Ditching Dewey

I’ve been planning to hammer out this post for a while, and now that I’ve finished my grad school portfolio defense and have had some time to just chill out this week on Spring Break I’M READY!

At Follett’s New Leaf in Learning Conference, Tamara Cox and I initiated some serious conversations on the topic of nontraditional shelving during one of our presentations. Tamara took the plunge last year with her nonfiction shelving and I was so inspired. I started with genre shelving my fiction books earlier this school year. I have had so much success with the genre shelving — my students LOVE it and are much more comfortable browsing for books now. I honestly feel like it opens them up to new authors in a way that traditional fiction shelving does not. Whatever genre they are in the mood for is completely laid out in front of them in a manageably sized section so they can really see what’s there and what grabs them. We all love it, and I have absolutely no regrets about making that move!

With the success of the fiction shake-down, I was ready to dive into doing a similar dance with my nonfiction section. A few disclaimers about me:

  • I’m out of the box. And once I get a hair-brained idea brewing, I won’t be content until I run with it.
  • I’m not married to Dewey as a sacred cows of library life. I was a Page (read: 20 hr/week book shelver) at the public library for over 5 years in high school and college. Before that, I was a library helper in middle school (the same library that I work in now). Dewey and I have a long history, I know him well, and he has served me well. Naturally, I could get to any topic with easy because Melville and I go way back. However, for my kids it’s a totally different story and I’m okay with that, too.
  • I’m not the most organized person. Nor do I always think things through completely before I decide to just go with it. For this reason, my methods aren’t always the cleanest ways to get to a particular destination (but I make it work!).
  • I’m okay with things being a temporary disaster if I believe that there will be an improvement in the end.

I went back and forth with one of my best friends, who is also one of our 6th grade ELA teachers. She was sort of traumatized by the idea of me doing away with Dewey. I also discussed it quite a bit with my fabulous volunteer (a grandmother and retired middle school teacher) who helped me through the fiction switch. She thought it was a great idea and would make it easier for the students to browse. Having someone solidly on my team (and willing to put in a great deal of work to see it happen), I decided that we were going to go with it.

Now you’re probably thinking that I’m crazy for doing this in the middle of the school year. And I am. Completely crazy. BUT I wanted this to happen before we move to the new school this summer, so that meant we couldn’t wait for a summer to do this. I started this transition the same way I started with fiction: stickers. I printed out stickers for each section that we would use. How did I decide on my sections? I looked at what Tamara did, and she came up with hers using the Book Industry Standards. I looked at my collection and my student’s interests and created this list: Animals, Arts & Crafts, Careers, Crime, Food, Health, History, Literature, Math, Music, Mythology, Nature, Poetry, Religion, Reference, Science, Social & Cultural Issues, Sports, Supernatural, War.  I made a cute sticker for each category and we got to sticking! Of course there were some things that threw me off — where do we put the dinosaur books? Animals? History? Science? Hm. There were also some things I was so psyched to group together — military and armor books go with war…YES!

After (most of) the stickering was done, I was ready to re-arrange! Tamara arranged hers alphabetically by category, but I didn’t since I’ll be moving completely soon anyway. I arranged it so big categories (history, science) could stay where the majority of those books already were. I also gave sports and war some prime real-estate. Then, within my categories that were larger, I sub-categorized on the shelves like this:


So, for example, within “War” I have: General, American Revolution, Civil War, WWI, WWII, Modern Wars

The kids are able to find nonfiction that they’re interested in much more easily. I’m also looking forward to the move when I’ll be able to put categories into a new order and add biographies back in (they’re tucked in a corner right now).

A common question: What are you doing with the books in the catalog? For the time being, it’s still Dewey. I’m also leaving the Dewey stickers along with the category stickers. When I do inventory, I’m going to work on the catalog. I plan to use the Destiny feature where I can scan in a group of books and tack on a pre-fix, which will be the category name. I’m going to see how that works for a while. If it doesn’t, I’ll figure something else out!

In the end, I’m doing all of this because I believe that this is what will be best for my students. Anything that I can do to make the library a friendlier, more accessible place is a good thing!

26 thoughts on “Ditching Dewey

  1. I am not quite brave enough to tackle getting rid of Dewey, but I am curious as to where you got your cute little stickers to group them. Also, what company did you use to get the transparent colored stickers you used for genrefying your fiction stickers? I am seriously considering reorganizing the fiction section in my elementary media center.

  2. That’s definitely the way to go! From a booksellers perspective – as many similar titles as you can cluster together in whatever creative ways you can think of can only spur interest in new titles & authors! Which ultimately is one of our main goals as book people! It’s much more logical for a customer / patron / student and can only encourage exploration!

  3. One of the libraries in our area is going to do this to her non fiction section and I thought is was an amazing idea. I come from a k-12 school library and students are forever asking me where the animals are or the hockey books. I want to jump in with both feet right now! but I have to wait a bit to try this, but I will be there as soon as possible!

  4. Hi! Just wondering if you ever switched your computer lab over to an online checkout? I remember reading your thoughts about it – a year or so ago. If you did, how do you like the change? How do the teachers checking out online like the change? I am seriously considering making the change as the paper copy is driving me insane. Thanks!

  5. A year later, how have things worked out with subject shelving? I am very interested in maybe taking this on but I worry there may be regrets later I can not think of now.

