Do We Teach Dewey … or Don’t We? A School Library Lesson

I don't teach the Dewey Decimal Classification System and you don't have to either. There's a better way to teach students how to find a book in our School Libraries and it supports Math. Read on to find out how I do Dewey... | No Sweat LibraryI don’t teach the Dewey Decimal Classification System during Library Orientation. In fact, I don’t teach it at all!

The eye-opener came my second year as a librarian when I was telling students (during an incredibly boring orientation) that library books were originally shelved behind the circulation desk, and the DDC was created so librarians could organize books to find one when a patron asked for it. I suddenly realized that the DDC is for me to know for organizing books, not for students to know for finding one.

Students only need to know how to find a number on a shelf, and anyone who can put 3 or 4 numbers in consecutive order can do that—even a kindergartner!


Few School Librarians understand “Classes” and “Divisions” of DDC, or what it means that DDC organizes those Classes & Divisions by discipline. While the 10 Classes are pretty easy to remember, most School Librarians know only a few Dewey Divisions. Quick: name the 10 Divisions of the 700s Arts & Leisure. And that’s an easy one! If we School Librarians don’t even know the DDCS, why should a kid?

Secondly, the AASL National School Library Standards never mention the Dewey Decimal Classification System. (Nor did the Standards for a 21st Century Learner!) It’s not even listed in the Glossary or the Index. It’s only at the School Library level that there’s a hint at a classification system:

IV. CURATE C. SHARE 2. The school library facilitates the contribution and exchange within and among learning communities by including and tracking collection materials in a system that uses standardized approaches to description & location. (p.62)

As for School Librarians, there’s not even a hint at a classification system; this is as close as they get:

IV. CURATE A. THINK 2. School librarians challenge learners to act on an information need by designing opportunities for learners to explore possible information sources. (p. 50)

I particularly like the wording “opportunities for learners to explore,” and I’ve written about such opportunities for Science and for Social Studies that coordinates both the discipline of Dewey and classroom learning.

So, if our own Standards don’t specify the DDCS for us or for learners, we don’t need to teach Dewey!

Finally, the trend in education is away from content-based instruction and toward developing critical-thinking through inquiry and problem-solving. The school library is all about inquiry and problem-solving, so why would we continue to teach a content-based lesson on the Dewey Decimal Classification System?


Students only need to know how to find a Dewey number on a shelf, and even a kindergartner can put 3 numbers in consecutive order! A lesson activity that sends kids off to find books by number is not only a better strategy for the library—and for reinforcing Math skills—but it’s a lot more fun! | No Sweat LibraryAs School Librarians, our main concern is about helping students learn how to use an organization system to locate resources. Thus, we teach students about our online catalog, and that, after using it to identify whether the school library has a book, they only need a number to find the book on the shelf.

This goes beyond just a lesson; it touches on the latest trend of dumping Dewey for a “kid-friendly” word-based system. I’m astonished when I hear this, since Dewey is itself a short, simple notation for locating a book on the shelf. I doubt that kids are any more likely to “learn” letter acronyms than Dewey numbers.

They’ll still have to search By Subject, we’ll still have to teach them how to use the system to find a book, and we’ll still need to put signs on the shelves, all of which we can do just as easily with Dewey numbers!

NoSweat Library Dewey Decimal Library Lesson presentation slide - They rarely visit the library, so a Dewey Decimal lesson gives Math classes a curricular reason to visit the library, especially if we offer a practical, hands-on application of decimal concepts.

A slide about place value from my math lessons.

Students do need to understand that each place value in a Dewey decimal number stands for a more specific subject or topic, so more decimals mean a narrower topic of a book. What those subjects or topics are should be a sign on a shelf, not a scrap of trivia in a kid’s brain.

Granted, for elementary students, especially very young ones who haven’t learned about decimals, Dewey numbers may seem a bit daunting, but even a kindergartner quickly learns to count to 100, and helping kids discern and practice numerical order is a more important skill to focus on than what the numbers stand for.

