In recent years, the idea that libraries should shelve by genre instead of by author or by the Dewey Decimal System has gained momentum as libraries report increased circulation numbers as a result. Increased circulation is, perhaps, the main drive behind the change, since higher usage numbers can mean more funding. However, the change is also supposed to be more user-friendly as children in particular no longer have to be taught to find books in the library, but can simply head to the shelves with their favorite genre. Perhaps I am simply averse to change. However, I admit I find myself doubtful about changing a library over to genre classifications.
Let us ignore the obvious hurdle to changing a library’s classification system: the time and people needed to recatalog every book and then physically move them to new areas. Even if a library could easily do this, I would question shelving books by genre for two main reasons: the fact that many books could reasonably be assigned more than one genre and the possibility that genre classification could discourage library patrons from going beyond their usual genre preferences. Where do you place a book that is set in the past but contains mystery, adventure, and a hint of magical realism? What about a book of animal stories that could also be included under “humor” or “adventure?” Assigning one label to the book could misrepresent it, and prevent readers of a certain genre from finding it if it has been assigned to another genre.
Additionally, readers who only browse in one section or two genre sections may miss out on the joy of unexpectedly realizing they do like books in other genres. They are less likely to stumble upon other kinds of books, to spot a cover that looks intriguing and to read a cover summary for a book they might otherwise have ignored. The avid fan of fantasy may miss out on discovering wonderful books full of mystery, adventure, or humor, if they are not willing to go beyond their comfort zone.
Of course, bookstores are already generally organized by genre–this is part of the reasons libraries want to do the same. And they seem to function just fine. But I do find myself gravitating to my favorite sections in bookstores, rather than browsing throughout. I don’t want to lose that browsing experience in libraries. For me, that has always been part of the magic. Wandering through the shelves, pulling out books with covers or titles that intrigue me. I read more widely when I go to the library because I pick up books I would never walk by when I go to a bookstore. I hope libraries continue to encourage that sense of exploration.