Dewey Ditch #3: Trying a BISAC Hybrid

This picture shows the spine labels, you can see that I assigned a color to each “neighborhood group” and that I use labels with that color underneath the spine label to assist shelvers in identifying the correct location for a book.

In 2020 I wrote two blog posts detailing the hows and whys behind my “Ditching of Dewey” at our school library. These posts remain some of my most viewed posts, and I’m happy to see that this movement away from the biased and outdated Dewey Decimal Classification system (DDC) is gaining traction and momentum in our profession. Since our professional has yet to successfully create & implement a viable alternative system for us to embrace as a new standard, it leaves us librarians looking for something better left to our own devices.

Many librarians are finding different and creative avenues to explore for alternatives to DDC, including adopting other systems like BISAC or homegrown systems and adaptations of DDC or BISAC. There are other alternatives being explored as well, so its worth doing some googling to check out blog posts from other libraries that detail their “Dewey Ditch” process and replacements.

My dearest hope is that all of this exploration and experimentation many of us are undergoing will eventually prompt our professional associations to finally finally collaborate together to create a new standard systems for us to embrace, but in the meantime its great to see so many people willing to stop waiting to act. Our library users, after all, deserve to have access to a library that works for them right now, and one that is at least trying to address some of the bias, outdated-ness, and inaccessibility that DDC provides. These issues are significant and harmful, they create inequities of access and they continue to make libraries opaque and inaccessible (or at least not intuitively accessible) for many, MANY of our users. So its exciting to see so many librarians becoming comfortable with letting go of the past to try something new.

Trial and Error

The unfortunate thing about trying to fix the issues and come up with a viable replacement on our own (rather than a new standard being created and adopted large scale within the profession) is that its really hard to figure out what will work and what won’t. So many of us who have ditched dewey find ourselves in something of a continuous process of trial and error. This is the situation I found myself in this year, a little more than a year after my initial Dewey Ditch effort (read about that here on blog post #1 and blog post #2) when I realized that my initial attempt at a new system wasn’t quite right, and thus I decided to try again. Which necessitated doing more research on alternatives to DDC and planning out a new version to adopt for our library, then changing every book’s spine labels and moving everything…. again. Just about 16 months after the last time I did it.

It was worth it though, as each time I find myself refining things and getting the system more effective, efficient, relevant, and accessible to my students needs. S,o below I will detail a bit of what my new system looks like, for anyone interested!


My Previous Dewey Ditch Attempt

When I ditched Dewey in 2020 I replaced it with what I called the “Franken-Dewey” or an adapted version of Dewey. Essentially I continued to use the scaffolding of DDC to lay the groundwork of my new system. So I still used numbers, using the broad numbers for broad categories and then going to more specificity with narrower numbers and decimals. I assigned each topic we needed its own number, for the most part, rather than using the categories and assignments DDC used, but it still essentially followed the DDC framework, though hopefully I managed to categorize things in a less biased and more relevant to modern needs way than DDC.

My New BISAC / Numeral Hybrid System

This time I have moved things even further from the DDC framework, by creating an adapted version of BISAC, coupling it with some numbering conventions of DDC, and basically using “words” as the primary labels rather than numbers. This is, essentially, what BISAC is. BISAC is the categorization system used by the publishing and book industry. Its what you’ll find used in bookstores, its very similar to genre-fication (indeed a book’s BISAC categories are often used to help identify the genre) but both fiction and nonfiction books are assigned BISAC categories. Sometimes a book’s BISAC categories (which are assigned by the publisher) can even be found on the back of the book’s title page. To find a book’s BISAC categories (to help me catalog them) I also sometimes search google for “book title + BISAC” to find the info. There’s probably a better way but these two methods seem to be working for me lol.

Why I Integrated BISAC

BISAC basically groups books together, similar to how DDC strives to group books together by common topic, except it uses words for category labels mostly instead of numbers. After doing research on this system I decided to try adapting it as our next DDC replacement, for a few reasons.

Firstly, I like the simplicity of words over numbers, but more importantly I appreciate that words instead of numbers means a lack of the hierarchical issues DDC has, which often lead to bias issues. When you assign numbers, your potential categories are limited and forced into a hierarchy, and this leads to difficult to weed out bias issues as we see in DDC. (For example, Dewey’s allocation of numbers from 200-299 shows clear bias towards Christianity since 80ish of the 100 numbers allocated for “religions” are given to only Christian topics.)

