Newey Neighborhoods, or How I Reinvented the Dewey Decimal Classification System to Meet the Needs of My Elementary Library

NOTE: This article is reprinted with permission from the author. The original article appeared on the author’s The “In” Librarian blog.

“Dewey was so 1800’s.”

No, this is not a comment overheard at a librarians’ forum dedicated to the implementation of the bookstore model in libraries. These are the words of a 4th grader upon completion of our Dewey Decimal study unit.

In November of 2012, I began my annual exploration of the breadth and depth of topics housed in the (primarily) nonfiction section of the library we all know as the Dewey Decimal section. In fact, “Melvil” himself guest lectured to introduce his classification system to the students.

Melvil Dewey, Guest Lecturer
Melvil Dewey, Guest Lecturer

Early on, there were rumblings about some of Dewey’s designations and decisions. “Hey, we should make up our own system called the Newey Decimal System,” quipped one student.

Now here’s where the lesson could have gone in two directions. “Oh, what a cute idea,” I could have thought, diminishing the creativity and critical thinking of said student and sticking with the almighty planbook. Or, I could have been blown away by the thought of a NEW Dewey, one created by the kids themselves. The fastidious Dewey-obsessed librarian would have opted for the former. (I used to be that librarian). But the Librarian 2.0 said to herself, let’s get messy and give this a try.

And so, the day arrived after we had journeyed through all ten categories to take that giant leap forward. I started with a class assessment. To create something new, we needed to understand the old first. So, I challenged the students to recall the ten Dewey classes, which we recorded on the left hand side of the whiteboard. Surprisingly this was much easier for them than I had thought it would be. Future librarians all? Then we started brainstorming how we could make the classification system more child-friendly.

The ideas began to flow. Every single child contributed. Ideas coincided, collided and overlapped.

“There should be a separate category just for nature. Animals and plants together. Pets, gardening, wild animals and trees.”

“Geography and languages and cultures and cookbooks should go together.”

“You know how the ghost books are in one section (100’s) and the alien and mysterious creatures are in another (000’s)? They should be together.”

“There should be a ‘How-To’ section. It could have the drawing books, origami books, how to put on your own play…” “Maybe we should call it the ‘Boredom Busters’ section.”

“We need to have more than just ten sections.”

Newey brainstorm
Newey brainstorm

And then this one, which really surprised me–a suggestion to put the biographies, history and the historical fiction together, by topic. “They’re all about history” was the (obvious) explanation. Interestingly enough, this idea is not new and has been adapted (loosely) in at least one school library.

The Newey concept remained theoretical–a great culminating lesson, a summative assessment designed by the students themselves. But, the following year I thought. Why not get messy? Why not empower these children to ring out the old and ring in the Newey? And so, the Newey Neighborhood was born. Twenty-odd sections, a new alpha-numeric classification system, a boon to shelvers and searchers alike. It took braun-power and brain-power and months of chaos, but it was worth it.


Nancy Kellner is the librarian at the Peaslee School in Northborough


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