Everything is Miscellaneous and School Libraries
Everyone has been talking about the book Everything is Miscellaneous by David Weinberg this summer. Many of his ideas directly affect the way we work in school libraries – I’ll highlight three here.
1. The Dewey Decimal System, like most “second order” information organization systems, has lots of problems. Weinberg provides a strong and lengthy critique of it, and some librarians may be offended. However, we all must admit that it makes no logical sense to the average person to file fairy tales in nonfiction, and there are many other problems. These problems inevitably stem from the fact that no one item can be physically placed in more than one place, and a decision had to be made. Weinberg understands that it would be far too expensive to scrap the system and start over, and points out that no new system would be any better.
Computers and OPACs certainly help. However, we’ve been using OPACs for at 15 years in Georgia school libraries – and I’m not sure that people are yet finding them a natural way to locate books. Further, we are quite good at helping students find resources when they know exactly what they want. We are not nearly so good at helping them when they’re not quite sure what they’re looking for – and I would say this is the case at least half the time!
2. Social tagging, also known as “folksonomies,” is the new big thing, and there’s absolutely nothing organized about this phenomenon. We, as catalogers, are proud of our professional ability to determine the “proper” subject headings for “information packages,” and so much work has been put into a disciplined approach to this over the years. But let’s face it – kids don’t think like professional catalogers. If people can individually come up with their own tags, and those tags can be shared around, our cataloging vocabulary expands. The most important idea here is that electronically, objects can actually belong in an infinite number of places, not just one physical space. And they can occupy multiple places simultaneously. This is really quite revolutionary, when you think about it! It’s likely that we will move away from putting single things in single folders, and then building a hierarchy of folders. If things are tagged, we can let the machine do the searching for us.
3. All of this social cataloging may seem threatening to us. Certainly, all Georgia employees are nervous right now, hoping that we won’t suddenly be found extraneous. But in the school library profession, we can’t hold onto old practices just because we are the only ones who know how to use them, thinking it makes us indispensable.
So do we throw out our Dewey schedules and recatalog our entire collections using Delicious or AR levels? Aboslutely not. New tagging systems will develop alongside our current systems and eventually edge them out. This is probably going to happen without any contribution from us – but we should make efforts to incorporate new organizations into our existing structures. Instead of spending all that energy teaching kids the different Dewey classifications, I suggest:
- Teach the idea of indexes. There’s always an index; figure out what it is and access it. If the user has to take a college course to memorize the index, then the index needs to change.
- Teach about personal tagging. Kids are doing this anyway. Make sure they are harnessing the incredible power of “smart leaves” for educational purposes as well.
- Think about how well your media center promotes browsing for items for patrons who are not quite sure what they’re looking for. Bookstores do this quite well. Displays, front-out books, and peer reviews are all good practices in this regard.
- Continue to help learners deal with information properly once they find it. This is where the energy should go, after all.
- Point out that some of the standardized tests are outdated, requiring students to answer questions about information skills that are no longer relevant – like catalog cards. This needs to change.
For a quick overview of this book, there’s a video of the author giving a talk on his book here. I highly recommend this book to you!
Mary Ann Fitzgerald
University of Georgia