Do you ever wonder how materials in the library are organized?  Do the letters and numbers on the books’ spine labels confuse you? Do you marvel at how easy it is for library staff to find the book that you searched all over for?  If you answered any of these questions in the affirmative, you are not alone.  All you need is a little training.

The Dewey Decimal System, which is how our non-fiction titles are organized, was created by Melvil Dewey in the late nineteenth century.  While he is responsible for the system as we know it, he was influenced by many prominent people, including seventeenth century philosopher Sir Francis Bacon.

The system involves call numbers, which are numbers and letters that serve as a book’s “address” within the library.  Imagine the library as a city with several divisions.  The larger divisions include the Children’s Room, the Media Department, and so on.  Within each division there are subdivisions.  In the Adult Collection, for example, you can find fiction (novels) and non-fiction (books based on research).  This is repeated within each area of the library.

Picture of Mystery Novels

Adult Mysteries

Fiction at the Virginia Public Library is further divided into mystery, science fiction, western, regular, large print, and paperback novels.  Fiction in the children’s and young adult collections are divided similarly, but have extra letters added to their call numbers to indicate which collection they belong in.  Fiction titles are arranged on the shelf in alphabetical order using the author’s last name.

Picture of Chapter Books

Children’s Fiction

For example, Fredrik Backman’s novel, A Man Called Ove, is in regular fiction and would have the call number “BAC” on it.  Crystal Storm, the new young adult novel by Morgan Rhodes, has the call number “YA RHO,” with the “YA” indicating that it is in the young adult collection and the “RHO” telling us that it is alphabetized by Rhodes.  This idea is repeated in all of the fiction areas of the library, including the books on CD and Playaway that we have in the Media Department.

“Fiction is easy,” you say; you want to learn about non-fiction.  In a nutshell, the numbers on non-fiction books represent subject areas and take you to the “street” that the book lives on.  In addition to the numbers, there are “Cutter numbers,” based on work by Charles Ammi Cutter.  In our library, the Cutter number is the first three letters of the author’s last name.  The Cutter number is used to alphabetize the books within that one call number and place them not only on their “street,” but in their “home.”

Picture of Dog Books

Adult Non-Fiction

Dogtripping, by David Rosenfelt, is an easy example.  The call number is 636.7 ROS.  The “636” means that the book is about domestic animals, while the “.7” indicates the type of animal.  Thus, “636.7” is the specific shelf area for the domestic dog.  We could leave it at that, but there are sometimes so many titles in a particular subject area that it would be frustrating to read every title until you find the one that you are looking for.

Children's Dog Books

Children’s Non-Fiction

To avoid that frustration, a Cutter number–usually the first three letters of the author’s last name– is used with the Dewey decimal number.  In this case, it is “ROS,” for Rosenfelt.  In the dog collection, this book would be located alphabetically after any books whose authors’ names begin with “Q” and before those which begin with “S.”

And how do library staff find books so much more quickly that you currently do?  That is where we use tricks.  First, we have a general idea where each subject is located.  Second, we don’t look at every book on a shelf.  We will often look at the last call number on each shelf, narrowing our search first by numbers on the left side of the decimal point, then on the right.  Then we begin looking at the Cutter numbers.  If that fails, we resort to our magic wands.

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