Should Libraries Shelve by Genre?

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.

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43 thoughts on “Should Libraries Shelve by Genre?

  1. shelts89 says:

    British libraries categories by genre… I had always assumed all libraries do! It makes so much sense… Plus my local library puts little genre specific stickers on them to make it even easier. Fantasy ones have a unicorn. 🦄

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    • Krysta says:

      That’s really interesting! And I do see the appeal. Sometimes I hear library patrons ask where genre sections are–they seem to be on board with the idea! And I’m sure I would adapt if my library did change. I tend to pull books based on cover, not genre, though, so I guess I don’t feel the pressing need for any change. XD

      Liked by 1 person

  2. alilovesbooks says:

    Interesting topic. I’m in the UK and all of the libraries I visit have specific genre sections and I don’t mind it. I tend to browse pretty much every section anyway 😂 The largest section is more of a general fiction section as you get a bit of everything in there and I suppose is where they put the hard to classify books. There have however been occasions where I’ve spied a book classified as a specific genre and been unconvinced it’s the right one or I’ve found parts of a series (Chaos Walking) in different sections (YA and adult Sci fi). It can be a little confusing but I’m happy to wander a library and if you really want a specific book or author you can just reserve it

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    • Grab the Lapels says:

      I know that general fiction is a huge section, one I tend to gravitate towards. I’ve noticed that used book stores near me catagorize differently. Erasmus Books has sections like African American books, and it will be bits of everything, like fiction, anthologies, biographies, memoir, etc. My library has no such section.

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    • Krysta says:

      If my library moved to genrefication, I imagine I would adapt easily enough. Bookstores separate by genre, after all, and it works pretty well. But I think what I like about the library is that it does feel different from a bookstore. It’s not trying to sell me something, but is sort of a quiet place to wander and explore. So, while I appreciate the need for libraries to market themselves, I hope they don’t all become too store-like, whatever that would look like.

      I also think shelving by author can be kind of helpful, in a way, for patrons because you don’t need to know all the separate sections. I’ve seen some libraries, for example, separate by popular character or popular series or by type like pick-your-path books. But to navigate that, you sort of need to know already that all the Iron Man books are over here and all the pick-your-path books are over there. Often the catalog doesn’t have a location for that. It doesn’t say “Iron Man section” when you look it up, just “fiction.” So you do end up with people looking in the general fiction section for books that have been pulled aside to “make things easier.”

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      • alilovesbooks says:

        There does definitely seem to be an element of selling going on in libraries these days but as long as it’s encouraging reading I’m OK with it. I know some readers (my Dad included) have their go to genre and authors and won’t venture outside them. I quite like the if you’re a fan of this author you’ll like that one signs I’ve spotted popping up. I also love when they have special sections promoting books. I would never have read The Travelling Cat Chronicles if the library hadn’t had a display of translated fiction. You’re more likely to take a chance on a library book than a bookstore book I think so you could argue they should be marketing underappreciated books.

        To be honest genrefication bothers me less than the other ways they’re turning into bookstores. My library now has a cafe and rooms for community activities (dance classes, meetings, youth groups, charity auctions) Add to that activities for kids in the main library and it gets really noisy. I miss the times when it was quiet and peaceful. I used to spend hours there, studying or reading but now…

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        • Krysta says:

          Yeah….I definitely agree libraries need to do marketing. Though I think sometimes mine ought to do more outside the library, getting people to realize they have access to free books, games, movies, music, classes, etc. But I do think that libraries can perhaps go too far to try to market. I know libraries are rebranding themselves as “community spaces,” and hence the art shows, concerts, yoga classes, and magicians. But sometimes it feels like libraries have given up on people reading and learning and are just trying to get them in the door any way possible. And I think at some point you have to wonder if a bunch of people coming to a concert are actually going to come in and realize, hey! there’s a library here and I can check stuff out or study or use the Internet! Or if they just are going to go into the meeting room for a free concert and then leave. In which case…I don’t know. I guess you can argue that giving people free concerts is inherently good because some people can’t afford them. But is the mission of the library to give free concerts? Or is there another community organization that could do that while the library continues to focus on equitable access to literature and learning.

