How to Create Multicultural Special Collections in Your School Library

If you are bothered by racial and cultural biases in the Dewey Decimal Classification system, modify it a bit to make your collection more culturally responsive. Here's my solution that could work for you, too. | No Sweat LibraryIn 2001, when I became the School Librarian at the district’s most diverse middle school (1/3 African-American and the other 2/3 equally split between Hispanic, Anglo, and Asian), I quickly realized the limitations of DDC for making a collection culturally responsive. I had questions similar to those posed by another librarian in a more recent LM_NET listserv post:

“I want my collection to equitably reflect my students and their world, and am bothered by racial and cultural biases in the Dewey Decimal Classification System, in the Library of Congress Subject Headings, and other systems. … how do you combat systemic marginalization in the organization and classification of your collection? Do you reorganize your collection to reflect the population you serve, or pull books about particular groups or subjects together, while retaining Dewey classification and adding spine labels/stickers?”

Intent on solving this DDC difficulty, I perused my copy of Abridged 14 and discovered a way to use the Dewey system to better serve our diverse populations. When Abridged 15 came out, I was pleased that there were no changes and my system was still valid. It answers all  my questions and those of the listserv post.


Our first responsibility as School Librarians is to make the school library student-friendly, so we can make changes to help students find what they need! silhouette of trooperThere are no “Dewey Police” that punish us for changing a book’s Dewey number. In fact, OCLC regularly makes changes to DDC to meet the changing needs of our society. And changing Dewey to meet the needs of our students fulfills the very purpose of DDC: “works that are used together to be found together.”

I don’t worry about changes because few librarians really know enough DDC numbers past the 10 main Classes to be confused by my changes. As for students, we didn’t have to know LOC to locate a book in our college library. We locate an item using the Call Number listed in the OPAC, and that’s what our students do, too. I prefer being a “creative Dewey-ist”, in that I’ll always change a Dewey number to put a book where students will likely look for it.

Overcome the racial & cultural biases of Dewey Decimal Classification by adapting existing numbers to make the School Library collection more culturally responsive. Here's how I did it... | No Sweat LibraryWith my student demographics in mind, I noticed the DDC Table 2 Geographic Areas lists numbers for the continents to use in DDC numbers—i.e., it’s that second number right after the 9 in the 900s. I decided to use these as “continent of origin” numbers for cultural/ethnic groupings and adjust Dewey numbers to reflect cultural origins:

  • 3=Jewish & other Semitic groups (Ancient Worlds includes Palestine)
  • 4=European or Anglo
  • 5=Asian
  • 6=African
  • 7=North American or Native Nations
  • 8=South American or Hispanic/Latino.
    Though Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean are included in North America, I chose to include them here for cultural identity & to avoid confusion with U.S./Canada & Europe.
  • 9=Australasia and the south Pacific islands


In my school library collection, there are 3 Dewey sections with the largest number of books related to cultural, ethnic, and racial topics:

  • the 300s, notably 305 Social Groups, 306 Culture & Institutions, and 398 Folklore
  • the 920 Collected Biographies
  • the 973 U.S. History section

920s Multicultural Shelf Labels920 Collected Biographies

I had already begun to redo the 920 Collected Biographies, using 921-928 for Subjects according to DDC 920 Option A. I decided to make 920.3-920.9 “Multicultural Collected Biographies” by adding the pertinent continent number to the right of the decimal. (I know Option A is a little different, but who knows or cares?) I barely got the section reorganized before kids noticed the new groupings and began checking them out. Chalk one up for my first Special Multicultural Collection!

973 U.S. History

Next I tackled 973 U.S. History. DDC Table 1 Standard Subdivisions designates .04 as Special topics. I had noticed the Library of Congress catalog has many African American history books with 973.04 (followed by a few more numbers), so I decided to use 973.04 for Multicultural History & Events, adding a continent of origin number after the 4. Table 1 designates .08 as Groups of People, so I made 973.08 for Multicultural National Groups, adding the continent of origin number after the 8. (Table 1 has different things for that third number, but again, who knows or cares?)

