I returned to school this fall to find that parts of my library had been, shall we say, artfully rearranged. At a time when I had been expecting to come up with brilliant displays, brainstorm for Teen Read Week at a leisurely pace, and craft eloquent emails inviting English teachers with new 9th graders to visit the library during opening week, I found myself instead unpacking books from cardboard boxes.

The spatial rearrangement was perhaps a blessing in disguise, since I hadn’t particularly liked the configuration of shelves last year and planned to get around to it at some point–you know, after I got those other twelve odd jobs off of my desk–but in the meantime it means a lot of confusion in my once orderly library. Where are the biographies? Oh, over there, on that unmarked shelf. What about fiction? Well, it starts over there, and ends over there, but if you’re looking for new series they might be hidden behind that big wheeled desk that the maintenance staff doesn’t know where to stash permanently.

And what about reference?

I recently polled some other school librarian friends about how they use their reference collections. Do they circulate? Are they marooned from the rest of the collection on some kind of reference island? My reference collection used to be prominently displayed but dramatically underused, so in this time of transformation I’ve decided to interfile reference with regular non-fiction.

If you weren’t fortunate enough to attend the YALSA Institute last Midwinter, I highly recommend checking out Laura Pearle’s presentation, Flip Your Shelving. Along with Wendy Stephens and Buffy J. Hamilton, Pearle discussed the ways you can make your collection more accessible to your teens–many of whom may be more familiar with Barnes and Noble than Melville Dewey.

A few things I learned last year about the way my teens use the collection:

I need a dedicated terminal for the catalog. I used to get miffed when students would ask “Do you have…?” when they could easily find out themselves by checking the OPAC, but then I realized that the student computers take anywhere from five minutes to approximately a decade to boot.

Genre shelving would be a welcome change. Simply shelving fiction by an author’s last name just isn’t cutting it. My students want to find the science fiction section, or the romances, or the historical fiction. In short, they want to browse, and alphabetical shelving isn’t particularly conducive to that.

What’s reference, anyway? The distinction between “regular” non-fiction and reference seems artificial to many of my students, and I can’t say I disagree with them. What makes a reference book a reference book? Are they for in-library use because they’re really used that frequently, or because they’re more expensive to replace when they got lost?

Do you use Dewey in your library? Library of Congress? Did you inherit someone else’s organizational system–perhaps with not so helpful spine stickers and inscrutable MARC notations–only to find it’s no longer relevant? What have your teens taught you about browsing and organization?

About mk Eagle

I'm the librarian at Holliston High School, a bit west of Boston. In my spare time I advise my school's yearbook and Gay Straight Alliance, write about food, and root for the Red Sox.

4 Thoughts on “30 Days of Back to School: Dewey Use It, or Lose It?

  1. I really like the idea of shelving the reference books in the non-fiction. Most teens are just going to online databases and websites for their research anyway, so having all the books in one spot just makes sense.

    I do have questions about shelving the fiction books by genre, and only because there is a wide selection of books that have overlapping genres, and then problems arise. I don’t think it’s a problem for students to actually have to use the OPAC stations to find books. I think that is still a skill students may need when they head off to college (or to their public libraries).

    At my high school, I have a “reference room” that is now a computer lab, complete with all the shelving. Any ideas on what to do with all that empty space if I put those books into the nonfiction areas?

  2. Overlapping genres can certainly be a sticking point, and one I’m sure I’ll wrestle with when I finally get to that genre shelving! As far as using the OPAC to find books, I think there’s a crucial distinction between browsing and finding. While many OPACs are, indeed, set up nicely to browse by genre, subject, author, etc., many others–including mine!–really aren’t.

    I do agree that preparing students to locate books in academic or public libraries is an important skill (though I question how well learning Dewey will prepare them for libraries using LC cataloging), but I think browsing is a skill–and a student desire–that isn’t necessarily best served with a catalog.

    Is the shelving modular/removable? What other needs do students have when they’re using the computer lab? If you have circulating multimedia items, this might be a natural fit, or you may be able to re-purpose the shelves for displays.

  3. Good points, thank you. I do think that even if a students learns how to manipulate Dewey and go to the shelves to find a book, they will have the baseline knowledge to maneuver around in LC as well. It’s the problem solving part that I like to stress here. Our collection is not that large, so a student can easily find sports, poetry, nutrition, etc. in the nonfiction section if they visit it frequently enough.

    I think I’ll wait to move the reference books until we get new carpet in the library. Then, I can just remove the shelving completely and put up white boards, a smart board or other displays that will help with the computer instruction.

    Thanks for your ideas! I’m a new YALSA member, so it’s good just to read what others are doing around the country in their own libraries.

  4. Ann Collins on September 16, 2010 at 12:27 pm said:

    What makes a book reference? Good question. One of the exercises we have freshmen do is to find a reference book and a circulating book on the same subject. When I demo how to search the catalog I point out that the call #s that start with REF mean Reference. I then hold up a big fat reference book and define it as having the following characteristics:
    It’s usually very big and heavy (not always). Might make a useful weapon, if you’re strong enough to throw it.
    No one would want to take it home (except they often do).
    You wouldn’t want to read it cover to cover (why not?).
    And it has a big red dot on the spine to help you recognize it.
    In some cases we have multiple copies of a title, one shelved in NF one in Ref. The only difference is the big red dot.

    What reference books really mean in my library is a place to start your research. It’s also the collection nearest the reference desk. Inevitably, the first mistake made by freshmen in looking for those first 2 books, is to confuse the Reference collection with the circulating NF collection. Reference is the only visible collection when you enter our library doors and it’s what they head for. If nothing more, students learn from the beginning that the library is more than it’s print reference collection.

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