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  3. Karen J Schoff says:

    Here in Toowoomba, QLD fortunately our local library is still alphabetical, but when I lived in a small town out west they decided to rearrange the fiction by genre and it drove me mad. I couldn’t find anything. There are many books that now cross multiple genres and some authors write in more than one genre. Maybe I’m a bit old school, but I like to find all the books by the same author in the same place. I feel that alphabetical shows respect to the author, besides I enjoy strolling along the aisles, browsing the shelves and pulling out different authors and different genres. I’m crossing my fingers and hope they don’t decide to go genre here.

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    • Krysta says:

      I really like your point about authors having all their books in the same place. I think it can be cool for authors to inspire fans to try new genres. I also think many authors sort of take a risk when writing a new genre. It might be even riskier if people browsing don’t see the author has titles in a new genre.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Karen J Schoff says:

        Yes, often writers might start in one genre before crossing over to another. I think having them altogether solves the problem of which genre to place them in. Our bookstores arrange by genre too, but even then sometimes you might have to look in a few different places, especially when they can’t decide whether a book should be in the YA section or the fantasy or the paranormal or… Of course, if our library did go that way, I would adapt…eventually, even if I did grumble under my breath.

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        • Krysta says:

          Yeah, agreed. I could adapt and I see that genrefication could have some benefits. The largest one potentially being librarians having to educate fewer people on how to find books (though I’d argue that’s just part of the job). But I love just wandering through all the fiction! The one thing I would like to see in genrefication would be moving the fairy tales and folk tales out of the 300s and putting them in a nice “fairy tale and folk tale” section. Because I’m pretty sure a lot of people don’t realize they’re hiding there in the nonfiction shelves.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. writingverbaboutwritingnoun says:

    The arrangement of books on the shelf can prompt intriguing connections between titles which are (at first glance) very different. One well-travelled friend of mine had his books arranged by geography for a while: guidebooks, travel lit, fiction and poetry all jumbled together in clusters about Canada, or Japan, or Scottish mountains. For his purposes it worked really well. Overall though, I think the disadvantages you’ve mentioned outweigh the benefits when it comes to a library rather than one individual’s home collection. As you’ve mentioned elsewhere, libraries can use of variety of techniques to encourage an increase in circulation. Genre conventions extend to cover design, so it’s usually fairly easy to pick out books which are similar to one another for fans of a specific genre.

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    • Karen J Schoff says:

      Yes, at our library they use little icons on the spine to indicate different genre, for example, a dragon for fantasy, a planet for sci fi or a red heart for romance, just to mention a few. Of course, this might get tricky with books that cross a number of genres – the whole spine might get covered in icons!

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      • Krysta says:

        Yeah, my library will just pick a genre if the book could be various ones. I don’t always agree with their choices, though, and sometimes wonder if they labeled a fantasy with a ghost as “paranormal,” say, just because they feel like fantasy already has a bunch of stickers and the paranormal stickers should get out more.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      That’s a good point about the covers often indicating genre–and even age range. Possibly that’s how I manage to read primarily fantasy even without a fantasy section. I can spot them easily enough! But I still like finding unexpected gems next to the books that first catch my eye.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. ireadthatinabook says:

    The library I grew up near was sorted in genres and I really liked that. Of course most of the books were sorted as General children’s fiction (just divided by broad age groups), so basic library skills were still needed, but books from the most popular genres (mysteries, SF/Fantasy, horse books) had been separated into their own shelves. Thus if I wanted to read a mystery I would browse that shelf until I found something that sounded good, without having to be too focused on whether it was an author I had tried before or not. In general fiction I mostly went for authors I already knew as there was too much I wasn’t interested in in-between for browsing to be efficient (I still browsed of course but not to the same extent).

    Of course if too many very specific genres are used it could be harder instead of easier to find a specific book but separating a few particularly popular genres can work really well.