It’s incredible that many of my middle schoolers can’t do this, so a lesson activity that sends kids off to find books by number is not only a better strategy for the library—and for reinforcing Math skills—but it’s a lot more fun! At least it always is for my students since I changed my lessons from content to process!


Here's a great way to bring Math classes into the school library: review decimal concepts & library organization by having students locate Dewey Decimal-numbered books on the shelves. I do lessons with 2 different grade levels! | No Sweat LibraryI suggest that our reluctance to focus on number location is due to math anxiety—after all, most librarians seem to come from a language arts background, not a math one. But think about it: Numbers and decimals are part of the math curriculum, so why not bring in math classes for a Dewey lesson? They rarely use the library, so a Dewey Decimal lesson gives Math classes a curricular reason to visit the school library, especially when we offer a practical, hands-on application of decimal concepts. And it certainly answers the common question in math about “When are we ever going to use this?”

Thanks to a suggestion from my library colleague, Cindy Nietubicz, I bring both 6th and 7th grade Math classes into the library for a Dewey Decimal Lesson. The timing is perfect for us—these math classes begin decimal units about 5 weeks into the school year, when our ELA fiction reading pattern is well established and students are eager to check out Dewey books.

My math lessons serve to activate prior math knowledge about what students should already know about decimals, so it prepares them for their upcoming unit. With 6g students we review place values and sequencing decimals; with 7g students we review adding and subtracting decimals. Students practice how decimals are used in the library by locating Dewey-decimal-number books on the shelf. Math teachers like having this fun, non-graded review where they can see which students are having trouble with decimals.

NoSweat Library Dewey Decimal Library Lesson presentation slide - They rarely visit the library, so a Dewey Decimal lesson gives Math classes a curricular reason to visit the library, especially if we offer a practical, hands-on application of decimal concepts.Animated lesson slide for students to practice putting decimals in order.

After the practice activity, students have plenty of time to browse for Dewey books to check out. Many get an interesting book they find during the activity. Others are stimulated to use my signage to find Dewey numbers of their favorite topics. When students are seated, we follow the same silent reading and invited checkout procedure that we use for ELA classes.

Math teachers love these lessons so much that they come to me early in the school year to see when we can schedule them into the library. It also whets their interest in collaborating on other math-related lessons in the library. Students love these lessons, too. Sixth graders are always puzzled about why they’re in the library with a math class…most have never done that before. What amazes me is how many comment afterward that now they understand how all those numbers work, which is, of course, the whole point of teaching Dewey numbers to our students.


You may be wondering why I deliberately use the phrase Dewey numbers—and Dewey books. I identify areas of the library by what’s on the spine labels of the books; since there’s a Dewey number on the spine labels, it’s the Dewey area of the library.

My decision to begin doing this came during the aforementioned (incredibly boring) orientation: I was explaining that we separate fiction books from the 800s into their own area of the library, but the ‘non-fiction’ area still had some fictional books, such as aliens and fairy tales. I thought, “Why am I making this so confusing to students? If I just call them Dewey-number books I’ll alleviate confusion and questions!” So from then on, that’s what I called them.

Now I clarify with students that ‘non-fiction’ is about the content of a book, not it’s location. If you take anything from this blog post, I hope it’s the terms ‘Dewey area’ and ‘Dewey-number books’ instead of ‘nonfiction.’ Our kids deserve common sense.

line of books laying down

If the slide images above have sparked your interest, you can find my Dewey Lessons in my No Sweat Library store on TeachersPayTeachers, as well as my colorful Dewey Subject Signs & Shelf Labels.

