What Kinds of Books Should Libraries Display?

Library Book Displays

For years, I have been somewhat baffled by the books the libraries in my area choose to display.  Usually the adult department seems to make beautiful, relevant displays featuring seasonal reads (gardening books, holiday baking and decorating books, beach reads, and so forth). The children’s department, however, often seems to lack a designated display area, and so workers will simply face books out on the ends of shelves where there is empty space.  The choices made for these faced-out books are puzzling, to say the least.  They seldom seem to be new, relevant, or popular titles–quite the opposite, in fact! So what’s going on?  Why aren’t the books displayed in the children’s area books with appealing covers, titles, or content?  Why aren’t the books on display as relevant as the books in the adult department?

For a time, I thought perhaps workers were simply grabbing books at random and displaying them without thought.  This may be particularly true if the workers putting books on display are not the children’s librarians, but part-time shelvers who  have no interest in or knowledge of children’s books.  But, still, it seemed odd that the workers would not realize a beat-up cover with a tasteless design or lack of vibrant colors would not exactly entice the average child to pick it up.  Definitely not in the renaissance of the children’s graphic novel!  Children know good, appealing design when they see it.  They know they want to pick up something colorful and somewhat recent-looking.

I think sometimes workers really do pull books at random and they really do not care if the book is thirty years old with yellowing pages and a faded cover.  However, over time, I began to notice more of a definite trend happening in the books on display.  Many of the books being chosen are old on purpose because the workers are choosing classics or books they somehow see as worthy–old award winners, old school list titles, old favorites.  The librarians are saying, “These are the types of books we think you ought to be checking out.” And so the YA section displays show Aristotle, Homer,and Jane Austen, while the children’s section proudly promote titles such as Caddie Woodlawn and Tom Sawyer.  The graphic novel section, meanwhile, almost always has an educational title on display, like “Oceans Explained in Comic Form!”–not something as good as the Nathan Hale Tales.  Popular and recently-published titles are usually missing.

Now, there is nothing wrong with classics; I happen to love reading them myself and I loved reading them even as a child.  I have read many of the older titles being displayed regularly at the library.  I do have to wonder, however, if the libraries I am familiar with are using the displays to their advantage.  Library displays are basically a form of advertising, a way to get patrons to see what new or interesting titles the library has, a way to get overlooked books noticed, a way to encourage patrons to “impulse check out” an extra book.  But, to advertise effectively, one has to know the market.  The adult displays do this very well because they connect with readers on topics they are already thinking about–entertaining for the holidays, eating healthy for the new year, starting that new home project.  The children’s displays fail (I know because the books on display never change, meaning patrons never check them out) because they ignore what children today are actually reading and actually like, and try instead to encourage the children to read something the workers perceive as “good for them.”

The fundamental difference between the adult displays and the children’s displays is that the adult displays respect their readers and trust them, while the children’s displays (perhaps unintentionally or unconsciously) have taken on a sort of didactic role.  But readers who like classics do not need Jane Austen or Homer or advertised to them, and readers who do not like classics are not going to pick up Homer on a whim. The workers assumed that simply placing any book on a display stand would move it to check out, but the results indicate that their choices are not resonating with many readers.

The workers would create more effective displays if they could think thematically like the adult displays, focusing on relevant issues like a new school year, friends, video games, etc, or choosing books that might appeal to fans of Rick Riordan, Jeff Kinney, or other popular authors.  It would also help if they would pull a mix of recent and older books that are worthy because they are well-written or thought-provoking or relevant to the community–not just because the librarian remembers reading that book when they were growing up.   Finally, the older books should probably have updated covers that will be appealing and eye-catching in the age of Instagram–not a cover that says, “Yes, I am from the 1980s.”

I love older books.  I really do.  But the purpose of library displays is not to convince children that they really ought to be reading more classics and award winners.  The purpose is to draw attention to exciting or interesting resources the library has, some of which patrons may have overlooked.  The libraries I’ve seen could create more effective displays if the workers would feature a mix of old and new books that would appeal to the types of readers coming into the library, rather than the types of readers they apparently wish they had.

How does your library display books?  What would your ideal display look like?

17 thoughts on “What Kinds of Books Should Libraries Display?

