Column Description: Libraries and librarians are adapting, always in motion particularly as the 21st century has extended the mammoth reach of technology and digital communication. Then, this year, we said thank you for the ability to stay home and still be able to communicate with our colleagues. As many librarians wondered how new responsibilities would play out when ‘normality’ returned, it was a daily challenge to prioritize decisions. Technology helped, but the goal remained how to meet user needs and anticipate patron requests. This fall, as libraries slowly reopen, we move into a hybrid world. Administrators and librarians have worked overtime and collaborated fiercely to match estimated demand with physical distancing and health-related constraints.
What are some of their stories and how do we understand future changes? Libraries have always held the key for knowledge query. Whether for the scholar, the schoolchild, life-long learner, jobseeker or browser, libraries, and librarians have adapted to keep their doors open and their users and patrons satisfied. How do individual librarians go about their roles and what suggestions do they have moving forward? What has helped?
This column will consider several library environments (public, private, corporate, academic, online and special) and using a combination of interviews, historic perspective, anecdotes and a sprinkling of stats, examine the commonalities and differences. A fun exploration of how libraries remain relevant and beloved.
Dewey Decimal System Day, designated for December 10 annually, is one of many ongoing national calendar days that help advertise products, ideas, and concepts with a light-hearted flair.
Most websites about Dewey Decimal System Day give bits and pieces about Dewey, who, we all know, was the inventor of the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC). Dewey started the library school at Columbia College, helped establish ALA, founded Library Journal in 1876, and was a proponent of the metric system. He firmly established the idea of women as librarians by accepting them and bringing them into the Columbia halls. He was also the first director of the New York State Library and moved his Columbia College library with him, after conflicting opinions with Columbia’s board of trustees. He had a keen and focused library mind and his system is regarded as “revolutionizing” library science.
That being said, he also wasn’t maybe the nicest person. He created conflict with both foes and colleagues, was often lost in his own world, and idiosyncratically persisted in phonetic spelling, even to the point of changing his name, temporarily, to Dui. Later in life, as a developer, he was accused of bigotry regarding his Lake Placid, New York retreat, denying so even as his own words and rules reinforced the prejudicial nature of its membership.
He established the need for library school to forward the profession, was a vehement supporter of women to enter the field, and was subsequently and consistently accused of impropriety throughout his professional life. Scandalous, almost 100 years before the Me Too movement.
As much as we want our leaders, heroes, and trailblazers to be pure as the driven snow, whitewashing history does no good. By now we are accustomed to the occasional Jekyll and Hyde attributes in our inventors, leaders, entertainers, and politicians; where their contributions on a professional level belie a certain waywardness in personal characteristics. However, a difficult job, recognizing and separating this duality – where the contribution to society is measurable, but the person does not – is 21st-century conundrum strife with controversy.
Me Too and subversive racism duly considered, how do we examine the DDC system itself? Originally based on ten tens of ten (class, subject, section), the DDC began to outgrow itself with Dewey’s second edition in 1885 when two decimal places were added to help catalog the fifty thousand volumes in the Columbia library.
The original 740 number in DDC signified ancient drawing and design. Today, call number 746.434 specifies a print or digital book on the textile art of crochet. The category has evolved from an ephemeral concept to concrete, actionable endeavor. There are many examples of change in the DDC and updating the system has become almost ‘round the clock.
Information management has had to change. Over fifteen library schools across the nation closed their doors between 1978 and 1992. The fluidity and exponential growth of tracking/cataloging technologies (aka databases), as well as cultural meme and re-definition, has forced our library schools to become iSchools, maintaining a sense of relevance.
Dewey the person had character flaws he couldn’t contain, yet the DDC system remains relevant and usable (with expansion) decades past its origin. The DDC should enjoy its holiday, and look forward to countless adaptations until it finally, if ever, fades into obsolescence.
Rajene Hardeman, MSLIS, is a committed community and library advocate with experience serving community groups throughout metropolitan NYC and the Hudson Valley. A graduate of Pratt Institute School of Information, Rajene currently works as an independent archivist while continuing to develop programs and raise awareness regarding the need for balance between digital and non-digital activities. She is a trained mediator for Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. Rajene has partnered with the Mozilla Foundation and Tactical Technology Collective to bring workshops and supportive dialogue around the issues of online privacy and security, and, as a current trustee for the Mid-Hudson Library System, Rajene enthusiastically supports engagement and sustainability for all libraries and their patrons. She is a Metropolitan Museum of Art Library volunteer. Rajene serves on the board of Wikimedia New York City and as a member of the Wikimedia and Libraries User Group steering committee. In a non-pandemic world, she coaches in-person Wikipedia edit-a-thons.