Make your Dewey Decimal Library Lesson more authentic and relevant by inviting 6g Math classes to review decimal place values and sequencing! Students & teachers love this Library Lesson that activates prior knowledge at the beginning of their 6g Math decimal unit. Do this lesson, and your math teachers will come to you every year asking when you'll schedule their visit! Make your Dewey Decimal Library Lesson more authentic & relevant by inviting 7g Math classes to review adding & subtracting decimal numbers! Students & teachers love this Library Lesson that activates prior knowledge at the beginning of their 7g Math decimal unit. Do this lesson, and your math teachers will come to you every year asking when you'll schedule their visit! No Sweat Library Dewey Subject Signs & Shelf Labels - 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!

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Helping School Librarians Understand Dewey 300 Social Science

Helping School Librarians Understand Dewey 300 Social Science - Many School Librarians are confused by the organization of 300 Social Science. This School Librarian & Social Sciences college major explains Dewey's disciplinary numbering based on the fields of study found in the 300s.If your school library collection is like mine, the 300 Social Sciences takes up large part of your Dewey area. What boggles the minds of students, teachers, and School Librarians alike is the mish-mash of disparate topics with an arrangement that doesn’t make much sense. Plus, the 300s seem to have many books that belong in other Dewey sections!

As a lover of the Dewey Decimal Classification system and a college major in the Social Sciences, I hope to help you understand this Dewey Class…and suggest some changes that might better serve your students and teachers.


Remember that Dewey Decimal Numbers are assigned by discipline, that is, the field of study—the profession. How does that differ from subject?

  • Subject asks, “What is this about?” and is the topic of a book—the informational content inside.
  • Discipline asks, “Who is this for?”—who will use this—and assigns a Dewey number so those folks find their professional information in one place.

A particular subject, then, can be assigned more than one Dewey number depending on which profession uses the material for their own purposes. Here’s a DDC example of a simple water report that can apply to 5 different Dewey numbers:

Use 333.91 for monitoring to protect water quality, 553.7 for chemical & biological status, 363.6 for assuring compliance with standards, 628.1 for technical aspects of water treatment, and 628.93 for effectiveness of sewage treatment. (Abridged 15, p65.) [edited for brevity]

Also keep in mind that books for more than one discipline or subject are assigned the lowest Dewey Decimal number that includes all disciplines—using the rule of two or the rule of three. This explains why the 300 section is so large: its numbers are lower than 6 other Dewey Classes, so multiple subject/discipline books are placed in the 300s rather than where we might need them for our school curriculum.

Visit my blog posts on Dewey 590s Animals for more about disciplinary alignment, and Let’s Put Dewey Decimal Books Where Students Can Find Them for more on the rules of two & three.


Calling the 300s “social sciences” may be a slight misnomer: the social sciences include geography and history which Dewey places in the 900s, as well as psychology which Dewey places in the 100s. Thus, of the 7 social sciences, only sociology, anthropology, political science, and economics are in the 300s.

Since these four disciplines are about social relationships and the organization & function of human societies, I’ve chosen a more specific name for this Dewey number which students understand better than the generic “Social Sciences”:

Dewey 300 –  Society, Government, and Culture

Unfortunately, the materials for these 3 broad headings are not necessarily in contiguous divisions and sections, so here’s the 300 divisions each one encompasses:

  • Society: 300 Sociology & anthropology and 360 Social problems & services
  • Government: 320 Political science, 330 Economics, 340 Law, and 350 Public administration & military science, and 380 Commerce, communications & transportation
  • Culture: 370 Education & 390 Customs

NOTE: You probably won’t have any 310s in your school library because it’s just for statistical records.


300 Sociology & anthropology
The 300s begin with society, specifically sociology & anthropology. If we consider psychology (the 100s) as the social science of the individual, then 300-307 is the social science of groups. It includes behaviors like bullying, gangs, prejudice & discrimination; interactions such as social change & civil disobedience; and relationships between individuals, groups, and communities. It does have one section important for School Librarians:

  • 305 Groups of people introduces those used throughout the rest of the 300s by age, gender, social class, race, ethnicity/ancestry, occupation, and illness/disability. School Librarians need to build this section with high-quality, equity-sensitive resources because it can so strongly influence the minds of our students.