  1. Briana | Pages Unbound says:

    At my previous library, if it wasn’t a dedicated display, the shelvers were indeed left to their own devices to display whatever they wanted. Most of the display space was in the “new book” section anyway, so it was harder to get grimy and falling apart books on display there, but the choices were often random; there might be Christmas books in June, two copies of the same picture book, a book that was on display for literally months because clearly no one was checking it out, etc. Some people put some thought into what was displayed, and there was actually a whole meeting on picking books to display that would actually increase circulation (no gross books, no wrong season books, no books–more in nonfiction, I guess–that just had a plan blue cover with nothing on it). However, I totally did see people shelving books who, for instance, would grab a random handful of new picture books and plop them on display, no matter what they were.

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  2. devouringbooks2017 says:

    Really interesting post. Got me thinking about our children’s display at the bookstore I work in. Recently I went through and reorganized the entire section (it’s always a mess) and I knew we had an event coming up for toddlers. We had a whole display shelf that wasnt being used and I took out a ton of toddler friendly books that looked good to me and faced them out before the event. After the event I realized that most of the books I had displayed were gone! Which made me so happy because normally we dont sell a ton of books at these events but this time we did. Children’s gets ignored a lot at least in my store. Sure, I look back and thought “oh I read this as a kid” and wanted to display older titles, but I also know that times have changed so I took that into account when changing the display.

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    • Krysta says:

      Wow! That’s so amazing! I hope you get recognition for your amazing display skills!

      I often like a mix of older and newer titles, so you get that, “Oh! I remember loving that!” reaction for books you may not have thought about for a long time, but maybe want to return to or share with a younger reader. But also that, “Hm, I’ve never heard of this, but it looks awesome,” reaction.

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      • devouringbooks2017 says:

        Lol no recognition, I am just happy it worked because we hardly utilize that area the way we should.

        I feel like just cause I loved something years ago doesn’t mean it’s still relevant. Times have changed. Books have better designs now a days than some old favorites. I think its important the person doing the display doesn’t just think about themselves

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  3. ashley says:

    New picture books are always displayed on the top of the shelves with a few seasonal ones mixed in. New middle-grade are displayed on a table like a shelf. If there’s space at the end of the middle-grade shelves some older but recent titles might be displayed to increase circulation.

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  4. whiskeyonmykindle says:

    I agree with this completely. Whenever I visit local libraries now, I’m always so underwhelmed by the choices they have and what they are putting to the forefront. I know I should use my local library more but it’s hard when it feels so uninspired. Everything is super outdated or their textbooks or non-fiction. They just don’t feel like they have books for me.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, most libraries seem to have outdated nonfiction, but I get it because children’s nonfiction books are super pricey at least because they usually don’t get sold to the general public. On the other hand, I don’t think many children will pick up a grimy, old-looking book.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Sammie @ The Writerly Way says:

    man, this is one thing I wish our library did! We don’t have displays at all. we have some endcaps and stands for new arrivals, but that’s it. =/ I would LOVE to do rotating displays, honestly. I’ve started doing that in juvenile and YA, and I’ve noticed an uptick in the books I display actually getting checked out, which is exciting.

    I always wonder how books are pulled, too, and now that I’m, in fact, the one pulling books here, I can actually say how it’s done here, at least! I try to keep an eye out for the more popular series, and I display those on the shelves. No big secret there. I do, however, also pull lesser-known books that are along similar lines that haven’t gotten as much attention at our particular library, and that’s been somewhat successful with actually getting the books checked out. And if no one takes them after a couple weeks, I change the display.

    I think it’s nice if kids want to read classics (we actually, personally, have a classics area), but goodness knows I didn’t when I was a kid, either! Our patron base doesn’t tend to read a ton of classics, so that would for sure bomb here.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I think changing out books that aren’t moving is key, which is what I tried to do when I was a page. I get some other person shelving thought “Sex Questions Teens Are Afraid to Ask” (or whatever it was called) was important and wanted to give it its moment, but it sat on the shelve FOREVER until I took it off display. (Also it was with the adult “new” books, so not somewhere teens would necessarily see it?) I tried to display things that would move, more than things I thought had a good message or whatever.

      Classics are hard, but I think a lot of them are also old and paperbacks. A beautiful hardcover might be eye-catching on display.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sammie @ The Writerly Way says:

        So true on classics! We got in several reeeeally nice classics, and they were put on display as new arrivals, and they were checked out quite a bit. Including a gorgeous illustrated version of Dante’s Inferno. Sometimes it really is just about how you package a story lol.

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  6. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    That’s a real shame that more care isn’t taken to put books children will actually read on display! I do think it makes a huge difference whether the covers are appealing (and classics will always fly off the shelves anyway).

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