As I write this, I’m more or less barricaded by book carts at my desk. The culprit? A reorganization project in the literature section, started by my term three student intern. Term four began on Monday, which means if I want the project finished, I’m actually going to have to do some work myself. The goal of the project? To reorganize much of the 800s so that students can easily walk to the stacks and find both works by a particular author or poet and criticism on that same author or poet, all in the same place.
There’s been much debate on my state organization’s listserv about “neighborhood” shelving (sometimes also called “bookstore” organization) versus Dewey or Library of Congress. Staunch DDC and LOC defenders insist we must prepare teens for academic libraries and teach them how to use catalogs efficiently. Where’s the authority control in a neighborhood system? Who determines the genres? What about books that might arguably “belong” in more than one place? What happens to a new librarian who inherits inscrutable rules and neighborhoods?
And, more importantly, who cares?
When I was in college, my favorite professor used to recommend to his students that we search Amazon first when we were exploring topics. Do a search on Amazon first, he’d say, to find out what’s out there, then look for individual titles on the university’s library catalog. He insisted that Amazon was better at subject searching, and he was right. And not to brag or anything, but we’re talking about one of the most prestigious library systems in the world.
Much like wandering into a catalog that isn’t searching the way a user is thinking, walking into stacks that aren’t organized intuitively–no matter how much helpful the signage–can be extremely frustrating. I upgraded my automation system this year and I think the catalog is greatly improved–much more visual, easy to customize, an actual OPAC option rather than a strictly in-house catalog–but students still have to navigate to the catalog (which usually means logging into one of the library computers, a task sadly on par in length and excitement with watching paint dry).
And that’s not what they want to do.
They want to either walk right into the stacks and find what they’re looking for, or ask me “Where are the…?” and get a simple answer. Tsk, tsk! Bad, lazy students! Must learn boolean operators! Must be trained to search by author or subject! Must understand how cutters work to find a book on the shelf!
Why, when virtually every other search model–from Google to Netflix to the layout of most commercial stores–is designed to cater to the way a user wants to search (and even improve its own algorithms or methods to better answer user queries), do libraries keep insisting that users should learn our language? Why is our organization better than the one our teens imagine?
To be clear, I’m not going to stop doing catalog instruction, or teaching my students search strategies for everything from Google to our (often arcane) databases. I want them to be savvy searchers. My job is to help them be efficient and innovative information consumers. But I also want to teach them that what they want matters, that they shape the world around them by the way they interact with it, that companies and colleges and online services are all competing to understand them better.
So I’m going to work on my barricade of book carts, and keep adding green dots to the spines of science fiction and fantasy titles, and work on displays and signage that are better descriptors and signposts for the shelves beneath them. Because I want my students to know the library is their library, not just mine.