I first became a school librarian in the 2019 - 2020 school year. In the second week of March, 2020, I celebrated a birthday, found out I passed my state school librarian license exam, and our elementary team took first place in our district's Battle of the Bluebonnets competition. Then we left for spring break, and we never came back to in-person learning that school year.
However, in July of 2019, I didn't see COVID coming. I inherited a beautiful library space with an almost-new collection on a campus that was only three years old. The prior librarian was ahead of her time, and genrefied the nonfiction section of the elementary library, which served over 800 students. This nonfiction organization generated a lot of discussion for adults, but it was familiar to the kids, who knew where to find biographies and books about dinosaurs. Shelving nonfiction was easy for the library assistant (I was so lucky to have one!) and volunteers, since books with matching stickers went together on a shelf, without worrying about decimal order, and signage was clear.
Most students, for a variety of reasons, were browsers and not catalog users (we were working to build that capacity). We were fortunate to have plenty of electronic databases for research, but our nonfiction print books were also updated and all in good condition. The main downside was when someone - usually an adult - came in looking for a particular book that happened to belong to a large section - like general animals - that took up two or three shelves. In those cases, it could take longer to locate a specific book than it would if it were shelved by the decimal.
I was encouraged to switch back to Dewey, mostly because the other elementary schools were organized that way, and it was thought to be good preparation for elementary students to encounter the same Dewey organization at their middle schools. Further, our nonfiction circulation was not greater than other schools, which had been a key argument to the set-up in the first place. So in December of 2019, with generous help from adult volunteers, we moved the books "back" into Dewey order.
Need to Know?
A few weeks later, I took my state school library license exam, concerned about my lack of Dewey knowledge. At the risk of activating my Imposter Syndrome, I'll confess I never learned the Dewey Decimal System until then, in spite of being an avid reader who frequented my school and local libraries. Granted, I'm a frequent bookstore buyer, too, but in libraries I could rely on signage and helpful staff members to find anything tricky. I could interpret call numbers in the catalog and relate them to signage and spine labels without knowing Dewey's categories by heart. While I understand that all students are not avid readers and may need explicit instruction, this experience was important - I didn't have a belief that the DDS was a requirement for success in reading or library use. Further, since I did learn quickly enough, I wasn't concerned about students not being able to navigate Dewey-organized spaces they might encounter later on, either.
So, as we moved our nonfiction books into Dewey's organization framework, questions immediately popped up.
Some Issues with the Dewey System
OOOs - It seems odd to put research skills, optical illusions, world records, cryptids, computers, and some ghost stories in the same section.
100s - A lot of the books about self-awareness or, for example, yoga, seemed to overlap with social issues books in the 300s, or physical health books in the 500s.
200s - Christian holidays were in the 300s, but non-Christian holidays were grouped here.
300s - It's hard to explain why fairy tales and myths are in the nonfiction section. So as we taught students to look at the spine label to distinguish between the three main library sections: fiction, everybody, and nonfiction - Number means Nonfiction - it was understandably problematic when students found Cinderella stories there. It was even more confusing since we had a lot of picture book fairy tales alphabetized by author in our Everybody section - separate from each other.
400s - This was a pretty small section in an elementary school, but they seemed more related to titles in the 800s, rather than fitting naturally between 300s cultural/societal topics and 500s math and science topics.
500s - This section was huge, and it was really confusing to kids why the pets and farm animals - especially things like fish, turtles, and rabbits - weren't with the other animals. I had (beautiful) curving library shelves on wheels, and although a lot of the furniture was flexible, it also claimed a huge footprint, leaving few layout options to maintain traffic flow. With the books in numeric order on the shelves, in spite of our best organizational efforts, the dogs and cats didn't end up being especially close to other mammals.
600s - It was odd to call this technology, especially when computers were explicitly in the OOOs, so we tried to re-name it something more student-friendly - I think I settled on something like "Ways We Live." It's confusing for students that books about outer space and space travel aren't near each other in Dewey's system.
700s - Our sports section was huge, and had to be shelved separately from the rest of our 700s to fit our shelving configuration. Our graphic novels were also shelved in their own separate section, and so were our biographies, so what was left were some sections without balance: a lot of origami books, some seek and find books, some how to draw books, craft books, and some stray books about roller coasters and architecture - which seemed to fit better with topics in the 600s.
800s - This was dominated by poetry, and our small collection of joke books were mostly hidden. There were a couple of great nonfiction books about writing which would have logically fit better with some of the books in the OOOs or 400s.
900s - This was a giant section that students didn't really browse much. The biographies were lifted out, and we had some great books about history and geography, but students didn't have a lot of prior knowledge to understand the organization - it was mostly confusing that the U.S. states weren't organized alphabetically.
Overall, it was more challenging to arrange the books according to the Dewey system, because we had less flexibility. For example, our semi-permanent Star Wars and superheroes display got a lot of traffic, and so did our shark books and pet books, but shelving in Dewey order meant lining everything up in numerical order across the space, instead of ensuring the more popular subjects would have wider traffic spaces, and that those shelves would have good sight lines for supervision.
