Deborah Magnan, MLIS, AHIP
Samuel and Sandra Hekemian Medical Library
Hackensack University Medical Center
30 Prospect Ave.
Hackensack, NJ 07601
January 31, 2011 | Reviewed August 2013
Libraries of all kinds use classification systems to organize materials so that patrons can locate items of interest on library shelves. Several different systems are available to consumer health libraries, and which one to select depends on a number of factors. Is the consumer health library part of a larger library that uses a particular classification scheme? Does the library plan to include its holdings in a larger union catalog, such as a county or statewide system? How easy will it be for patrons to use the chosen system without needing help from library staff? Does the library have adequate staff to choose a non-traditional system that may require extra time and work in cataloging materials?
The Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC), the National Library of Medicine (NLM) Classification and the Library of Congress Classification are three well-established systems available to consumer health librarians. In addition, Planetree, a non-profit organization that advocates for patient-centered care, has developed a classification system for use in its libraries and resource centers. Each system has advantages and disadvantages for use in a consumer health library, and it is possible to use more than one system as well. A library can also choose to design its own system that is customized to its collection or users.
The DDC system is used in libraries throughout the world and is the one with which most public library users are likely to be familiar. It may be a good choice for a library that is part of a public library system or other community organization. Most books typically found in a consumer health collection include Cataloging in Publication data (CIP) that includes pre-assigned DDC numbers, saving time for library staff. The main disadvantage of the DDC is the small range of numbers available for medical and health books. This may make long call numbers necessary in order to keep books on the same subject together and may cause shelving books to become more time consuming.
A consumer health library found within a larger medical library may be organized using the National Library of Medicine (NLM) Classification scheme. This scheme has many more subclasses available for organizing topics within a collection, allowing materials on a single subject to be more easily grouped together. In situations where the time of the medical library staff is limited, it may be easier to organize the two collections in a consistent manner. However, consumers may be unfamiliar with the medical terminology used by the NLM Classification and its accompanying Medical Subject Headings (MeSH), making it difficult for them to find materials on their own.
Most academic libraries in the United States use the Library of Congress Classification (LCC) scheme. Like the DDC, the libraries that choose to use this system benefit from the CIP data found in many books. The CIP includes both LCC numbers and Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH). LCSH are also used with DDC numbers. Like the NLM Classification, the LCC scheme contains more subclasses to group materials together on the shelves. Consumers may find it somewhat difficult to use, however, due to its academic orientation.
The Planetree Classification system organizes consumer health materials in a manner that facilitates browsing and discovery of related health information by patrons. It strives to use language that is familiar to the layperson, rather than medical terminology, and also arranges some materials for specific groups of people by age and gender. This system does not include subject headings and libraries that use it may choose to use LCSH, MeSH or subject headings developed specifically for their collection. The Planetree Classification system may be problematic for libraries within a larger system that use a consistent classification scheme for all its members.
A library also has the option of creating its own system. Subject specific collections such as those found in libraries located within cancer centers may need more of a range than any of the currently available classification systems provide. It may be best for them to develop another system of call numbers. Other libraries might combine systems for their use. For example, a consumer health library that includes consumer health materials and recreational reading such as fiction could use both the Planetree Classification and DDC systems to organize materials in the collection.
Classification systems work best when they meet the needs of the users of the library. When choosing a classification system, librarians may want to seek input from potential and/or current users. Consideration must also be given to the amount of time and effort library staff are able to spend cataloging and organizing the collection. Colleagues in other consumer health libraries are good resources and may provide helpful perspectives as well.
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2. Ford C, Gilpin L. Informing and empowering diverse populations: consumer health libraries and patient education.
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