June 20, 2024

Summer Project: Kill Dewey


This summer, a legend will fall. But one library will rise from the ashes, reborn under a new classification system. Kristie Miller, the K–12 librarian for Alexander Central Schools in western New York, is the latest to head off into the relatively uncharted territory that lies beyond the Dewey Decimal System.

Miller invited me along for the reclassification of her elementary school library. This allowed me not only to help create the new system, but to bring back a firsthand report of the journey. And folks, it’s a wild ride.

We began by reclassifying animals. Our guiding principle throughout was to be as user friendly as possible. Animal books tend to be a large and very popular section with elementary kids, so it seemed like a good place to start.

But what’s the best way to shelve books about animals? We quickly decided that we’d bring all of them together in a single section. There would still be a split between wild and domesticated creatures, but at least the two groups could be shelved together. With that squared away, we sat and stared at each other, trying to decide what the heck to do with the actual animals. Shelve by scientific class? Biome? Name? Each method has a long list of pros and cons. As we soon learned, classification is really just a series of compromises that inevitably results in a less than perfect solution.

We settled on shelving wild animals by scientific classification. That way, similar creatures would be grouped together, for the most part, whereas shelving by biome would have split elephants into grassland (African) and jungle (Asian). While shelving by name may work for primary school collections, for upper elementary grades and beyond, the emphasis is on biological classes.

After some research—OK, a quick Wikipedia search—we decided to go with the following groupings: amphibians, birds, fish, mammals, reptiles, and invertebrates.

Within each section, wild animals are shelved alphabetically by family, using the common name and then by species, again by common names. For example, books about black, brown, grizzly, or polar bears are shelved in that order under “Bears,” given the common family “Ursidae.” Again, Wikipedia helps, but there are still decisions to make. There are 35 different scientific families of sharks spread across eight distinct and larger orders, but for the elementary library we just put them all under “Sharks.”

We also considered other areas of the elementary school library and devised eight top-level areas: the living world, STEM, healthy living, the arts, play, social studies, languages, and fiction.

Our primary goal was to be student-friendly, but we also recognized the importance of curriculum in the library. Grouping books by how subjects are taught will help students find them more easily. For example, mythologies have been moved into the “fiction for lack of a better word right now” section along with folktales, legends, and books on ghosts and aliens. We hope that placing these books in more heavily browsed sections will increase readership.

See below for our complete classification system (or download it as a separate document). Tell us what you think in the comments below.

Elementary School Classification System

By Kristie Miller and Christopher Harris

  • The Living World

    • Animals
      • Wild Animals (By Class then Name)
        • Mammals
          • Cats
          • Bears
          • Etc.
        • Reptiles
          • Etc
      • Domesticated Animals (By Name)
        • Cow (all types)
        • Dogs (all types)
        • Etc.
        • Working Animals
    • Plants
      • Trees
      • Plants
      • Flowers
      • Fungi
    • Agriculture
      • The Farm
        • Farm Equipment
        • Barns and Farm Buildings
        • Farm Crops
      • The Garden
        • Garden Plants
          • Fruits and Vegetables
          • Flowers and Houseplants
      • Soil
    • Dinosaurs and Pre-Historic Life
      • Dinosaurs
      • Pre-historic Plants
      • Pre-historic Animals
  • STEM

    • Science
      • Life Science
        • Biomes
          • Tundra
          • Grasslands
          • Etc.
        • Food Webs
      • Earth Science
        • Geology
          • Fossils
          • Rocks and Minerals
        • Forces of Nature
          • Volcanoes
          • Earthquakes
          • Glaciers
          • Tsunamis
          • Etc.
        • Landforms
          • Mountains
          • Oceans
          • Rivers
          • Lakes
          • Etc.
      • Weather / Severe Weather
        • Hurricanes
        • Tornados
        • Lightning
        • Etc.
      • Seasons
      • Space
        • Planets
        • The Sun
        • The Moon
        • Stars
        • Space Travel
      • Physics
        • Energy and Forces
          • Heat
          • Light
          • Sound
          • Motion
          • Weight
          • Magnets
          • Gravity
        • Building Blocks
          • Elements
          • Atoms
      • Science Experiments
    • Technology
      • Transportation
        • Ground
          • Cars
          • Trucks
          • Motorcycles
          • Bicycles
          • Motorsports (eg. Snowmobiles, BMX, NASCAR)
        • Air
        • Water
    • Engineering (architecture etc)
      • Construction
        • Construction Equipment
        • Materials
          • Wood
          • Plastic
          • Glass
          • Etc.
      • Architecture
        • Bridges
        • Dams
        • Buildings
        • Etc.
      • Inventions and Inventors
      • Futurism
      • Communication Technologies
        • Computers
        • Internet
        • Etc.
      • Television and Movies
        • The Technology
        • Making Movies/TV shows
        • History of
        • Books about movies/shows
          • Star Wars Vehicles
      • Energy
        • Natural Resources
        • Electricity
    • Mathematics
      • Time
      • Numbers
      • Measurement
      • Computation
        • Addition
        • Subtraction
        • Etc.
      • Advanced Math
  • Healthy Living