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  6. Kim @ Traveling in Books says:

    My library branch used to organize by genre, but a year or two ago they went back to putting all the fiction together in alphabetical order. I kind of miss the genre set up, since I could just browse the SFF section for different SFF books than I’ve read before, but I’m used to the current set up now. I don’t think I have a preferred set up now, but just having everything together does encourage me to browse more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      That’s interesting! I do think I could adapt to a switch to genrefication. But I’m used to they way my library is now. And it seems to work. Why fix what’s not broken, I always say! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Never Not Reading says:

    I am in favor of this to an extent. My library shelves all of fiction together, and it can make browsing a bit tiresome, especially if I know I want, say, science fiction. They sticker the books with romance, fantasy, and scifi stickers anyway, so they are already putting them into a genre, they may as well put those books together to make them easier to find. Especially as libraries are starting to model themselves after book stores, this makes sense.

    However, based on what you said about children’s books, that makes me feel like they are putting all the books about cars together, or all the books about dragons. And you are right, I am not in favor of that. It makes it too easy to get literature tunnel vision, which isn’t good for kids or adults. And, as you said, so many books have more than one genre.

    Great post!

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    • Krysta says:

      I can see the appeal of genrefication largely for children’s librarians, actually. It would cut down on requests for assistance as children could browse favorite genres and not ask for help. (I know, that’s their job, but some workers clearly don’t like it.) And plenty of parents and children already ask for more books on robots or trucks or dogs or whatever their child is currently into. So, again, librarians wouldn’t have to search for individual titles or make up recommendation lists. To be honest, sometimes the switch seems less about making it easier for patrons than it is about making it easier for library workers. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

        • Krysta says:

          I think there would be an issue with everything needing to be recataloged and labels being chagned, for sure. Once that’s done, it would be easy enough to sort for shelving. But I suppose the catalogers may need to spend more time determining the appropriate genre designation, rather than simply putting everything into fiction.

          Liked by 1 person

  8. Amber says:

    I’ve always struggled with genre shelving for one of the reasons you mention above – the multi genre designation. Especially because there don’t seem to be sub genre sections in bookstores. At least, in my indie bookstore, YA includes middle grade, and Simon Vs. Is in the LGBTQ+ section. Depending how the reader classifies books, they can be harder to find.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, sometimes books could be shelved various places and you’d already need to know how a specific store or library decided to designate those titles. It might just be easier at that point to be able to head directly to the author’s last name instead of guessing what genre a book was assigned.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Miri ♪ Book Dragoness ♪ says:

    Yes! I agree. Organizing by genre could be a great idea, but at the same time people might never stumble on the hidden gems in other genres. Also YES. What if your book fits in multiple genres? Or it doesn’t have a fixed one? Also it’s entirely possible that some people try to avoid one genre they like actively because they’re embarrassed to be seen reading that genre (for example, teen boys in the romantic section though I won’t judge them for reading romance–hey read what you want to read).

    I think one of the greatest things about libraries is that you can browse, and that browsing can lead to wonderful books. I’m not going to police people’s reading habits, but I do think that it’d a be a good experience to try reading out of your preferred genres, especially if you write (I’ll follow my idea except I will NEVER read horror because I don’t want to be creeped out…)

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  10. Sarah Stubbs says:

    Looking at it purely from the library’s perspective – that is, wanting to increase circulation – I think it’s a good idea. If I go into the library for a particular historical fiction book and there are tons of others shelved right next to it, odds are I’m going to find at least one more I want to pick up just from seeing it there. When they’re shelved by Dewey it’s a lot easier to walk in and get only what you’re in for because the others around it might not be in your interest. There would always be exceptions to the genre-shelving rule, and it would probably take libraries a while to work out the best way to shelve by genre, but I think it’s a good idea!

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  11. Alex Masegian says:

    This is an interesting perspective that I didn’t really consider. When I first saw the title of your post, I thought, “Ooh, I wouldn’t mind if libraries were sorted by genre!” But when I read your account of how you tend to gravitate only towards the genres that you like in bookstores, I realized that I do the same thing. And while that may not be that big of an issue for older readers, it is for kids who are still trying to figure out what kinds of books they want to read — if they only have a bit of time to visit the library, they’re not going to want to go from section to section! Plus, the multi-genre issue that you mentioned could make books harder to find. If someone comes in looking for a specific book that they think is romance, but that the library decided was dominated by sci-fi, they won’t be able to find it easily. It’s interesting that libraries are seeing increased circulation with these systems… I wonder if there’s more data on what age groups/genres that trend is being observed in. Great post!