360 Social problems & services
This division may be, I suspect, the one that gives School Librarians the most headaches. It’s categorized according to type of problem and how the service is provided:

  • for specific groups of people (according to the groups in 305),
  • as governmental services such as public safety, crime & punishment,
  • by public & private societies & clubs,
  • by commercial insurance services,
  • by associations.

Some books in this division are victims of the rules of two or three, such as substance abuse and mental & physical disorders. I relocated many of these to appropriate higher numbers for better student access.

363 Other social problems and services
If the 360s are problematic, this section is particularly exasperating for School Librarians. Like any “other” section of the 300s, it’s a dumping ground for disparate topics. To understand what’s covered in this section, think of it as the basic needs of Maslow’s Hierarchy: physical needs for human survival, and our need for safety & security.

  • 363 begins with Public safety from hazards, followed by police services with crime investigation & forensics, and ‘safety’ from moral ‘problems’, like alcohol, gambling, prostitution, pornography, homosexuality, drug trafficking, and abortion. The public safety portion ends with another dumping ground—363.3 Other aspects of public safety which has just about everything else, from censorship to terrorism to gun control to firefighting.
    363.34 Disasters is actually disaster relief, and school libraries may have sizeable sections here on earthquakes & volcanos, floods & tsunamis, and other earth & weather-related disasters. I relocated many of these to 551 Earth science so they’d be together for science class assignments.
  • 363 ends with physical needs and the services that provide for it. This section includes housing, public utilities like water treatment, food supply issues including malnutrition of the poor & famine, and population issues like family planning & birth control, sterilization, and over-population.
    363.7 Environmental problems is another perplexing spot, because so many popular school topics about environmental protection are crammed in here. I added additional numbers (below) to better define the different topics:
Description Dewey number
Environmental problems 363.7
Sanitation – waste control, recycling .72
Pollution .73
By source – oil, toxic chemicals, acid rain .738
Of specific environments – air, water, soil
Global warming from CO2 (greenhouse effect) &
ozone layer depletion (You may find ozone books in .738 due to the rule of 2 regarding refrigerants, but I moved mine here because it’s a global issue of the atmosphere.
Noise pollution .74


It’s no surprise that 320 Political science, 340 Law, and 350 Public administration & military science align with the 3 branches of U.S. government. (Be aware that other countries may not have this structure, but most of those books are in the 900 section. )

  •  320 Political science includes civil & human rights, the political process & elections, relations between nations, and the legislative process, hence, books about the U.S. Congress.
  • 340 Law covers international, constitutional, regional/state, economic, criminal, and civil law, and includes the United Nations, the U.S. Constitution & Bill of Rights, and the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • 350 Public administration covers the executive branch—the U.S. Presidency, the Cabinet, and management of departments or agencies such as national security, justice, foreign affairs, health & education, and those with economic or environmental oversight. 355-359 military science covers all branches of the military, which is administered by the head of state.


MAKING THE 300’S MORE STUDENT-FRIENDLYMaking the Dewey 300s More Student-Friendly - This Class name & several sections of 300s Social Science are exasperating for students and School Librarians, but a few changes can help. Calling it Society, Government & Culture helps students, as does actually adding decimal numbers to clarify different topics.

330 Economics
Economics is probably nestled between 320 and 340, because legislatures (320) set taxes and budgets. This division also includes careers, money, banking, credit cards, the stock market, and taxes. (You may also see books on socialism & communism because they are economic-based systems, but I prefer all books on types of government together, so I relocated mine to 321.)