Make Dewey Multicultural - Try my Dewey 973 Multicultural shelf labels, part of my NoSweat Dewey Subject product on my TPT store. #NoSweatLibraryI gathered relevant books from other areas of our collection, made new spine labels with the relevant cultural designation, and ended up with 3 full shelves of books for our “new” Special Multicultural America Collection:

  • 973.045 became Asian-American History
  • 973.046 became African-American History (including the Civil Rights Movement)
  • 973.048 became Hispanic-American History
  • 973.083 for Jewish-Americans in the US
  • 973.085 for Asian-Americans in the US
  • 973.086 for African-Americans in the US
  • 973.088 for Hispanic-Americans in the US
  • I also added 973.082 for Women in America

I did not put books on U.S. slavery in these collections. Instead I used 973.714 to place them in the Civil War numbers since that’s when the topic is studied in 8g Social Studies. I pulled many books from the 300s and other sections to expand that section. In fact, I had pulled so many books from 305 Social Groups and 306 Culture & Institutions for the new U.S. History topics, that the remaining books were fewer and more relevant as global topics, so I didn’t need to make any changes there.

398 Folklore

I had already made significant rearrangements to 398 Folklore, and I decided using 398.2089 for ethnic/national groups was way too many decimals, so instead I use 398.23 Folk Literature of Places & Times and add my continent of origin designations to create 398.23 Multicultural Folktales. What a remarkable difference that makes to our sizable folklore collection! It’s now so much easier to use, especially when I need to pull books for lessons or for classroom use.

  • 398.231 Non-specific or mixed folktales
  • 398.233 Jewish & other Semitic folktales
  • 398.234 European folktales
  • 398.235 Asian folktales
  • 398.236 African & African American folktales
  • 398.237 Native Nations folktales
  • 398.238 Hispanic/Latino & Hispanic American folktales
  • 398.239 Australia/Oceania folktales


To build student awareness of multicultural books in our Fiction area, I apply multicultural labels to the top of the spine of fiction books that have cultural, ethnic and racial characters and topics. I use labels for African American, Asian, Hispanic/Latino, and Native Nations, as well as Cross-Cultural labels for stories with multiple racial/ethnic characters and Multicultural labels for stories taking place in other lands.

As School Librarians & responsible educators, we want to imbue appreciation for diversity, not amplify differences, so I leave our multicultural books intermingled with other books on the shelves to best serve that goal.

NoSweat Multicultural Fiction Book Labels - The Multicultural Fiction labels template is in my e-List Library. Join my Mailing List and download for free.
Get a template to print my Multicultural Fiction Labels by joining my e-Group. It’s a free download from my exclusive e-Group Library.

Reading multicultural fiction creates understanding, so during library orientation I promote Multicultural Fiction as a specific reading topic. The ELA Student Reading Record I create for students has a page showing the multicultural labels, and students know to look for those labels when they want to read an ethnic or cultural story.


Before we can promote multicultural reading we need to build a collection that is culturally diverse. Our fiction area had a number of cultural historical fiction books, but it’s also important to offer quality modern fiction stories with diverse characters. Most book vendors offer a variety of reviews and our librarian colleagues make recommendations related to diversity in books, so each year I make a special effort to purchase as many of these as possible. They’re easy to process by just adding the relevant cultural label at the top of the spine.

Some may worry about the time and effort required to redo book spine labels and change catalog call numbers for every new multicultural Dewey book, but really, how many of these does one order at a time? The next librarian will know exactly what to do because I have detailed explanations in my Librarian’s Handbook, both print & digital versions. As it turns out, every school librarian I’ve shown my changes to has loved the idea, especially that students can now find these books and check them out like crazy!

Make it easier for students to find a Dewey book in your school library with these colorful, pictorial signs and shelf labels. They're just what you need for your middle school or elementary library!


Do you like the shelf labels
shown above?
Make your School Library
more student-friendly!
Get Dewey Subjects Signs
& Shelf Labels

at NoSweat Library, my TPT store.


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