    • Health
      • The Body
      • Exercise
    • Medicine
      • Diseases
      • First Aid
      • Medical Technology
      • Death
    • Food and Cooking
      • Cookbooks
      • Special Diets
      • International Foods
      • Holiday Foods
      • Historical Foods
      • Types of Food
        • Sugar
        • Meat
        • Etc.
  • The Arts

    • Art and Artists
      • Artistic Concepts
        • Color
        • Perspective
        • Etc.
      • Drawing
      • Painting
      • Sculpture
      • Art History
      • Artists and their works
    • Music
      • Musical Concepts
      • Instruments
        • Woodwinds
        • Brass
        • Strings
        • Vocal
        • Etc.
      • Music History
      • Musicians and their works
    • Theatre Arts
      • Theatre Concepts
      • Theatre History
      • Dramas
      • Musicals
  • Play

    • Sports
      • Football
      • Baseball
      • Horsemanship
      • Hunting/Fishing
      • Camping/Hiking
      • Winter sports
      • Etc.
    • Toys
    • Games
      • Video
      • Analog
    • Jokes and Riddles
    • Puzzles
      • Crafts and Hobbies
      • Woodworking
      • Metalworking
      • Paper crafts
      • Knitting
      • Sewing
      • Collecting
      • Etc.
  • Social Studies (history and political geography)

    • History and Countries
      • Local
      • State (New York)
        • Erie Canal
      • US
        • Native People
        • Pre-Colonial
        • Colonial
        • Revolutionary
        • Civil War and Reconstruction
        • The States
        • Etc.
      • World
        • The Americas
        • Asia
        • Australia and Pacific Islands
        • Europe
        • Africa
        • Middle East
        • United Nations
      • Explorers
    • Government
      • Executive
      • Legislative
      • Judicial
      • The Military
        • Military Vehicles
        • Branches of Service
        • Weapons
      • Special Agencies
        • FBI
        • CIA
        • Sky Marshals
        • Etc.
    • Communities and Community Helpers
      • The Hospital
        • Doctors
        • Ambulances
        • EMTS
      • The Police Station
        • Police
          • Crime
          • Forensics
      • The Fire Department
      • The Library
      • The Market
      • The Museum
      • The School
      • The College or University
      • The Bank
      • Journalism
      • Careers
      • Community Groups
      • Holidays and Traditions
      • Clothes and Costumes
      • Rural communities
      • Urban communities
    • The Environment
      • Trash
      • Pollution
      • Recycling
      • Sustainable Energy
    • Community Issues
      • Terrorism
      • Sexism
      • Racism
      • Child Abuse
      • Bullying
      • Death and Dying
    • Religion
      • Alphabetical by religion (mythology under traditional literature)
  • Languages

    • History of Languages
    • ELA Concepts
      • Rhyming
      • Alliteration
      • Etc.
    • LOTE
    • Sign Language
    • Writing
    • Language Reference Books
  • Fiction

    • Poetry
    • Fantasy
      • Collections
      • By Author
    • Historical
      • Collections
      • By Author
    • Pullout Series
    • Traditional Literature
      • Mythology
      • Folk/Fairy Tales by Region
      • The Supernatural and Unexplained / Modern Legends
    • Literary Criticism

This elementary school classification system is released under a Creative Commons attribution, non-commercial, share-and-share-alike license.

Christopher Harris About Christopher Harris

Christopher Harris (infomancy@gmail.com) is coordinator of the school library system of the Genesee Valley (NY) Educational Partnership.


  1. Cathy Potter says:

    I would love to look at the rest of the classification information but there is no hyperlink. I have recategorized the picture books in our library with about 25 different categories so I think doing the same in non-fiction is an interesting idea.