School Librarians need to know that 330 also covers economic development and management including that of natural resources, so that’s why we find a sizable group of books in 333.7-333.9. I actually added decimals to my books to differentiate between the different topics, according to the table below:

Description Dewey number
Economics of land & energy 333
Land, recreational & wilderness areas, energy 333.7
Conservation & protection .72
Land .73
Grasslands .74
Forest lands .75
Rural lands .76
Urban lands .77
Recreational & wilderness areas .78
Energy – alternative, renewable .79
Primary forms of energy – solar, nuclear .792
Secondary forms of energy – renewable .793
Photovoltaic energy .796
Subsurface resources – nonrenewable 333.8
Fossil fuels .82
Geothermal .88
Other natural resources 333.9
Water energy – hydroelectric .91
Wind energy .92
Biofuels, biodiversity, wildlife refuges .95

This division may seem redundant with topics in 330 Economics; however, this division is for regulatory aspects (law & public administration) and public consumption—the socio-cultural perspective of ‘products’ & ‘people’, that is, services that sustain or benefit our way of life. Here we find:

  • domestic & international trade
  • the infrastructure for communications—postal, telegraph, computer, wireless (radio, television, satellite), and telephone
  • the infrastructure for transportation, including railroads, waterways, air traffic, roads, local mass transit, and pipeline transport of utilities.

You may see here books that are topical with those in the 600s, and they may get increased circulation by relocating them there.


Near the end of the 300s we find the two divisions relating to culture and it’s institutions.

370 Education
Education is how our culture and traditions are passed down from adults to children. Most books with this division number will be about teaching, so will be shelved in our Professional collection. You may, however, want to do as I did, and build a circulating group of books on schools for the historical time periods our students study in their social studies classes, and books on study skills topics.

390 Customs, etiquette, folklore
This is the division we probably think of when we refer to “culture”. It differs from 300 Sociology & anthropology in that 300 is about groups & institutions, whereas this division is about our personal or informal way of life. We find here sections on personal adornment such as clothing & accessories, cosmetics, jewelry, and body alteration like tattoos and body piercing.

We also find sections on customs for home & family life, death, and special occasions, like marriage, festivals, birthdays, and holidays. Interestingly, it’s also where we find such arcane topics as cannibalism and taboos. The topics may seem similar to 306 Culture and institutions, but 306 is about behaviors and interactions, whereas these sections are for specific celebratory rituals.

  • 398 Folklore, especially 398.2 Folk literature can be a sizable section in school libraries, and if yours is not well organized, you might want to read my post Let’s Put Dewey Decimal Books Where Students Can Find Them. I offer alternate numbers to group these books according to how our students study folklore.
    At 398.8 Rhymes and rhyming games we find Mother Goose and other nursery rhymes, as well as lullabies and jump rope rhymes. If your school library serves PreK, you may want to build this section and relocate related books from other areas to make it easier for you and your teachers to find them all together.


School Librarians Can Change Dewey to Improve Student Access -Many School Librarians get frustrated with the Dewey Decimal Classification system and want to “genrify” it like we do our fiction literature. I believe this is because they don’t understand the purpose of DDC:

works that are used together to be found together.

It’s that purpose of DDC which gives us the freedom to change a Dewey number. Since our disciplinary use is different than career professionals, we can locate books where they will better serve the needs of our school curriculum.

For example, one DDC rule of two/three victim is U.S. slavery before the Civil War. Books on this subject can be found at 2 places in the 300s:

  • 306.3 Culture/economic institutions if the content is slavery as an established socio-economic culture of the time.
  • 326 Slavery and emancipation if the content is about abolitionism and antislavery movements, the political issues of that time period.

I didn’t like either location, so I changed all these books to a little-used but legitimate DDC number where students would find the books within the historical time period:

973.71 Civil War – Social, political, economic history

This number already includes the Underground Railroad and the Emancipation Proclamation, so now all U.S. slavery books are together. After relocating the books, students easily discovered them there and even thought I’d bought new ones!

So, School Librarians don’t have to give up Dewey for radical organizational changes to make their school library more student-friendly. For additional creative ways to use DDC, get my new E-book How to Make Dewey Decimals Student-Friendly found at No Sweat Library, my Teachers Pay Teachers store.

line of books laying down - indicates end of blog article

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