Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Carson Alphabetical Classification System

Librarian Nora Carson (1956-1961) succeeded Marguerite Fields as MPL Director, and she introduced some dramatic changes in collection organization. The children's nonfiction collection, which had previously been organized according to the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system, was reorganized alphabetically by subject.  This method was used from July 1957 until 1960.

Nora Carson, Librarian & MPL Director (1956-1961)

An alphabetical arrangement of children's nonfiction may seem somewhat radical as a collection classification system, because most public libraries at the time classified all nonfiction, and much fiction, under DDC numbers.  Nora Carson was trying to think like her young patrons, and she wanted to create a shelving system that they could decipher easily and quickly.

The alphabetical method has one critical disadvantage:  It presumes that patrons will think of the same subject terms as the person creating the classification categories.  Consider a hypothetical illustration, which requires imaginary time travel.  It's 1958, and a Mooresville youth needs a book about weather for a class project.  She looks under W in the children's books for "weather," but she doesn't find what she needs, because the Library staff has classed the book under M for meteorology.  If she looked in the card catalog, which, in 1958, would have contained actual cards in cabinets, there may have been a cross-reference from "weather" to "meteorology," which would have enabled the patron to look under the right alphabetical letter.  But that would not have helped the patron if she were shelf-browsing for the desired book and had skipped looking in the card catalog.  Lots of patrons, then as now, shelf-browsed rather than used the catalog.

Any numerical classification system, whether Dewey or Library of Congress (LC), places items according to subject, which are then issued a unique numerical listing.  One must become familiar with the numerical classifications to find what s/he needs, which, in its way, is as arbitrary as an alphabetical subject arrangement.  There's a difference, however.  In DDC, our 1958 hypothetical Mooresville student doesn't need to distinguish between "weather" or "meteorology" or some other topical synonym that the Library staff might have selected for the text's shelving location.  Instead, one need know only that books about weather are found in DDC under the number 551 (Geology, Hydrology, Meteorology), which is part of the Earth Sciences (550s in DDC).  Searching the card catalog, there would have been a cross-reference under "weather" to "meteorology" and the DDC number 551.  Knowing that the study of weather is an earth science would have taken our patron directly to the 550s, where weather books would have been found under 551.

But here is where DDC shows its superiority over alphabetical topical arrangements.  Once the patron knows the correct Dewey number under which the desired materials will be found, s/he may easily browse the shelves to find related items, which are shelved in the same area under that number.  Our 1958 patron would never have found those books shelf-browsing, because she was searching the W shelves in children's nonfiction, while the books were shelved under M.

Was Nora Carson wrong to use an alphabetical nonfiction shelving methodology?  Of course not.  Encyclopedia and dictionaries are structured alphabetically, and users have long been accustomed to thinking about subjects organized according to alphabetically-arranged key terms.  Shelving books the same way in a library would be familiar with anyone who has used an encyclopedia.  Any organizational system designed to make it easier for patrons to find materials is beneficial, and MPL patrons would have become familiar with Nora Carson's technique quickly enough.

Perhaps it is significant, however, that the Library returned to Dewey for children's nonfiction after roughly three years.  But experimentation is good. How else will librarians ever know what works best to help patrons find what they're searching for?

For Nora Carson, using the Library was all about convenience and access. That's why in October, 1957, she and the Library Board planned a paved rear parking lot behind the Carnegie building.  This improved and expanded the area in which patrons could park, thereby encouraging more patrons to visit the Library.

Next time we'll enter the Bonita Marley Era at MPL (1961-1984).

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