  2. oladipo idris abiodun says:

    Are u also saying u innovation is the end to Dewey decimal classificaton for organising school library media centre’s collection?

  3. How do the students use the electronic catalog? How do they know where to look? This is a bookstore approach. How will they know how to use other libraries that are not arranged by you?

  4. Shayne Russell says:

    How does this affect the online catalog? Is there still a way to pinpoint where a specific book can be found on the shelf? Did the reorganization necessitate coming up with a new system to replace spine labels with call numbers? And does that mean that you need to go into the catalog and add the new identifier to each record? After rearranging all the books, I don’t think I’d have enough energy left to tackle that step!
    Interesting idea, and I’d love to hear how it works out after it’s been in place for a while. I’m in a middle school, and I want students to be prepared to find books in the public library as well as the school library. I’d be concerned that if we all have our own unique systems, the kids are going to slam into the Dewey Decimal System once they’re out of school and it’s going to come as quite a shock. (Not that they “get it” in school anyway, so maybe it’s not that big a deal). Your system should help kids transition to book stores nicely! Is the fiction arranged by genre? I think my students would love that!

  5. Hi: This project sounds challenging but interesting (a lot).

    I find out you are missing all computer-related technologies. It might be under Technology but under a different new subject.

    Excellent effort and wishes you the best =)

    Sonia Hdz.
    Librarian, Mexico.

  6. Very impressive! Having made some attempts over the years to create a new classification system, I agree that compromises and oddities will exist in any workable system.

    One thought after looking through the classification: Would it make more sense to call the section “Literature” rather than “Fiction”? This would avoid the oxymoron that would come into play for 1) poetry that is about actual events, 2) literary criticism, especially regarding literature that is not fictional, and 3) biography (which I am guessing falls under the general subject illustrating the person being written about, rather than having it’s own section), especially of literature creators.

  7. Lorna flynn says:

    I ran a K-12 library with Dewey for 22 years and am now working in a college library and use the LOC. Teach the kids Dewey so they will be ready to use LOC. That”s my take.

  8. This summer I’m finally re-organizing the fiction collection by genre. I’m also including a few informational sections as well. If all goes according to plan, I hope to be dewey-less the following year. I especially like your focus on curriculum because that’s my raison d’etre as a middle school librarian. I’m going to work your Social Studies classifications, minus the community helper type areas, into my move this year.

  9. Thank you for sharing your classification system. I am opening a new school library in Utah and we are ditching Dewey as well. Others have tried to sell me a system, but yours may become the standard. Thank you.

    • Virginia says:

      Michelle, I’m in Utah too. Launching a new library in 2014. I’d love to hear and/or see what you’ve done. Would you share your school’s name?

  10. Except for the numbers, how is this different from Dewey?

  11. You have ‘way too much time on your hands to go through all this and be happy about it! When I got to the elementary school where I am now, there were so many complaints from teachers and students because it was so hard to find what they needed. The principal gave me 3 weeks to reorganize it back to the Dewey system.

    Then I taught the students and the teachers how to look up books in the OPAC and go straight to the book they wanted! I’ve had nothing but compliments and thank yous!

    Besides, when one of my students go to another school, they will know how to find books at the new library… unless that idiot librarian has made up her own system of shelving. Then the student is only confused.

  12. Dennis R. says:

    If you were just looking for a change, adopting BISAC might have been easier than reinventing the wheel. But so would staying with Dewey. People seem to have gotten this idea that Dewey is too difficult to master, but I’d suggest that most mass market children’s books will have CIP information already printed in the book– making assigning Dewey numbers more a matter of transcription. And similar items will still be shelved next to each other. I’d also argue that most children can understand numerical order and the concept of a decimal point– that’s kind of why they’re going to school.

    Dewey isn’t dead. And attempts to “kill it” at the local level might be dismissed by some as merely vanity.

    Best of luck with your decision. And you may want to wait awhile before you add this accomplishment to your resume.

  13. Lisa Nocita says:

    I reorganized my middle school nonfiction last spring, throwing Dewey and caution to the wind. I just picked a place and started weeding and reorganizing! I went through the same kinds of conversations in my head as did Ms. Miller. It was a lot of work and, unfortunately, as we are a part of a union catalog, I had to create a back up shelf location file so I can find the odd title that isn’t where I think it will be every now and again. However, I am satisfied with the outcome and feel like my collection is much more accessible. And, the added benefit was really getting to know my collection inside and out!

