Pros and Cons of the Push for Shelving by Genre in Libraries

Pros and Cons of Genrefication

An increasing number of libraries seem to be recataloging their books, moving away from the old Dewey Decimal system and embracing genrefication (shelving by categories created by individual librarians).* The trend seems especially prevalent among school librarians, who report increased circulation and fewer students asking for help finding books. I have written before about why I am not sold on the idea of my public library shelving by genre.  However, I think genrefication could work better for school libraries, since it apparently makes navigation through the library easier for children.  Here are my thoughts on some of the pros and cons of such a change.

Pros

  • Children do not need to learn how to use the catalog or consult a librarian, but can easily find books in their preferred genres.
  • Being able to move directly to a favorite section could help students feel comfortable and confident using the library.
  • Children tend to get focused on specific topics like robots or dinosaurs.  Genrefication means they can find favorite subjects more easily, and related topics could be shelved with them.  (Of course, Dewey already shelves like topics together or nearby, in many cases–there just usually isn’t a big sign saying “Dinosaurs” over the 600s.  Though there could be!)
  • Nonfiction books that get overlooked can be highlighted.  This includes fun topics like aliens, crafts, and spy technology.  It also means that patrons will be able to find fiction books (fables, legends, and mythology) that many erroneously believe are already shelved with fiction (when they are often in the 200s and 300s).
  • Libraries apparently circulate more books.

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Cons

  • Patrons may be less likely to look for books outside their preferred genre.
  • It becomes more difficult to find books by the same author, if they write in multiple genres.
  • Patrons may not know where to look for certain types of books because librarians each make up their own genre categories.  Or patrons may be confused by a vaguely named section.
  • Books that cross genres may be difficult to shelf.  (One library reported undoing genrefication for their YA section for this reason.)
  • Students do not learn to use the catalog, so may be confused when using another library.  They may also experience difficulty later in life when doing research, if they are unfamiliar with how to use key words, narrow searches, adjust search parameters, etc.

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Conclusion

Genrefication makes sense depending on the goals of a particular library.  I think it works particularly well for school libraries because it removes the frustration for students of learning how to use the catalog and of searching for related topics under different call numbers (ex. African American history could lead someone to the 900s for history, the 300s for social causes, and the biography section).  At the same time, it frees up school librarians from having to guide students around the library; they can focus instead on book recommendations.  The result is increased confidence for students who feel like the library is welcoming and accessible, and a decreased workload for librarians.

Genrefication, however, seems to be a model suited best for those patrons who like to browse.  Patrons who go into the library already knowing what book they want may have to rely more heavily on the catalog, since it may be impossible where to guess where a particular title has been shelved.  The irony, of course, is that genrefication seems to discourage the use of the catalog (and may even prompt some libraries to stop teaching its use as a result), so, in some cases, patrons might actually need more help navigating the library.  If learning how to research using a library catalog is a prioritized goal for a library, they may have to rethink how to encourage catalog use once they genrefy.

Genrefication seems ideally suited to children because they are 1) less likely to follow the book market and thus more likely to be browsers and 2) more likely to be obsessed with certain topics and thus to benefit from those topics being placed together.  Children’s books also seem, in many cases, to have more clearly defined topics and themes, making genrefication a potentially easier endeavor than with adult books.  And school libraries are often smaller than public libraries, again making genrefication seem more practical; there are only so many places a patron could look for a particular book, even if they are confused by the chosen genre sections.

It is a little more difficult to imagine genrefication working as well for adult titles and academic libraries.  Adult sections could conceivably end up genrefying the fiction collection (still leaving a general “fiction” label for all those pesky, genre-defying titles) while leaving the non-fiction section organized by Dewey Decimal system. But academic libraries, where patrons often go in looking for specific titles, might not see the need to genrefy, since genrefication seems geared towards browsers.  Plus many academic libraries use the Library of Congress cataloging system, not Dewey, which is, again, supposed to shelf related topics near each other for those serendipitous browsing moments.  Additionally, some libraries might not see how subdividing books into individualized systems (meaning: every library makes up its own genre sections–there is no standard system everyone follows) is helpful to patrons, rather than confusing.

As genrefication becomes increasingly trendy, I am willing to give it a chance.  For now, however, it seems best suited for children’s books in school libraries.  I’m not quite ready for my public library to genrefy.


