Lately I’ve been spending quite a lot of time shelving books in a couple of public library branches. This has given me plenty of opportunity for musing on all sorts of things, but my interest has been particularly caught by how the fiction books are catalogued and shelved.
As far as I can work out, in the New York Public Library system the printed fiction is subdivided into the following categories: general fiction, sci-fi, romance, mystery, classics, western, urban, paperbacks, large print and new books. Mostly these are shelved separately, with the following exception: in some branches the last three categories are shelved alphabetically regardless of genre, in others the genres (or some of them) are split out.
This means that if you’re looking for the latest James Patterson novel you would potentially have to visit three or four different areas of shelving to see if your branch had a copy in stock. Things are further complicated by the fact that titles are sometimes given different labels, depending on their content – yesterday I shelved two copies of the same book, one marked romance and the other mystery, and from my brief examination of the contents both genres were equally admissable .
I do appreciate that browsing is somewhat easier when books are separated by genre, at least if you’re the sort of person who prefers to read a particular sort of novel. However, I’ve also observed readers heading directly for ‘their’ section of the shelves and apparently failing to notice that not only are there heaps of other great books out there, but that other titles in their preferred genre can be found elsewhere in the building. It all seems rather limiting.
That said, I can’t suggest a better way to handle it. My own preference is probably for all fiction to be shelved in a single sequence, as I have wide and eclectic reading tastes, but in truth I find browsing a real chore. The technicolour book covers distract me, and I usually find myself running back to old friends, or retreating to the more predictable order of non-fiction (I have the same problem in bookshops too). In fact my favourite fiction section is the new books one, for its abbreviated overview of the collection, and I’ve found several interesting titles there this year.
Much as I vastly prefer shopping for books online, so I tend to make much more use of the NYPL’s online catalogue, and order books to my local branch from the comfort of my sofa. Their system seems to make browsing at least as easy as I find it in the physical world, and whilst I feel a little sad not to be amongst the books themselves (I do like handling books*), it’s just so much easier to manage in the virtual space.
But maybe that’s just me? Not being a cataloguer myself, and having worked only with non-fiction collections since 2007, I’d be really interested to hear other thoughts and experiences of this sort of thing.
*This notwithstanding, in my perfect world all books would be the same size and library shelving would be done by robots.
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