Organizing books is a difficult businesses. Finding the most functional technique to bring order to your own bookshelves can be hard enough, but what about a community library? Or a university library?
Probably the most famous library system is the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC), better known as the Dewey Decimal System. The DDC files nonfiction books by three digit numbers (plus decimals for further refinement), placing language books in the 400s and biographies in the 921s, for example. It was first published in 1876 by Melvil Dewey. It seems like a great system that most of us are used to from using our community libraries, right?
Well, there are some flaws built into the system. I run into one in particular fairly often: not all books on the same topic are, in fact, grouped together. When I look up “gluten free” in the Ann Arbor District Library (AADL)’s catalog, for instance, I find books in the 613s, 616s, and 641s. Books about the Crusades are in the 909s, 940s, and 956s, and I found one under 201, a real outlier. Speaking of the 200s, 200 through 289 are devoted to Christianity while the 290s are set aside for every other religion in the world. (The DDC also has a history of bigotry, racism, and homophobia, which is beyond the scope of this article.)
Another system popular with academic libraries is the Library of Congress Classification (LCC), which also makes use of numbers and adds letters, as well, such as PR5562 .A1 1909 for In Memoriam by Tennyson at my alma mater Western Michigan University’s Waldo Library. As you may be able to tell from that string of alphanumerics, there is a lot of room for subcategorization in LCC, much more than a community or home library probably needs.
So what can smaller collections do? Here is where I introduce to you the Book Industry Standards and Communications (BISAC), a word-based classification system. As with the other classifications mentioned above, BISAC groups books together by topic, but rather than using numerals or alphanumerics, BISAC literally spells it out for you. Instead of 921 (DDC), you have Biographies. 973.3 (DDC) is History / United States / Civil War Period.
To users of AADL’s Westgate library branch, this may already be familiar. The Malletts Creek Branch was also recently restructured to use BISAC. You might love it, and you may well hate it. Here is why I love it: BISAC is highly browsable. The sections are alphabetized, so you find Biographies under B, and they are broken down further into types of biographies.
For example, in Biography / Entertainment & Performing Arts, you will find books on Jim Henson and Oprah Winfrey. For George Washington or James Madison, look under Biographies / Political Figures. Biography / Composers & Musicians will get you books about Nina Simone and Stevie Nicks.
If you need books on Buddhism, look under R for Religion & Spirituality, then, within that section, B for Buddhism, so the breakdown is Religion & Spirituality / Buddhism. For a related topic, try the nearby Mindfulness & Meditation shelf, also found within Religion & Spirituality (so Religion & Spirituality / Mindfulness & Meditation). The books are also filed alphabetically in their sections by the author’s last name, so Pema Chodron is followed by Sam Harris, who is then followed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, and so on.
BISAC is equally perfect for niche readers of fiction. Can’t get enough of paranormal romance, but you don’t know what books fall into that category? Try the Fiction / Romance / Paranormal section. Love cozy mysteries, but detest thrillers? The Fiction / Mystery / Cozy section was made for you. (And the Fiction / Mystery / Thrillers section, which is further divided down into General, Technological, Legal, and more, is perfect for your counterpart.) Can’t stand any science fiction that doesn’t involve time travel? There is a section for that, too (Fiction / Science Fiction / Time Travel).
The one drawback I have found to this system is that giving genre precedence over author, books by the same author are not necessarily shelved together as they might be in a library or bookstore that uses only Fiction as a heading or doesn’t break down Mystery or Romance into niche groups.
Nora Roberts, for example, has books at Westgate in both Romance / General and Romance / Paranormal, which is great if you are a general romance person and prefer to ignore paranormal romance, but if you are a fan of everything by Nora Roberts, you will have to look in multiple sections to be sure you have found all of her books. Mystery and Thriller authors suffer a similar fate.
Nicola’s Books, also located in Westgate Plaza, handles it differently. While they do use BISAC, I was told by helpful employee Alana “if an author is tagged with more than one genre, we typically will choose one and keep all of the author’s books together rather than shelve in two places.”
Do other Ann Arbor bookstores use BISAC? Megan from Bookbound told me that they don’t use BISAC to organize their shelves, “but sometimes we do look up a book's BISAC codes to help us decide what section to put it in if we are unsure (or, more likely, if we are overthinking it).” I did the same when I was a bookbuyer at Crazy Wisdom, which, being a specialized bookstore, uses its own internal categorization system. Literati also has its own system.
Ingram, the leading supplier to independent bookstores in the US, uses BISAC, as do Barnes& Noble, Amazon, Baker & Taylor, Indigo, and several other online and brick-and-mortar stores. (Incidentally, when self-publishing through Ingram, they make you choose BISAC headings for your book. Mine is under Books / Science Fiction & Fantasy / Science Fiction / Steampunk on Amazon, but the Westgate library puts it under Fiction / Science Fiction / General because AADL doesn’t have a Steampunk section. So you can see that even within BISAC, there is some personal choice.)
With more and more libraries switching to BISAC, and two of our Ann Arbor branches already using it, it behooves us to become acquainted with this system. You may find yourself becoming a more empowered reader and consumer, branching out to new authors within a genre you enjoy who you didn’t previously know existed. Maybe your child is a picky reader and only wants books on a specific topic or in a niche genre. Using BISAC can help you help them foster a love of reading by quickly introducing them to a plethora of titles and authors in that same vein. BISAC is, at its core, another tool to finding books that we love.