Further, students didn't study comparing decimals to the hundredths place until fifth grade in their curriculum - and then, it was often mid-year for the oldest students on our campus. So most students (grades PK - 5 on our campus) lacked a fundamental understanding of how to interpret or compare those numbers on the spine labels. I was ready to teach that skill (and did), but it required more than a once a week lesson to sink in, at the expense of time with additional read-alouds, book talks, and other activities. Learning the decimal system in order to find books didn't seem like a real-world skill that mattered as much as examining search results, considering bias of sources, collaborating and discussing ideas, and keeping excitement about independent reading. If we could make the organization system easier to find and access print resources, that made sense.
I found that, much like a kitchen renovation, once I started trying to address one problem, it just made sense to try to fix everything else so I didn't have to live with things that didn't make sense. With genrefication, I don't have to try to explain to a third grader that the books are this way because a guy invented this system in 1876 and a lot of other libraries use it too, even though we both agreed that it would make more sense if the baking books were closer to the craft books, instead of the pets.
The Good, The Bad, and The Unused Decimals
It's also important to acknowledge that any system is going to have flaws, because there will always be books that fit more than one category, and then you have to make a decision about where it fits best. Others might choose differently, for reasonable reasons. For example, a biography about Leonardo da Vinci could reasonably belong with artists or inventors. It can also be problematic to name categories, or decide how "big" or "small" to make the categories for a given collection. But this doesn't strike me as a reason to stick with Dewey when many things about it are outdated.
I also don't think it makes sense to change things just for the sake of jumping on a bandwagon or to change just for fun. For me, it was more important to connect patrons to resources than to focus on teaching them one specific system to locate books. If the work of organizing books in a more kid-friendly way meant that kids could more independently find books that interested them, then that work seemed worth it to me.
Guiding Principles for Genrefication
With a few guiding principles, I think genrefying nonfiction is worthwhile. First, the book's location should be visible in the catalog entry so that everyone can understand where that book should be. Even if students mainly encounter the books by browsing, there should be a definitive record of its location in the catalog. For a comparison, we can look at a fiction book - Twilight by Stephenie Meyer was in the horror genre section at my middle school library. I understand that vampires are horror-related, but if I were browsing for that book, I'd check the romance or fantasy sections first. Having the entry in the catalog matters for everyone who might not put a given book in the same place that librarian or campus chose to put it.
Signage and Teaching
Second, signage and explicit tours and lesson activities with any re-organized sections are important to introduce students to what's available in the physical space. Signage can be added or adjusted to clarify information based on frequent questions patrons ask before and after the re-organization. (I suspect perfect signage will always be an elusive but ongoing quest for me.) You'll also want to teach students where to find the sublocation in the catalog entry, and how that information connects to the physical space.
Third, a book's sublocation, or subcategory, isn't set in stone. You could make your best call as quickly as possible for each book, or spend hours making the best decision for each book. You could involve students in sorting books and making decisions about every category, or bring students in to decide about books in a "maybe" pile, or casually poll a few students when it comes to books that could go in two different categories. No matter what the decision or how it's made, it can always be changed if it becomes clear that its first placement is not the best fit. The best part of genrefication is that you have the freedom to organize books in ways that your students are most likely to find and read them.
Fourth, you don't want a sticker salad bar on the book spine - keep it simple. Remember that if you start covering the standard spine label with colored label protectors or dots to indicate sub-locations, you have a limited amount of colors (and therefore, categories) to work with, and similar colors can be confusing. You'll need to create a color key if you go that route.
My solution matched the genrefication we already had in our catalog specifications for fiction: the standard white spine label, with the Dewey number and first three digits of the author's last name, was one inch from the bottom of each book's spine, and just above that was a one-inch genre sticker (just like the fiction genre category stickers, except we purchased those from Demco). You can see details about categories and nonfiction genre stickers in a separate post. The key is that adding one one-inch sticker to the spine, without removing or covering the standard spine label, conveys all the necessary information and doesn't create a mess on your books - even if someone decides to change the system back to Dewey later, or even if you decide to change a book to a different subcategory later.
It's definitely a lot of work to change any library system, and any new system needs to be clearly communicated to patrons through multiple channels. However, having a system that is logical, flexible, and accessible is well worth the effort - and, just as you continue to refine signage and the use of things like series bins and dynamic displays, you can continue to make nonfiction more appealing to more readers.
Ultimately, I wished that I hadn't changed back to Dewey - I think genrefication was more logical and accessible for students. However, I tried it, and now I have a better sense of the benefits and drawbacks of each system. With that in mind, when I moved to a middle school library, I did genrefy the nonfiction section - and I wrote a blog post for details about that process.
I've had the privilege of working with hundreds of students and families in IA, CT, NC, MO, TX, and Canada. I love being a teacher-librarian!