JOLIET – What type of library book has this number: 796.34?
Many adults don’t, said Brenda Bertino, Troy School District 30-C learning resource director. So how are kids supposed to grasp it? (If you’re wondering, books that start with “796” are “Athletic and outdoor sports and games,” according to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; those that have the .34 are “racket sports”.)
Bertino is a librarian at heart, and had been since childhood. At age 3, she carried a backpack of books to share with others and at age 10 began reading the classics. She wants kids to read and love reading.
However – and this is a huge “however” for Bertino – they can only read if they can find the books they need and want.
And that’s why Bertino “killed Dewey.”
Troy, Bertino said, is one of the first school districts in Illinois to classify books based on Common Sense Categories rather than on the “antiquated” Dewey Decimal System, which is how libraries have classified books for more than a century.
Bertino feels Dewey is impractical for 21st century kids accustomed to searching online by keywords. The beauty of Common Sense Categories is that students easily transition to traditional libraries when they enter high school, Bertino said, even without ever formally learning Dewey.
“I never speak Dewey,” Bertino said. “I speak process, system, procedure.”
Karrie Fisher, librarian at Baker Demonstration School in Wilmette, is one of several librarians who visited Troy to learn from Bertino.
Fisher said she was in the process of recataloguing the nonfiction books in her 26,000-book library when she heard Bertino speak about Common Sense Categories at an Illinois School Library Media Association event and wanted to physically see how Bertino made it work with fiction.
To Fisher, Dewey is effective only on the surface because young kids don’t have the skills to use it.
“You have to be able to sequence numbers and understand the correlation between a certain number and a topic,” Fisher said. “It’s difficult.”
Fifth-grade students might understand a call number of 636.9725, Fisher said, but “once you get deeper in the decimal point, it’s hard.”
In an email, Bertino shared what prompted the change. Eight years ago, when she was the learning resource center director at Craughwell Elementary School in Joliet – one of the schools in the Troy district – a first-grader asked for help locating a book about snakes.
So Bertino led the boy to section 599 and pulled out a snake book. Wrong book. She pulled out more books. Still wrong.
In frustration, Bertino removed every snake book she could find – about 50, she said – laid them on a table and asked the librarian why all the snake books weren’t together.
“Her response: ‘They are in Dewey order and each kind has a different number,’” Bertino wrote. “My answer: ‘Not anymore. He’s in first grade and is just learning whole numbers – let alone decimals. Put the snake books together.’ ”
Bertino said she researched options. She talked to other teachers, the curriculum director at the time and two of Troy’s resource center coordinators: Kelly DeRocco and Joyce Forlenzo.
School by school, they brainstormed subjects that matched the district’s curriculum and then rearranged the books by topic. Fiction, Bertino said, is categorized in one of 10 genres.
During the conversion, they moved shelves and created work and reading nooks. It took a year to convert Troy Middle School in Plainfield and a few months for each subsequent school.
The new system worked.
“The middle school circulation increased by 45 percent the first few months,” Bertino said in the email.
Forlenzo feels Common Sense Categories empower kids in ways Dewey cannot.
“Reading should be enjoyable for kids,” Forlenzo said. “Finding the perfect book is a lot easier with this system. It makes them want to read. It makes them more excited.”
Bertino stressed she isn’t against Dewey, as it gives order to chaos. But since most kids aren’t introduced to decimals until fourth grade and don’t master them until at least fifth grade, it’s not the best system for libraries that serve children.
High school students, Bertino said, can understand why books are organized to the 12th digit. But the same can’t be expected of elementary and middle school students, she said, in the same way that we don’t let them drive, watch R-rated movies or ride city buses by themselves.
Each week, Bertino meets with DeRocco and Forlenzo to relabel books. To make that task easier, Bound to Stay Bound is relabeling any books Troy orders for the library to fit Common Sense Categories.
Lori Smith, national sales and marketing manager of the business, which Smith said is in its 96th year, said ensuring their books are “shelf ready” is a service the company offers.
Furthermore, Bertino isn’t the only librarian that does things differently.
“We work with libraries across the country and no two libraries are alike in the way they process and catalogue books,” Smith said.
And yet, Bertino said she’s been booed offstage for discussing alternatives to Dewey. At 54, Bertino said she understands what it’s like to “be set in one’s ways.” She invites naysayers to search “Dewey-free” online and see what pops up.
“This isn’t a fad,” Bertino said. “This isn’t going away.”