Language Laced in Bias: Classifying Knowledge (more) Equally with a Dewey-Hybrid Model

DeweyHybrid

I firmly believe that any worthwhile project should begin with a decent dose of naïve optimism.

It all started on a quiet April afternoon in the Dartmouth High School Library. I had just finished reading an article about a school library that had converted their nonfiction collection to a Dewey-Free model. What an awesome idea! I thought. And besides, how difficult could it possibly be? (Very difficult, I would later learn. At one point that summer when someone asked how the project was progressing, I actually said—almost crying—“I never want to see another book again!” …But don’t let that scare you.) While our classification project of creating a Dewey-Hybrid model took us eight months and 13,000 books from initial idea to full implementation, it has been a groundbreaking change that has positively impacted student engagement, learning, browsing, and research.

Powerful Words

“Going Dewey-Free” is currently a hot topic in the library world. Some librarians like to say, “Why fix what’s not broken?” but I would argue that the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) has been broken since its creation—we just didn’t know it at the time. No amount of detailed signage will fix the fact that the DDC reflects one man’s white, Christian, American, nineteenth-century worldview. The DDC marginalizes minority discourses into classifications labeled “other”: 290 Other and comparative religions, 490 Other languages, and 990 General history of other areas. This distinguishes those that have been named (460 Spanish and Portuguese Languages) as normative and socially acceptable. How do our students feel who practice “other religions” or whose families are from “other areas”? And how do students from “named” backgrounds learn to view people from “other” backgrounds? Language is a form of power. When we classify books, we’re really classifying knowledge. And when we arrange knowledge in a hierarchy, we privilege certain lived experiences over others. People cannot be equal until all forms of knowledge are equal.

Dismal Decimals

The DDC was created with an ever-expanding decimal structure, an innovative feature for its time. This structure enables newly created categories to be incorporated into the existing framework. Over the years, though, categories have become fragmented to the point where computers are separate from technology, and sewing and crocheting are split across classes. In a genre-based system, spontaneous browsing has become a challenge.

This is the point where I find myself questioning the true purpose of libraries. When Dewey created the DDC, libraries contained closed stacks, only accessible by librarians (Gibson 48). As a profession, we have worked so hard over the years to encourage our students to take responsibility for their learning and to teach them the tools and components of research. Until we change the classification system, librarians will always serve as the intermediary. The key question is: should students have to be taught how to use a library? If a librarian’s primary responsibility is to serve as every student’s first point of contact in locating a book, we are losing time that could be spent on more creative, innovative, and collaborative work.

Unconvinced Librarians

Over the past two years, I have been contacted by many librarians about the concept of a Dewey-Hybrid model, from schools as near as my own district, to schools as far as the United Kingdom. While many librarians are convinced of the value of converting their systems, they struggle with the time and planning required to complete the project. There are other librarians, though, who are not convinced of the value of a Dewey-Free or Dewey-Hybrid model. They sometimes say things like, “Why overhaul the system when it just needs clarification?” (Hopefully that question has already been addressed.) Librarians also mention a concern with switching to a model that has not been officially established and accepted as a universal system. As a result, the ability to copy-catalogue becomes limited, and cataloging new items takes additional time. However, librarians may find themselves with additional time if they are no longer retrieving books for students. (Disclaimer: By no means am I advocating for a library experience where librarians no longer help students find materials. There is a stark difference, however, between those students who simply need to locate the biographies on Nelson Mandela or the books about Shakespeare, vs. those students who need help formulating a research question or finding books to spark some topic selection ideas.)

Systems, Frameworks, Models, Oh My!

Another objection that some librarians raise when considering a system conversion is the importance of students knowing how to use the public library. They worry that if the DDC isn’t taught in schools, students will grow up not knowing how to use other libraries. My answer starts like this: If students go to college, they will likely encounter Library of Congress. When they go to a bookstore, they browse by genre and author. On Amazon.com and other online booksellers, they search by keyword. All of these are just systems, but they’re different systems. We should keep in mind that Dewey-Free and Dewey-Hybrid models are also systems, not the absence of a system.

Furthermore, most public libraries still use the DDC, but how many adults voluntarily visit a public library if they don’t like reading, research, or discovering new things? Fostering a love of learning in children is a crucial step in creating adults who choose to visit the public library. And children who find (school) libraries frustrating, confusing, and intimidating will be at risk for not developing that passion for reading. If library patrons (of all ages) sense that libraries were designed for librarians, they will feel more like intruders in someone else’s space with less ownership of their right to a library’s collection of knowledge.

It has now been two years since that April afternoon when I stood in front of the nonfiction stacks and frowned for a while…and then envisioned the possibility of a different classification structure. It has been a process and a journey full of research, ideas, mistakes, and successes. While I do not claim that the Dartmouth High School library has created the perfect model, I am proud to say that it now features a system in which knowledge is more equal and students are more autonomous in their learning.

Works Cited

Gibson, Marjorie. “Innovative 21st Century Classification Schemes for Elementary School Libraries.” Feliciter 57.2 (2011): 48-49, 61. Print.

In 2013, Halley Zanconato and Pamela King, the Library Assistant, converted the nonfiction collection of the Dartmouth High School to a Dewey-Hybrid model. Eight months, 13,000 books, and countless cups of coffee later, the library features a more intuitive, less biased collection that is structured to directly support the school’s curriculum. Halley will graduate next year with a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from UMass Dartmouth.

Halley Zanconato is the Library Media Specialist at Dartmouth High School.