  14. Kathleen F. Lamantia says:


    Articles like this make me want to scream!

    These librarians have bought into the idea that “Dewey” is difficult, hard to use and purposeless. The very idea that they would want to dispense with it, and create a new classification system indicates that they do not understand very much about it. Dewey’s entire purpose is to group like things together for easy finding. All the decisions have been made already – and in my opinion were made well. (tweaking is, of course, always going on)

    The other complaint often made about Dewey is that it is hard to explain or use. When I worked the public floor I always began by saying, “if you can count to 100, you can use Dewey.” 1 comes before 10, 10 comes before 100, etc.” As soon as you take away the fear, from both patrons and staff, it’s amazing how easy it is to find things in numerical order.

    It saddens me greatly to see this excellent system, which readily accomodates new ideas, subjects, etc. being tossed out because of modernistic “group think.” Not all tried and true things are bad.

    • I love book stores but they are is the business of selling and can adopt their own categories in which they wish to put things. Libraries have to have a consistency for patrons who go from library to library. The Dewey system has worked fine for years and should continue to be the standard. I recently had a new teacher tell me that she thought our library was “too big” and that she just told her students to take books from her classroom collection because they were easier to find by genre. I was dumbfounded. She was denying her students access to the library because of her personal beliefs. Knowledge of how to use the card catalog properly alleviates any difficulty in locating books that are on the shelves. Where do these people that advocate the book store approach put a book about Ernest Shackleton? Biography, Adventure, Explorers, Antarctic Regions, Survival? All the book store approach will do is to be a fad for a little while and then cause massive headaches when things have to be converted back to Dewey when the librarian that created the mess moves on.

    • Kelly Collinsworth says:

      I’m starting the process of designing a research project to study the feasibility of changing my school library from the Dewey Decimal system to the METIS classification system. I have to defend the need for change and, sorry, I don’t agree with the argument to keep Dewey just because it is all we have used. The students I see in my library on a daily basis are spending more time gathering information from print resources than they are using the information. I believe that if anything kills off print resources, having trouble finding information will be the final death nail. Our students are much more sophisticated information users and consumers and they deserve a system that first, makes sense and secondly, allows them to find information in a more natural way. I do believe it is time for a change and I’m not sure if METIS is the answer, but I’m really looking forward to designing this research project to find out.

  15. Elaine Smith says:

    I was considering doing the same thing with my nonfiction books in our k-12 school library. How are books labeled on spines for location purposes and for online catalog? I really like the classification system developed by Kristie Miller and Christopher Harris.

  16. It’s an interesting idea but I’m not sure why we need to reinvent the wheel. I’ve heard the argument for reorganizing before — to follow a bookstore’s organization system…it’s easier, etc. What exactly is the *problem* with Dewey? That it’s hard? Really? My K-5 students know it. I agree with the above comments that Dewey does help students prepare for the LOC in college, and you need to consider the public library or students going to other schools. We work in libraries, not bookstores.

  17. Kiera Parrott says:

    This is very interesting! Thank you for sharing all of your hard work. One question: What do your call numbers and spine labels look like? It seems like the sections and sub-sections would make for some rather long call numbers and I’m curious how you handled that.

  18. Phyllis VanDusen says:

    It seems like the people who want to throw out the DDC, have very little experience with cataloguing. That whole conversation you had about reorganizing the animal section was a waste of time — what you came down to was exactly the same as how it is organized in Dewey but just without the numbers!
    Yes, spine labels and using the online catalogue after something like this sound like a nightmare to me!
    Bookstore style organization works because a Book store actually has very few titles (but many copies of each). A library has many titles and usually only 1 copy of each. So although you might want to organize your home library, or a small business library like a bookstore — it really doesn’t work for a properly catalogued library system.
    I’m happy you seem satisfied with your work, but I pity the poor souls who have to clean up after you!

  19. I too often ignore Dewey… I found it easier to just print photos of basketballs and baseballs etc. Much easier to dedicate one shelf to each sport than to try to explain to a youngster how to find 796.233 vs. 796.223 etc. (guessing actual dewey ranges)

  20. Great arguments on both sides. I’m so ambivalent! The question seems to be: should our children have to adapt to a system that sometimes seems illogical, or should we modify a system to provide easier access. It’s hard to explain to children why “jobs” and “folktales” are in the same section. “Railroad transportation” is 385, but “Railroads” are in 625. If anyone there has adopted Metis or another alternative system, how do you catalog it in Destiny?