Implementing FindIt! at San Mateo County Library

Do your library’s users know how the Dewey Decimal System works? The Dewey Decimal System seems inseparable from the public library, but a 2009 survey by Library Journal found most librarians believe their library users have difficulty finding nonfiction books, primarily due to a classification system they do not understand.

Louise Hamm, a member of the Friends of the Portola Valley Library, stands before the Biography & Autobiography neighborhood.
Louise Hamm, a member of the Friends of the Portola Valley Library, stands before the Biography & Autobiography neighborhood. Photo courtesy San Mateo County Library.

To make finding nonfiction books easier, San Mateo County Library (SMCL) developed and implemented FindIt!, a new word-based classification system that allows library users to easily browse, discover and help themselves to our diverse collections. FindIt! is organized into neighborhoods that are subdivided into classes. The new classification is already proving to be a hit with library users. During the first three months of its implementation, there was a 38 percent increase in the circulation of older nonfiction books, as well as a 26 percent increase in circulation of children's nonfiction books. Due to the success of this project, SMCL moved forward with converting the collection at a second branch, the San Carlos Library, which was being renovated.

In developing FindIt!, which will eventually roll out to all of SMCL’s remaining ten branches and Bookmobile, we talked with libraries around the country that had implemented word-based classification systems to learn about their classification schemes, implementation plans and best practices. We learned from Anythink that it was imperative to create scope notes while developing the new classification specification, which Anythink called translation key. The translation key lays out the various neighborhoods (like COOKING, TRAVEL, BUSINESS) and their subcategories (like BAKING, US CALIFORNIA, LEADERSHIP). The scope notes in the key provide instructions on and examples of what to include, and, if needed, what to exclude in each subcategory. Subjects to be excluded in a subcategory are then referred to the appropriate subcategory. For example, the scope notes for the HEALTH / EXERCISE class include “Exercise instruction, walking for fitness, weight training… NOT Yoga exercise titles—refer to HEALTH EXERCISE YOGA.” The translation key also indicates what text should be on the spine labels (e.g., “PSYCH” for the Psychology neighborhood). The scope notes help catalogers, public services staff, and vendors understand the logic of the system and guide them all in making consistent decisions.

Off and on, it took two years of teamwork to develop the FindIt! classification for English language print nonfiction titles at SMCL. The goal was to develop two translation keys, one for juvenile titles and the other for adult titles. The project started with a committee, including staff from access services and public services, and later settled to three members for efficiency’s sake. The translation keys were developed on top of day-to-day work and projects.

Spirit and Philosophy are different subject neighborhoods in the FindIt! Classification.
Spirit and Philosophy are different subject neighborhoods in the FindIt! Classification. Photo courtesy San Mateo County Library.

Initially, the Book Industry Standards and Communication (BISAC) was considered as a model. Our cataloger assigned BISAC subjects to more than 28,000 titles and concluded that there were not enough direct correlations between Dewey and BISAC to allow for automatic conversion, and that BISAC was not a good fit for our collections. We then began to model after Maricopa County Library District’s translation keys, because their keys have scope notes and we did not have to start from scratch. As SMCL’s collections are different from Maricopa County Library District’s, we created our own new neighborhoods and classes. It took a great deal of time to massage the classes and scope notes, as every title in the branch undergoing conversion was examined. As copy catalogers began to apply the FindIt! classification to newly received titles, their questions helped to clarify and fine-tune the scope notes. As deadlines approached, we emphasized the translation key is a living document that is good enough for now.

The FindIt! classification system was designed to be easy to learn and apply. The print copy of the twenty-third edition of the Dewey Decimal System consists of four volumes; the latest version of SMCL’s FindIt! Translation Key is only fifty-eight pages long. SMCL’s copy catalogers and public services staff alike, as well as the recently hired original cataloger, have been able to quickly learn and easily apply the system. The only difficulty in applying FindIt! lies not in the classification system itself, but in the content of a title when it covers more than one subject prominently. A cataloger’s judgment will be needed then to decide which neighborhood and subcategory to assign to the title. This is of course a challenge that all classification systems face, including Dewey.

There are many benefits to the FindIt! Classification System. It allows flexible shelving arrangements that are not possible in the Dewey system. Shelving based on Dewey is linear, and any rearrangement disrupts the sequence and confuses library users. Titles in any FindIt! neighborhood and class can be easily relocated to prominent locations if they are popular or featured collections. Within most classifications, branches can decide whether to shelve the books by title, author, subject, etc. For example, one branch library may decide to shelve all of their books by title in the Microsoft class of the Computer neighborhood, while another branch may shelve the books by Microsoft product name in the same neighborhood. FindIt! allows a greater level of experimentation that SMCL will use to help increase circulation and user satisfaction.

The FindIt! Classification was based on the collections of two branch libraries, starting with the smaller branch. We learned through experience that using the largest or most comprehensive collection as the basis to develop the new classification system would have saved time and effort. It may seem time-consuming at first, but this would have minimized our current need to go back and make changes or further subcategorize a class when it becomes too large. Thorough weeding is also recommended to avoid wasting time on classifying “dead” titles. As the collection grows and changes, the newly developed translation key is revised as needed. It is a living document.

One of the main challenges we encountered developing the translation keys was subcategorization. It was not always easy to find a commonly shared subject to establish a class. However, for browseability, we tried to have no more than approximately 150 titles per class, and we established a class only if there were at least twenty titles that shared the same subject. Sometimes a seemingly perfect sub-categorization had to be altered. For example, the neighborhood of COOKING was subdivided into MEAT, SEAFOOD, VEGETABLE, HEALTHY, DESSERT, METHOD, INTERNATIONAL, ESSAY, and others. We had many titles on making baby food and cooking with children, so we created the subcategory of CHILDREN in the COOKING neighborhood. We quickly realized the class COOKING / CHILDREN printed on the spine label might be misconstrued! Instead we use LIFE / PARENT / COOKING for these titles.

Implementing FindIt! offered unique challenges. Other libraries that had made this change shared that replacing Dewey was a lot harder for staff to accept than it was for the public; this was our experience as well. The implementation taskforce, which included staff from branches and access services, planned internal communications, staff training, marketing and the conversion of the collection. Portola Valley branch staff had open conversations about change and why people naturally resist it; the good and the bad of Dewey; and how to “sell” FindIt! to the public. The taskforce presented on the pilot at Portola Valley at SMCL’s Staff Development Day and gave all staff the opportunity to interact with the collection and offer feedback. The taskforce compiled staff’s concerns and responded with expanded FAQs for staff. By engaging staff early on, and communicating consistently and openly, SMCL has been able to successfully move to a more user-friendly classification system. During the coming years, the system will continue to be fine-tuned as feedback permits us to improve the system based on user needs.

—by Wen-ying Lu, Nicole Pasini, and Sandy Wee
The San Mateo County Library is a member of the California Library Association, an ALCTS affiliate.