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  12. Stephanie 📖 is excited for The Ruin of Kings (@Chasm_of_Books) says:

    I’m kind of torn to be honest. I would love to be able to browse at the library by genre. I definitely see the difficulties this could also present, especially at a library. I wouldn’t be opposed to it though, especially since I wouldn’t have to sift through so many books I’m not interested in at all. If I want to read outside of a certain genre, I personally find myself in the mood for that so I purposely search in whatever genre I’m in the mood for.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, that is supposed to be a better classification than the Dewey Decimal System that allows for better browsing. Personally, I never saw much difference since Dewey theoretically groups similar subjects, too, but maybe I am missing something.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Bridget says:

    This is an interesting topic! I live in the states and my libraries already categorize by genre. Like I know where the YA section is or the Biographies or the Adult Fiction. I actually assumed all libraries were like this?!

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    • Krysta says:

      My library has sections like biography, fiction, graphic novels, picture books. But it doesn’t separate fiction into fantasy, sci-fi, humor, historical fiction, etc., which is what people are discussing. The idea is that if a kid likes Jeff Kinney or Dan Gutman, for instance, you would just point them to them to the humor shelves for similar reads. Right now they’d have to comb through fiction, maybe look for the genre sticker on the spine.

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  14. Annemieke says:

    The adult section in the Dutch libraries is generally categorized by genre. For anything not adult it is categorized by age group and sometimes in that age group by genre, depending on how much they have of some things. But yeah I’ve seen books in places where I thought that it really shouldn’t go there. In the age groups in book stores (who categorize the same way) I often see mix ups between middle grade, young adult and adult as well. I don’t think there is a perfect system.

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    • Krysta says:

      Precisely. There is never going to be a perfect solution and you’re always going to have people who have a different opinion on how the books should be organized. If I wanted, I could make a compelling argument for genrefication. But I think the author system and Dewey Decimal System are working in my library, so why fix what isn’t broken?

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Captain's Quarters says:

    Reading the post and all the comments did take me back and forth on me opinions of how things should be shelved. Personally for adult books I like having a general fiction section with the romance, crime/mystery, and SFF stuff having their own subsections. All the sections are organized by author. Those are genres were the fans tend to stay engaged in their prefered section and rarely want to read elsewhere.

    That said at one of the current libraries I visit, all of the new fiction is in one section so I have to browse all the new stuff when looking for something. I have found very good non-SFF reads that way.

    As for non-adult fiction, I can see the appeal of having books by genre and then subcategories like horse books. Man would I have loved a horse section when I was little. It does make sense in terms of helping younger readers to find books that appeal to them.

    I do think that middle-grade and juvenile and YA tags should be combined in libraries. I do understand why they might be marketed that way but really feel that it’s too much division. Children should be encouraged to read whatever captures their fancy. Books like learning-to-read and board books should be in a children’s section because those readers have to have help to read. Once that is no longer an issue, the sky be the limit.

    Lovely discussion. Arrrr!
    x The Captain

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, it’s difficult because there are pros and cons both ways! If I walked into a library shelved by genre, I wouldn’t necessarily hate it and I’m sure I’d be navigating around just fine in no time at all! I think, in the end, it may just come down to what librarians think will work best for their particular patron base.

      I think the division between MG and YA primarily exists, not because of difficulty level of the books, but because of the content. YA tends to have more overt references to heavier topics like substance abuse and sometimes even graphic depictions of sex. So…I think that while there is some sort of division based on what professionals think will appeal to different age groups, there is also supposed to be a sort of shorthand going on for “This book is suitable for a ten-year-old. It may deal with something like substance abuse or the opioid crisis, but it does so in an age-appropriate manner.” Though I feel the YA section is increasingly for 16+ and not 13+ so the shorthand is becoming less useful there.

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