The PLA Blog | Official Blog of the Public Library Association

Enjoy this guest post from Laena McCarthy, Image Cataloger and Assistant Professor at Pratt Institute, and Project Manager for LibraryThing’s Open Shelves Classification system.

Greetings PLA Blog readers.  I invite you all to help us build the Open Shelves Classification (OSC), a free, “humble,” modern, open-source, crowd-sourced replacement for the Dewey Decimal System. To learn more about me and my partner in crime, David Conners, see Tim Spalding of LibraryThing’s introduction.

The project began this past summer, when Tim Spalding of LibraryThing took the reins of popular library chatter and decided it was time to help coordinate the development of a new classification system. LibraryThing members, librarians, catalogers, and enthusiastic readers have joined in and contributed feedback, data, discussion and development. At least one library director has signed on as eager to implement the system, when it comes available. We are on our way, folks, to creating a classification system by us, for us!

Why we need it. The Dewey Decimal System(R) was great for its time, but it’s outlived that. Libraries today should not be constrained by the mental models of the 1870s, doomed to tinker and confuse our patrons with an increasingly outdated system. Nor should they be forced into a proprietary system—copyrighted, trademarked and licensed by a single entity—expensive to adopt and encumbered by restrictions on publishing detailed schedules or coordinating necessary changes (see the dire new OCLC policy).

In recent years, a number of efforts have been made to discard Dewey in favor of other systems, such as BISAC, the “bookstore system.” But none have proved appropriate for widespread adoption in libraries, and license issues remain. These systems were built for other environments (like bookstores), and therefore do not reflect the specific needs of libraries. We are unique, and should remain both unique and usable.

The vision. The Open Shelves Classification aspires to be:

  • Free. Free both to use and to change, with all schedules and assignments in the public domain and easily accessible in bulk format. Nothing other than common consent will keep the project at LibraryThing. Indeed, success may well entail it leaving the site entirely.
  • Modern. The OSC will map to current mental models–knowing these will eventually change, but learning from the ways other systems have and
  • Humble. No system–and least of all a one-dimensional shelf order–can get at “reality.” The goal should be to create a something limited and humble–a “pretty good” system, a “mostly obvious” system, even a “better than the rest” system–that allows library patrons to browse a collection physically and with enjoyment.
  • Collaboratively written. The OSC is being written socially–slowly, with great care and testing–but socially. (through the forum “Build the Open Shelves Classification system” and on the LibraryThing Wiki.)
  • Collaboratively assigned. As each level of OSC is proposed and ratified, members will be invited to catalog LibraryThing’s books according to it. (Using LibraryThing’s fielded bibliographic wiki, Common Knowledge.)

We also favor:

  • Progressive development. Members are writing it “level-by-level” (DDC’s classes, divisions, etc.), in a process of discussion, schedule proposals, adoption of a tentative schedule, collaborative assignment of a large number of books, statistical testing, more discussion, revision and “solidification.”
  • Public-library focus. Public libraries are the most vocal about the need for change, LibraryThing members are not predominantly academics, and academic collections, being larger, are less likely to change to a new system. Also, academic collections mostly use the Library of Congress System, which is already in the public domain.
  • Statistical testing. As far as we know, no classification system has ever been tested statistically as it was built. Yet there are various interesting ways of doing just that. For example, it would be good to see how a proposed shelf-order matches up against other systems, like DDC, LCC, LCSH and tagging. If a statistical cluster in one of these systems ends up dispersed in OSC, why?

If you are interested, take a look at the LibraryThing Group, “Build the Open Shelves Classification” and the LibraryThing OSC wiki. Members are currently working through the basic decisions and hashing out the top level categories.

Find Tim, David, and Laena at the ALA Midwinter meeting in Denver.  They will be at the Courtyard Marriott from 1-3pm on Saturday, January 24th. Go, ask them questions, give them feedback and work with them to create your classification system.  Readers, what do you think of this project?  Does Dewey need to be replaced?  Are Laena and her colleagues on to something here?

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