Books in libraries, books in shops

Some folk don’t like the Dewey Decimal system*. It doesn’t work well with the more casual library user, so the argument goes, because the granularity of information it provides isn’t intuitive to people who don’t have that sort of mind-set.

Hence the decision of a public library in Arizona to do away with Dewey and replace it with a broader topic-based cataloguing system, more akin to that of bookshops. And cue debate by bookworms and library types over the rights and wrongs of the decision.**

What this highlights is that we have access to too much information for any single linear cataloguing system to handle sufficiently. Neither Dewey nor  subject sections can handle both topical cross-referencing and precise atomised location of knowledge. for example.

Which, as far as I’m concerned, is another argument in favour of the Google Books project. Once books are detached from their physicality, the inherent problems of finding something on a shelf becomes irrelevant. With a decent search engine, you can locate exactly what you want, or browse more broadly – whichever suits you best.

And despite childish pseudo-protests from publishers who seem to have misunderstood the entire issue, more institutions are opening up to the idea. The Big Ten US universities (which are actually twelve in number, for some reason) will be letting the Google people get their mitts on significant chunks of their library collections, with the intent of creating “a shared digital repository that faculty, students and the public can access quickly.”

As I’ve said before, I don’t think the death of the physical book is incredibly close, but it can be seen on the horizon. The problem isn’t dead-tree technology, it’s the distribution mechanism. We’re now very accustomed to getting the information we want as soon as we need it, and libraries cannot always meet those demands.

Nor can bookstores, for various reasons – many of them profit based, which has led to the pseudo-monoculture of big-chain bookstore shelves. It’s a situation that has encouraged the MD of Edinburgh’s Birlinn Press to buy up a series of indie bookstores in an attempt to revive the industry, a quixotic move that (much as I’d love to see it work) doesn’t seem likely to succeed.

The future of books is in digital catalogues and print-on-demand technology. There’ll still be a need for libraries with good stock, and for shops with full shelves to browse. But until libraries and shops can cater to every possible customer’s every possible request – quickly, cheaply and efficiently – they’re going to lose users to services like Amazon and Abe. Sad, perhaps, but also true.

[* Not me – I love Dewey, being a natural born sucker for taxonomic systems. The proprietary nature of it frustrates me, though, and is a major source of its bugs and inability to move with the times … but that’s a whole different rant.]

[** Much of the debate seems to miss the point that the really important function of Dewey is to allow the library staff to quickly locate a book on the customer’s behalf – a task that becomes exponentially harder with loose-category shelving. But that is yet another different rant.]

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