When you use words instead of numbers, it allows for greater scope and less allocation issues. For example, in BISAC, religion topics are assigned the word “religion” and then the name of the religion. You can then simply shelve them in alphabetical order, which gets rid of the hierarchy embedded into a numerical system. I also appreciated integrating a hybrid of BISAC because I felt like I could choose to highlight the BISAC categories that aligned closely with our school’s curricular topics and our students common interest topics.

One of the limits with DDC is that the numbers are already assigned and the organization and allocation does not often make sense for a school library because school libraries tend to be smaller than what DDC was designed to serve, and because a school’s collection tends to be narrower in focus due to school specific curricular needs and topics of interest. Since DDC was designed to serve a much broader reaching and larger collection’s needs, this means that in a school library that uses DDC, often you have the issue of many of the DDC categories being unused in the library because the school library does not have books on many of the very specifically defined topics the DDC makes room for. You also often have the opposite problem, a school library will often have comparatively SO MANY books that DDC assigns to the same number, which often results in school libraries needing to use long and convoluted decimal strings to distinguish the books from each other and keep them grouped in helpful subtopics.

This often causes accessibility issues for students who may not yet understand decimals well enough to make discoverability feasible or easy, the kids books often have very skinny spines that are not conducive to long decimal string spring numbers which makes the numbers wrap around to the front of the book, which further impacts accessibility and discoverability on the shelf for students and staff, and this can all also cause undue difficulty for overburdened library staff trying to shelve the books quickly. For example, our schools in the U.S. often have significant curriculum relating specifically to U.S. History. Which means our school libraries often have tons of books on US history (and usually also on European History). Since DDC only assigns one number for US history, 973, that means that we have to catalog hundreds or even thousands of books with 973, and to further organize them together in helpful subcategories we need to extend the decimal point annoyingly long. Then, because our small collections often don’t have nearly as many books using the other DDC 900 numbers, that means that we will have tons of unused numbers and then hundreds of 973s.

Switching to a BISAC system allows us instead to use simple keywords to distinguish subcategories, which is easier for students and shelvers to identify. Because BISAC functions with words instead of numbers, it also allows for better adaptation in a school library because you won’t have a bunch of empty numbers where you don’t have books in certain categories. Because BISAC is word based, there are no obvious “empty” spaces, which allows for, I think, more intuitive browsing and easier accessibility for library users.

Why I Did a BISAC / Numeral Hybrid Instead of Full BISAC Adoption

Ideally I’d have liked to implement full BISAC but it didn’t seem like the right choice because the other schools in our district use DDC, and I was concerned that if students are spending time in our elementary and middle schools learning and becoming familiar with navigating a numeral based organization system like DDC, and then arrived at the high school to find an entirely word based system like BISAC, it might cause confusion and accessibility struggles. For this reason I decided to create and implement a BISAC/Numeral Hybrid so that I can have the benefits of BISAC and yet still have our spine labels include some numbers in order for navigation to feel familiar to our students coming up from DDC libraries.

How My BISAC-Hybrid System Works

  • First I familiarized myself with the BISAC system and the category options available in BISAC.
  • Then I went through our nonfiction section to determine which BISAC categories we’d need to use for the books we have (or are likely to add in upcoming years). I based this mostly on our curricular areas of study as well as the areas of typical common interest in my students.
  • I then went through the list of main categories I had identified and I started grouping them into “neighborhood” groups.” This was so I could keep BISAC categories that make sense together grouped together on our shelves. I used the DDC strategy of using each of the 10 “hundreds” categories for each neighborhood group. I determined the main neighborhood groups we’d use, then decided which order to place them in (so as to keep sections near each other as seemed most helpful to students) and then assigned each neighborhood a “100s” category, similar to how DDC does. You’ll even notice that some of mine are very similar to DDC, while others deviate from how Dewey organized things.
    • If I were going full BISAC and did not need to use numerals then I would have assigned a “genre name” or even just a color to each neighborhood instead of assigning them a “100s” number. I would have preferred that since numerals are more limiting and dont allow as easy of re-organization if I ever want to move categories or subcategories around. But I determined that keeping numbers for now is the best bet to ensure there is some familiarity in organization from our elementary schools through our high school library experiences for our students.

