This morning I read a brief blog post at Pages Unbound about the way libraries are now shelving books: by genre. Krysta’s concern is that many books are hard to categorize into one genre, and that readers are less likely to explore new books if they always head right to their comfort zone. However, Krysta reports that shelving by genre in a library increases circulation, according to a School Library Journal article she read.
Since it’s a sunny Saturday afternoon and I didn’t make any plans, I did some mild-effort investigation. My husband and I headed to Erasmus Books (which sells used books) in South Bend, IN, to talk to Phillip, the knowledgeable and kind owner with whom I’ve chatted many times before. This time, we met Megan, Phillip’s neighbor and steward of the Erasmus Books Facebook page. After describing the Pages Unbound blog post, I asked Phillip how he organizes his books.
Phillip said he tries to match the Dewey Decimal System in his used bookstore, which is located in an old house. I noticed shelves have labels like “Germany” and “Music.” There are divergences in Phillip’s system: history is categorized by country, except the United States, which is organized chronologically with U.S. history. That confuses some people, Phillip said. Art is pretty loose. There are two large shelves (at least) with art books that are disorderly. How do you shelve them, Phillip asks. By artist? Author? One might ask if art books are shelved by period or year or medium, so I can see the conundrum.
Then there’s the question of how the author wanted to be thought of. James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston could easily go in the African American section, but neither author wanted to be thought of as a “black author.” Just “author” will do, thank you. Phillip admits he puts Baldwin in both African American fiction and fiction, just to have both places covered.
After our bookstore adventure we headed to the main branch of the St. Joseph County Public Library where I sought out an employee at an information desk. I failed to ask if she is a librarian or other type of employee, but she did have great answers to my questions. When I described the Pages Unbound blog post, she looked aghast: what kind of undisciplined library would shelve books by genre is what her face seemed to say. Then, she admitted that a few years ago some of the branches tried changing to a genre system instead of the Dewey Decimal, but quickly changed back.
At this library they use the Dewey Decimal System for nonfiction books and use authors’ last names in fiction. The “big” genres are separate: westerns, mysteries, romances, and science fiction. Those books are also cataloged by author’s last name. There are sections for large print, teens, children, and comic books/graphic novels. The more it gets separated, the more I’m wondering what she means when she says they don’t separate books by genre. Sounds separated to me!
There’s also one large shelf for “new books” (which she defined as 6 months or newer) because so many patrons simply demand the latest books. I do wonder about these new book shelves. If the library makes it easy for patrons to grab a new book without exploring the rest of the library, what are patrons missing out on? Are library users in the U.S. all reading the same thing as a result? I don’t have answers; today was about mild-effort journalism.
What do you think? Have I caught the library in a liar-liar-pants-on-fire situation? Is the Dewey Decimal System essentially categorizing books by genre?