to start ordering with non-attached processing, which was more future labor for myself and any librarians who might be in this space after me.


How much future labor do you want to put in?

This was a big consideration for me and it might be dependent on whether or not you have a library aide or student assistants.  While there will always be an outlay of time and effort to start your de-emphasized Dewey, it’s important to consider what you’ll need to do to maintain your system.  There isn’t a right or wrong answer to this, it’s just something you should consider.

  • Can you still order with attached processing with your new system?  If not, do you have the time (or assistance) to process all your new books?
  • Is your system flexible enough to adapt to future changes (adding or moving subsections, changing locations, etc?


I added a lot of signage to help students navigate our collection.

Ease of use considerations

These questions tie into a lot of the previous sections, and I think that they’re important to ask:


  • Shelving – Can the librarian or shelvers find where to put a book by looking at the spine? By looking inside the cover? Do they have to scan it?
  • Browsing – Can anyone who walks in the library find where a certain book might be?  Are there face-out covers and signage that can help guide them?
  • Searching – Can students and teachers find where the book is from the catalog? Is the sublocation clear?
  • Reports – Can the librarian create circulation and weeding reports without too much hassle?
  • Future considerations – Can a future librarian understand the system?  Would they be able to change it back if desired?  How time-intensive will new purchases be to process?


These are all questions I had to wrestle with before getting started on De-emphasizing Dewey in my library, and I recommend that you do the same.  You’ll probably still change some things during the process, but asking yourself these questions first will help.

Resources I used and considered for De-emphasized Dewey:

Alternative systems

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll share what categories and sub-locations I created to organize our non-fiction collection

De-emphasized Dewey: Finding a Balanced Approach