My “Neighborhood Groups” are as follows:

  • 000s = empty / unassigned (room to grow if need be)
  • 100s = empty / unassigned (room to grow if need be)
  • 200s = Recreation, Leisure, Art
  • 300s = Natural Sciences
  • 400s = Medicine, Health, Wellness, The Self
  • 500s = Crime & Criminal Justice
  • 600s = Economics, Business, Finance
  • 700s = Social Sciences, Sociology, Social Justice, Societal “Issues”
  • 800s = Customs, Language, Culture and Human Beliefs & Stories
  • 900s = History / Social Studies

Organizing Within the Neighborhood Groups

Once I had the main neighborhoods selected, I went through the BISAC category lists for each neighborhood to assign a whole number to each main category. For our “history” neighborhood you can see that I had decided to have the main categories of:

  • 900 = General History
  • 910 = Warfare & World Wars
  • 920 = History of Europe
  • 930 = History of N. America
  • 940 = History of C. America
  • 950 = History of S. America
  • 960 = History of Africa
  • 970 = History of Asia
  • 980 = History of Australia / Oceana
  • 990 = Open/unassigned

This is the Part Where I Use Keywords Instead of Numerals

Once the neighborhoods are determined and the main categories within the neighborhoods are assigned, its now time to choose and assign the subcategories that fall underneath the main categories. In DDC this is where he starts using smaller numbers and then decimal places. I did not want to do that, I wanted to keep my numerals as limited and simple as possible and then focus on using words instead. So my subcategories are word based and the spine labels will reflect that.

In the above image you can see that I use the whole number for every subcategory that falls under the main category. I do not designate smaller numbers or decimals to distinguish between subcategories but instead use simple keywords to designate subcategories, as BISAC does. You can see also that I sometimes go “3 lines deep” on my spine labels to designate the main category, subcategory, and sometimes even then a subtopic. This is the solution I came up with to help me keep similar groupings near each other on the shelves.

I also really like this “word based” call # strategy as it allows for, basically, an unlimited number of subcategories to fall below the main category. Since you aren’t using numbers, you don’t run out of space. So you can see that as I develop our collection to have more books on the history of African countries, I have unlimited room under 960 to add as many subcategories as I want. You can see under my “History of North America” 930 main category that I was able to add as many subcategories as I needed in order to group the American history books together in whichever ways I felt made most sense for our curricular and popular interest needs. I opted to organize them by time period and then sometimes further by subtopic within time periods. This is a strategy that works for us due to some of our US History research projects and curricular areas of study. Other librarians might find that different subcategories make more sense. The beauty of BISAC style “word based” system is that there is much more flexibility to make it work for your specific school needs.

The biggest downside to a homegrown system is that it makes cataloging the books take longer and more labor intensive since you can’t just have your vendor assign the call #s nor let Destiny tell you which call # to use.

This was a long and rambling post, but I hope it provides some insight into the thought process and work that goes into trying to design a new system of organization to better meet the modern needs of today’s students and in a more equitable way that DDC manages to do. When I’m making these decisions I’m thinking in terms of:

  • How can I organize to best support our school’s curriculum
  • How can I organize to best support our students CURRENT & EMERGING interests and needs
  • How can I organize in ways that disrupt bias & stereotypes present in DDC
  • How can I organize in ways that center and amplify voices, experiences, and perspectives that DDC marginalizes and which have been historically excluded or erased

I do not expect this attempt to be perfect but I hope that each time I work through this I’m moving the needle towards making things better and hopefully working towards better inclusivity and representation in the design of the system.

Learn more about BISAC subject headings here

Improving Access: Organizing and Labeling for Easy Navigability and Discoverability

The pictures at the top of the post will give a sense of how I use signage, color, and labels to try to increase the user-friendliness and browsability, improve access, and help make shelving more efficient.

  • Color Coding – You can see that I assign each “neighborhood group” a color and then I use that color on the signage, labels, and shelves where books in that neighborhood are found. I think this helps visually “chunk” the collection which I believe makes it feel and function in a less overwhelming and confusing way for my library users. This color coding also helps making shelving more efficient.
  • Top bookcase signage: The shelves on top of each bookcase provide information to browsers about which neighborhood group the books on that bookcase belong to, and the call #s found on that bookcase.
  • Individual Shelf Signage: The individual shelf signage provides information to the library user on which topics and call #s are found on each shelf.
  • Spine Labels: The spines of each book have a colored spine label that indicates the neighborhood the book belongs to (this helps shelvers primarily) and the spine labels show the call # which matchs the call # found in the OPAC for that book.

