If you’ve ever felt stumped by the Dewey Decimal System, you’re not alone. Dewey numbers are like a secret code that you can only crack after a fair amount of experience.

Now that I’m entering my seventh year as a librarian, I’m pretty good at coming up with answers when kids ask me where to find books. (It’s kinda my job to know these things, right?)

And when I first became a librarian, I wanted the kids to know Dewey, too. Lots of librarians hang up posters and signs like these:

image from http://www.altaplana.be

And, like many others before me, I taught a some very in-depth lessons about which numbers stand for what, complete with scavenger hunts and quizzes, hoping to ensure kids knew what numbers to look under for various topics.

It made for a fun game and some kids caught on pretty quickly, but I can guarantee you there weren’t many of them who could still tell you a week later what any of the 100s classes were. I’m fascinated by Dewey, but most library users, well, aren’t. And that’s okay!

When I realized this, it was kind of life-changing. Kids don’t really need to know the why behind all those Dewey numbers. They just need to know how to use them. Some kids might want to know what the numbers mean, and I’ll often casually say, “Oh, drawing books? Those are in the 740s because that’s where you find books about art.” But I’m not going to quiz anyone on that fact later.

Now, instead of focusing my energy on making kids understand Dewey, I just do my best to help them use it efficiently.

Which is where the new signs come in.

I’ve always had signs up in the library telling what numbers are where. The shelves in my nonfiction section have labels that say things like, “Nonfiction 560-589,” which I think is pretty common in the library signage. But how helpful is that sign to a kid (or an adult) who’s just browsing the stacks for a good book? Or what about in large sections like 811 (poetry) that take up 7-8 shelves?

I love helping students find the books they’re looking for, but it’s also important to me that they become more and more confident about finding what they want independently.

So, at the end of last year, as I worked on getting the library cleaned and organized before summer break, I also updated the signs. Now, if you visit the shelf that says, “Nonfiction 560-589,” you’ll find another sign that looks like this:

What kinds of books will you find here?
Can you tell what kinds of books you’ll find here?

Now, if a kid is looking for a dinosaur book–even if they don’t know that 567.9 is the magic number–I think they’ll at least end up browsing the correct shelf instead of wandering aimlessly around the library. 🙂

Instead of teaching Dewey, I can teach kids how to use the signs. I talked some 3rd and 4th graders through them today and the students seemed to understand how they worked, so we’ll see how much of it stuck when they return next week.

This isn’t a perfect solution, I know. There are still some Dewey oddities that bug me. (Books about space are in the 520s, but books about space travel are in 629.) There are even folks out there who’ve ditched Dewey altogether in favor of the bookstore model (a project I’m not quite ready to tackle yet).

But, in the meantime, if my job is to improve kids’ access to information (it is!), then I hope the improved signage in our library will be a good start.