Child-centered classification

I’ve been reading about Metis, a Dewey-free library classification system developed and implemented in 2011 by the librarians at the Ethical Culture School in New York City (Kaplan et al., 2013). The system places the thinking, interests, information needs and information-seeking behavior of children at its center. It was developed as an alternative to the Dewey decimal system, which is currently the most commonly used system in school and children’s sections of public libraries.

Metis is named for the Titan Metis, who was the mother of Athena. The Greek word metis means a quality that combines wisdom and cunning. The system is designed to encourage productive independent browsing and successful catalog searching by children. Its emphasis on situation specificity, flexibility, and user-centered design is closer to John Dewey than to Melvil Dewey. I liked this on the Metis site:

Our decision to create Metis is a result of our progressive approach to education and the library. The system isn’t a cut-down version of adult thinking. Kids feel empowered to navigate the library because it is organized in a way that they understand. Metis increases the success rate of finding books, which fosters self-reliance and produces joyous discovery.

The Metis main categories are based on studies of the practices of young children. They put users and their needs and interests at its center, and curriculum, collection, and library geography second. In contrast to the Dewey system, they are not meant to reflect the state of human knowledge or depict the relationship of one branch of knowledge to another. The categories are ordered using the letters of the alphabet, A-Z. This is the only code that is not whole language.

For example, H. Arts, might include art books, biographies of artists, and fiction featuring artists, whereas in most other systems those would all be in widely separate categories. U. Scary is a category of special interest to children, either as one to seek or one to avoid. G. MakingStuff would include cooking, model building, magic tricks, and crafts of all kinds.

Some obvious concerns about Metis are whether youthful readers can make the transition to other systems. One critic asked “What happens to these children when they arrive at a college or university and need to learn the Library of Congress classification system?” Notwithstanding the fact that very few college-educated adults presently learn LC, I’m inclined to support an experiment aimed at getting children to read more. Moving to another school could present problems, too, but seeing classification as a human construction could be a valuable learning experience in itself.

Almost a century ago, Célestin Freinet developed a classification scheme with a similar motivation, to facilitate the easy finding of documents. It was also for his Bibliothèque de Travail, a collection of student and teacher-made booklets for the classroom. The Freinet classification is also a simple system, similar to the Dewey decimal system, and reliant on the decimal coding.

There are 12 major divisions, such as 1.3 2. Plants1.4 3. Animals, and 1.5 4. Other sciences, with subdivisions and sub-subdivisions. Many educators see it as more logical and natural for school work than the Dewey system, although it is closer to that than is Metis. The Freinet classification is still used in the libraries of some elementary schools.

I’ll be interested to see how well these alternatives work and how much they spread to other libraries.


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