In this way you can see that although we dont use DDC anymore, the “searching and finding” skills remain the same. My students can still either find what they need by browsing independently and utilizing the clear signage to navigate to what they need OR they can still do keyword, author, or title searches in the OPAC, write down the call # for the book they need, and then use the call # and signage to navigate successfully to the book on the shelf. Ditching DDC in no way impacts the searching and finding skills instruction or practice that takes place in the library. The skills and process remains the same.

Link to view my current system allocations: View Bogan’s BISAC Hybrid (please note this system is extremely under construction and is generally under continuous review & alteration 🙂

17 comments

  1. Do you use Follett Destiny as your catalog system? If so, how well do the call numbers show up in Discover? I’ve noticed our longer call numbers (my fiction section has the author’s full last name) often get cut off on the main page.

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  2. Colored labels sections nice but what about color blind that are 8% of men and 4 % of women. Also if you are using hybrid number label system and the number are basically the dewey 0-900 range why deviate from the basic dewey categories as you have if it is the religion reason that is a very small part and your labelling would address that.

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    • The info conveyed by the colored label is duplicated in text on the spine label so that library users who are color blind are still able to identify the same info w/o using the color label

      DDC has major bias issues which is why we’ve ditched it. You can find a thorough discussion of those issues on my 3 ditch Dewey posts if you’re interested!

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      • it is a helpful blog. I saw your post about it which is why i ask, if you use the dewey numbers range which it appears you do and they are not correlated with dewey subjects then why use that number system at all it just confuses people who are used to dewey. I am sticking with dewey, but if i were going to deviate like that I would have gone full lettered labels like you mentioned or come up with a different numbering system that did not conflict with what people know deweys subject numbers are. Eventually they will leave your library and think your numbers are what reglar library dewey numbers are and be potentially confused. Interesting read nonetheless. I am planning on doing a mini gentrification by pulling out lets say 20 books from popular genres and making a seperate area for them so when a kid says what is a good mystery book I will send them over to the quick choice section and they will have 20 or so popular mysteries to pick from. the quick choice picks will naturally rotate items based on new purchases or cultural trends

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  3. Love your signage and I’m impressed by your merging of the two systems! I used to manage a bookstore, so I find it more than a little frustrating when libraries aren’t willing to consider moving to a more user-friendly system for nonfiction. I think that is honestly the one and only thing I miss about retail. Anyways, I really appreciate your blog and all the resources it contains for making arguments towards modernizing libraries. Thank you so much for all the time you put into not only making these changes, but sharing it with the rest of us!

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  4. So, Guiness Book of World Records. I run a junior high library and am looking to reorganize but don’t know where to put these! I noticed the curiosities and wonders section of reference, but I don’t have a reference section. Besides, historically reference has been the collection of books that don’t get checked out but these are definitely available. I think I’m going to put them in the 100 category as they are already almost there. If you have any food for thought, please share!

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    • I’d put stuff like that in my History section under history-general” (it’s kind of a catchall spot for miscellaneous high interest stuff for me) but whatever makes sense of seems to work for your browsers will likely be fine!

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  5. Thanks! That’s a good idea.

    So, I haven’t searched extensively yet, but do you have signage for your upgraded Dewey/BISAC hybrid categories? I downloaded the ones from your part 2 post but it’s different, of course. THANK YOU by the way, that is very generous!

    I am separating my nonfiction now and it’s hurting my brain! But, it’s fun and it’ll get there!

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  6. What do you use for your shelf markers? Trying to figure out the best product to use to divide NF groups on the shelf and love your color-coded markers! I wasn’t sure if it was something you purchased or created yourself. Any advice would be appreciated!!

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    • Sure thing! I make them myself using long (11in by 14in) file folders. I create the image in canva, print & glue them to the file folders, then laminate the folder to make it sturdier. A little labor intensive but cheap!

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  7. I am a high school librarian. I attended a webinar this past year where you spoke about ditching Dewey and genrefication and it persuaded me to make the leap! I genrefied my school library’s fiction in the spring and now I’m biting the bullet and ditching Dewey. Your posts on both have been so helpful to me! I am using your spreadsheets and BISAC to help in creating my own system that works for my space. THANK YOU!

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