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Leaving Dewey for BISAC

by Melanie A. Lyttle and Shawn D. Walsh on November 6, 2018

Four years ago we wrote about our library converting to a BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications) organizational structure. We thought it was time to detail what we learned about the experience, especially as we receive plenty of emails asking how it went or would we do it again if we had the opportunity to do everything over.

The biggest thing we learned from leaving the Dewey Decimal System and going to BISAC was the need for good signage. This is something that we continue to struggle with. All these years later we still haven’t found what we consider “perfect signage” to use in the library. What we rely on instead is having someone ask us a question about where something is and giving them an explanation of our organizational structure while we walk them to what they need. We have tried different types of signage, it is by far the most important thing you need for BISAC to be successful. Labeling is different from signage, and that is also a key to long term BISAC success. We used a combination color and word based system, and that has worked well. People do understand how specific words demonstrate broader or more specific categories. Children have a great affinity for the color part of the organization system knowing that, for example, the labels with lime green on the top are science and nature topics, without even looking at the words on the label.

Acknowledging that the BISAC organizational structure is a living, breathing thing in the library is another great realization. As a result we find that we need to tend the taxonomy fairly regularly. We need to see what current terms are no longer important and what new terms need their own label. For example, four years ago we still had quite a few books on the Atkins diet. Now we have people wanting specific designations for Paleo and Keto dietary books and no interest in Atkins. While that is a specific example of terms we have added and subtracted from the taxonomy, in general we are looking at areas where we need to make the taxonomy more broad or more narrow. We are fortunate to have several people on staff who monitor the taxonomy and adjust it as necessary. We also take patron comments into consideration as we collapse or deepen areas of the organizational structure.

We are still hearing from library users who say that they liked Dewey better. However, almost always these people really have no concept of how books were organized in that classification system. So far only current or retired librarians can rattle off a specific Dewey number of something they are looking for. Instead most people who say they liked Dewey better are really telling us that they knew the books they needed were on a specific shelf in a specific row and now everything is moved. What they needed is no longer where they remembered it being. Secondarily they also may not know how to look for a book using the online catalog.

Fortunately we find that if a staff member gives a brief explanation of the organizational structure and sometimes explains how to use the online catalog, patrons typically leave happy and with the material they needed. And as we continue to hear that local students are not receiving much if any instruction in school about finding books using Dewey or any classification system, we feel that using BISAC continues to be the best option for us.

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