*A note on genrefication.  Many libraries already divide their books by age (adult, YA, MG, beginner readers, picture books), media (graphic novels), and more (biography section, pick-your-path). Genrefication doesn’t mean this.  Genrefication means taking all the fiction and non-fiction, and mixing them together.  Books could end up in recognized genres like fantasy, humor, and mystery.  They could also end up in “genres” like “The World Around Us” (community helpers, social justice, and geography) or “Personal Reflections” (self-help, body image, and navigating school and puberty).  The idea is to come up with a catchy, provocative name to draw readers over to a particular category; librarians come up with the genres themselves, based on their communities, what they see circulating, etc.

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10 thoughts on “Pros and Cons of the Push for Shelving by Genre in Libraries

  1. Isobel Necessary says:

    The Daunt Books shop in London shelves by country, with guidebooks, fiction, travel writing and poetry all mixed together. It makes for an interesting browsing experience and gives the shop a great usp.

    In terms of libraries though, I agree that learning how to use a catalogue is important because it gives people more confidence when they go into a new library. The other thing to note is that not all libraries use the same cataloguing system anyway. Do you have any thoughts on that aspect?

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, bookshops usually sort by genre, though they tend to use commonly known genre designations, whereas libraries are making up their own groupings so they can mix fiction and non-fiction together. It seems like that’s what your bookstore is doing–the library way of genrefication! But I would find it confusing, personally, if I couldn’t just walk to the chemistry section because the chemistry books are now shelved with sci-fi or something. But the push for genrefication in libraries is actually because libraries are seeking to become more like bookstores! (But your bookstore is becoming more like…a library??)

      I think there is a learning curve with any new library since they may choose a different designation for a book (some put nonfiction graphic novels in nonfiction, while others put them in the graphic novel spot; some pull out popular series like Lego books, while others don’t). But I think, in general, if you know how to use a catalog, you should be able to transfer your knowledge of how to use search terms to a new database. In many cases, what stops people from performing successful searches is, I think, that that they give up, while actually a successful search often means searching multiple keywords. In other words, if it doesn’t come up the first time, you just have to know you aren’t necessarily doing it wrong! It’s just part of the process.

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  2. Grab the Lapels says:

    My library doesn’t mix in nonfiction with fiction, but we do have Western, Romance, Science Fiction, Urban, Mystery, and Fantasy sections. These typically make some patrons frustrated because such genres tend to be written in series, and we’re still shelving by genre + author’s last name + title in alphabetical order. If an author starts a huge fantasy series and then hands the writing over to his/her child (which happens!) then they aren’t even shelved together if they have different last names.

    One that makes me ANGRY though is I recently learned from a librarian that some libraries are categorizing all fiction by African American authors as URBAN. All of it. Their Eyes Were Watching God? Urban. The Color Purple? Urban. Sista Souljah? Urban (okay, she was always in urban). WTF.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I shelved at my previous library, and apparently the general rule was that if an author had a ton of books, they didn’t even try to alphabetize the books because patrons would constantly get them out of order and it was a losing battle. So, yeah, series by the same author certainly weren’t together, nevermind series that were started by one person and finished by another. It drove me nuts, but I get the reasoning. It’s kind of like how kids DVDs are not alphabetized in any library I’ve ever been in. It’s not worth trying with how fast they get put in random spots.

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        • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

          That sounds really annoying! I haven’t even looked at the adult DVDs in my current library, so now I’m curious. At my old one, they were actually in alphabetical order in the adult section.
          It’s always interesting to me how some parts of the library are just kind of a jumbled mess where it’s impossible to find anything. Like, I do get that it’s hard to keep some things in order, but how do you FIND anything specific without taking 20 minutes??? Like CDs. “Oh, we have that, but it’s in the pile of 100 CDs in the pop section that are in no order.” Ok….

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  3. PerfectlyTolerable says:

    I’m torn on this!! While I like the idea in theory there are so many books with overlapping genres that it would seem impossible to categorize them this way! I haven’t been to a library in forever but my local Barnes and Noble recently switched their sorting system. They used to have one section for science fiction / fantasy a section for fiction and a section for non-fiction. Now they have broken each of those into YA and adult sections (so now there are 6 instead of 3 sections) As both a browser of shelves and a person who knows exactly what they want at times, I liked it better without the YA / Adult distinctions. Now I have to look in two places instead of just one!

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  4. BookerTalk says:

    One issue with genre shelving is that it can’t find a way to deal with books that cross genres or that don’t fit easily into a genre. So you could end up frustrated trying to find a particular book.

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