    Looking forward to hear from you.


  6. I did this myself and find it great that we thought a like. One thing we did differently, in the history section, we have dates across the top of the books so the kids can look by the color coded dates if they have a specific era.
    So cool, and so much easier!

  7. Thanks for the advice. I’m moving my elementary to a new library next year and will be busy over the summer getting rid of Dewey too. I’m starting with nonfiction but will probably work on doing the entire library that way, once I get a feel for the new physical space too.

  8. Hi,
    I teach in a k-8 school. How would you handle the easy books? I am so interested in following in you footsteps!! Thanks for the advice. Your posts have been so helpful!

    1. With easy books, I would use some type of bin system to sort/organize by topics/genres. It would be much easier for students to flip through those skinny little books! Hope this helps!


    1. I hope your library in the homeless shelter is going well! I am the adviser for our National Junior Honor Society, and one of our service projects we were discussing was to get book donations for homeless children. Students at my school were surprised that children make up the largest population of homeless. You may want to see if you can partner up with local schools, your public library for weeded books, or Friends of the Library.

  10. I don’t think I could ditch Dewey entirely. I’ve created collections in my fiction and separated nonfiction series books, but kids love the idea that if they know the Dewey # then they can go to any library (using Dewey) and find similar books by looking at the same numbers. One collection I’ve created is the graphic novels section and also the crafting section. These still have the Dewey #’s but also a common purpose. How will your students do with trying to navigate a Dewey library ?

    1. They still understand that it’s a library that’s organized by a system. And they still know how to use the library catalog. Most importantly, they know that if they have trouble locating something (which they often do, even when they’re explicitly taught Dewey), they can ask a librarian for assistance.

  11. I am not in favor of a Genre library. I have gone from a Dewey library to a genre library and really don’t like it. I have a problem locating any thing. All other school libraries in the district are Dewey. Therefor we want to be consistant in operation. It is a lot of time and trouble to change it over again.

  12. I am considering Ditching Dewey in my high school library. I am also considering using Follett’s Consultation help to guide me in the right direction. Do they pretty much follow the same technique you did in your library…especially when it comes to re-cataloging the books in my collection nito genres in the “batch genre groups” like you mentioned?

  13. Just found your post. We dont do Dewey in our school at all. We have a rather small library in school. and when i started there in January this year it was chaos. all books sorted by school grades. and now we have a little system in it, finally. but i realize your system with the catagories are brilliant. I will talk to the rest of the staff next week and tell them about it 😀 it is even easier for the younger ones to find book they like with the printings on it ( like the dog or the ball) if they are reading starter.
    Thanks for sharing this.
    Greetings from Germany.

  14. Hi Tiffany,
    This is a great blog post! I started doing this with the fiction books in my library last year, but it’s still a work in progress (I got some mixed reviews about it from my mentor who still loves the old system, and I lost steam). After reading this I have a renewed goal to finish the job!
    I haven’t tackled the non-fiction yet, except for one part; the Aboriginal books. In B.C we are in the process of reconciliation with our first peoples, and I spoke to an Aboriginal helping teacher who felt passionately about not having Aboriginal creation stories and history in the Dewey system under “Fairytales.” Dewey has served me well too, but I think it is a system rooted in colonialism. After speaking with him, I redistributed those books into various other locations in the library. It was interesting to learn from someone who has firsthand experience with Indigenous cultures, and to hear their perspective.
    Keep up the good work!

  15. Hi Tiffany,

    Thanks very much for sharing your experience about this big change in your library! I have seen non-traditional book shelving when it comes to fiction books, especially with the more popular series. I was intrigued though, to read about the change over from Dewey Decimal to genre-based shelving. Years after your original post, I am wondering how well this has been received by students and colleagues? We have a new librarian at our school who is changing over most of the fiction books to a genre based organization so I think this would be a great idea to bring to her!

    I noticed that you said you were going to work on the catalogue for your library. The library at my school is attached to a district catalogue that is controlled from our district building. Did you ever bring this change to any “higher-ups” within your district, and if you did how was the change received? I could see this as a benefit to students who want books about a certain topic, but could also see how there might be confusion if they frequent the public library where the books are traditionally organized.

    Thanks again for sharing,

  16. Hello Tiffany!

    As a current classroom teacher who has just started a teacher librarian program I am very happy to have found your blog. I am at the very beginning of my TL training however I have already had some experience substituting in school libraries earlier in my career. I have to admit, I was pretty shocked yet intrigued when I read the title of this article. How dare you “ditch Dewey”? Prior to this I had always assumed that the Dewey Decimal system had been in place since the beginning of time and would continue well into the future. I read your article with great interest to see what kind of organizational system that you decided to use instead for your non-fiction books. I am glad to hear that “genre shelving” has received popular reviews from your students! I am curious, how long did it actually take you to rearrange the non-fiction section? When I begin a TL position in the future I would be interested in using a system like this, but would also be concerned about the amount of time it would take. I am also curious if there was any pushback from other school staff about deviating from Dewey?

    One more thing that I was wondering is how did you decide on the order to place the genres of books around the room? For example if you were facing a wall of empty shelves would the “Crafts” section of books be located on the upper-left side of the wall and the “War” section be on the lower-right side (to keep the genres themselves in alphabetical order)?

    Thank you for blogging about your experience during this big change!


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