Doing The Dewey

Classifying books can be difficult

I needed something to read this weekend that was small, lightweight, and portable.   I was visiting family in Pacific Grove and had thoughtfully left behind my Nook on the kitchen table in San Jose.   In these crises, something from the PG bookcase usually fills the bill.   This time it was Ex Libris – Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman.   A clever title by a bookman’s daughter, the essays were short and to the point about books: collecting and organizing them.   It was the first essay, in particular, “Marrying Libraries” that hooked me.   After years of organizing and re-organizing my own book collections, I was ready to see how Clifton Fadiman’s daughter did it.

Ms. Fadiman begins by confiding that this was no mean feat.   After six years of marriage, the large book collections, of both she and her husband, still had not come together.   Everything else had, including their firstborn child.   Originally, it had been Anne’s loft.   She had, of course, sorted the collection in a way that had suited her.  Now, that the intruding collection had come to stay, the Great Merger would inevitably have to occur.

Finally, the couple had agreed to pile their books on the floor.   They would deal with the thorny issues of how they would sort out who had what under what topic.  This emotional arm wrestling reminded me that classification may seem like a mild preoccupation and straightforward.   But it isn’t.   There is the human condition to consider.   This struck a real chord with me.   In my own personal book collecting saga, it took me several years to realize that I had collected Two Years Before the Mast three times before finding the originally bought paperback nestled comfortably next to my Moby Dick instead of in California history where, I suppose, it more properly belonged.   Likewise, my history of Victorian architecture had migrated to be with the books on the San Francisco Bay Area.   Apparently, the sentimental value, my having lived there in the sixties, overrode the proper place in the scheme of cataloging.

Patrons, too, I have discovered, seem to have definite ideas about where things should be.  Home improvement, for example, is an area in which I order materials for the Sunnyvale Library.   A typical query from patrons might go like this:

Patron:   “Where are the kitchen books?”

Me:          “What were you thinking of doing?”

Patron:   “Oh, I don’t know.    Making curtains, wallpapering, maybe new floors…Just point me in the right direction.”

Me:           “Those might be in several different areas.   Let’s go together.”

Whether they intend to DIY, or are simply interested in ideas, the “in’s and out’s” of the Dewey system, all neat and tidy, and well organized, is just not all in one place!   Then again, if they were thinking of papering their floors or sewing an interesting design for their walls, far be it that I should stand in their way.   However, just to be on the safe side, maybe I should show them the exciting permutations of how collections are really organized.


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The Adult Services blog account is comprised of Librarians who are part of the Adult Services work group at the Library. Together, we have expertise in baseball, books, cats, cooking, cycling, dogs, food, gardening, patents, personal finance, small business resources, social media, technology, and much more.

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