To learn more about BISAC, check out: https://bisg.org/page/BISACFaQ
To read about a library's experience switching from DDC to BISAC check here: http://publiclibrariesonline.org/2018/11/leaving-dewey-for-bisac/
--Crysta Coburn, local author and editor, AABS volunteer and AADL desk clerk
If you go to the downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library (AADL) and take the main stairs down to the basement level, you would see on the wall of the first landing, before the stairs turn to continue down, a few old plaques for the Ladies’ Library Association (LLA), one from 1885. You may wonder, “What is the LLA? And what does it have to do with AADL?”
The LLA was formed in 1866 when 35 women in Ann Arbor got together to form a small lending library, based on the Benjamin Franklin model of subscription, in a space that they rented above Main Street. (A great number of now public community libraries in the United States were started by ladies associations just like this one. Anne Firor Scott in her article “Women and Libraries,” published in the Spring 1986 volume of The Journal of Library History estimates as many as 75%.) Each woman agreed to give $3 initially plus another $1 each year toward the purchase of new books (or donating books themselves in lieu of the yearly dues) in support of the new library.
The library grew rapidly with nearly 900 books by the end of its first year, when it was forced to move to a larger location. Having enough space proved to be a recurring problem, and they moved several times to successively larger accommodations (including, at one point, the top level of the Court House) until, in 1885, the LLA had their first building erected at 324 East Huron Street in the Romanesque revival style (sadly, it was torn down in 1946). Thanks to rigorous fundraising, the building was paid off by 1892.
It was designed by famed architect and local boy Irving K. Pond, a University of Michigan graduate and a partner with his brother in the same Chicago-based firm that designed the Michigan Union and the Michigan League buildings. (The Pond brothers were also the architects for Chicago’s celebrated Hull House.) Pond’s mother, Mary, was a founding member of the LLA, and his father, Elihu, was an editor at the Argus, one of Ann Arbor’s more successful newspapers of the 19th century and a strong supporter of the library.
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Before the new building, however, the LLA proposed in 1870 to the city council that their subscription library be taken over by the city to form a free public library. This was rejected. In 1879, it was proposed that the LLA library be combined with the that of the Ann Arbor Board of Education. This proposal was rejected by the LLA, thus the purchase of land in 1880 and the 1885 building by Pond.
The LLA did more than lend books, hosting several guest speakers, a series of social readings, art receptions, musical performances, and held various fundraisers. Often reporting on the LLA’s events and special announcements, the newspapers of the time seemed quite enamored and impressed with the LLA in their coverage of the library. The March 3rd, 1876 edition of the Michigan Argus includes a report on a “dramatic entertainment given by the Garrick Club… for the benefit of the [LLA]” that netted them about $90. Two days later, the LLA published its thanks in the Argus, to everyone involved in the celebration of its 10th anniversary party, which included “so attractive an art gallery.”
The public also showed much support. On June 10th, 1885 the Ann Arbor Courier reported that “several offers of assistance have been reported to the [LLA] board” in response to the announcement of the intended dedicated library building. “One gentleman promises to do the gas fitting, another contributed $25.00 toward the gas, and another will give the insurance of the building for three years.” The Courier reported other cash donations and that one LLA member offered her services as librarian for the first year, which saved the LLA over $50.
It wasn’t until 1902 that then-president of the LLA, Anna Botsford Bach, suggested applying for a grant from Andrew Carnegie to build a public city library. A philanthropist and booklover as well as a wildly successful businessman, Carnegie had a personal relationship with libraries (his father helped found a Tradesman’s Subscription Library), and he credited use of libraries with giving regular workers (himself included) a leg up in improving themselves and their stations. Thousands of libraries were built all across the globe with Carnegie grants.
The Ann Arbor School Board and city council joined the LLA in supporting the application. They were granted $20,000 in 1903, but the three co-applicants argued over a site for the new building. The School Board naturally preferred the library to be close to the high school for the convenience of its students, while the LLA thought that a separate location would better suit the public’s needs. In 1904, the School Board and city council re-submitted the application to Carnegie without the LLA and were granted $30,000.
After the high school burned down in 1904, it was decided that the new high school (completed in 1907) would have a wing devoted to the new library. The LLA was invited by the Board of Education to join, and they accepted. In 1908, the LLA donated its collection of approximately 4,600 books to the public school district library. In 1916, the Huron Street property was deeded to the Board of Education and was used, variously, as the Krusczka School of Dancing and headquarters for the Boy Scouts. It was then sold in 1944 to the Michigan Bell Telephone Company, who tore it down to make way for their new office building.
1957 saw the dedication of the new Ann Arbor Public Library building (designed by architect Alden B. Dow), which still stands today at the corner of 5th Avenue and Williams Street in downtown Ann Arbor, though it has more than doubled in size since. As part of the centennial celebration of the LLA, the cornerstone from the 20-years gone 1885 building was installed at the 5th Avenue Public Library location. And today, that very same cornerstone can be found in the stairwell between the old and the new parts of the downtown branch of the (renamed) Ann Arbor District Library, now five branches strong.