30 Days of Innovation #4: Revamp Your Shelving

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!

But why?

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.

About mk Eagle

I’m the librarian at Holliston High School, a bit west of Boston. In my spare time I advise my school’s yearbook and Gay Straight Alliance, write about food, and root for the Red Sox.

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10 Comments

  1. This post is hitting me at a great time. Given the way our faculty assigns things, having American and English authors separated in the 800’s has proved problematic when students are sent to find a play or book of poetry that interests them.

    My question is- how do you adjust the catalog to reflect neighborhood grouping?

  2. Dawn, all of the 800s books I’m moving around are also getting new call numbers: LIT [Author’s Last Name]. There will be shelf labels for all the heavy hitters with lots of books (Steinbeck, Faulkner, Dickinson, etc) and authors/poets with only one or two titles will get shelved alphabetically by their last name in “Other Authors” and “Other Poets” sections, along with things like anthologies/multi-author works.

    Some catalogs also also allow you to make Location or Physical Location a prominent field in the OPAC, so you could have “American Authors” (or just “Authors”) be its own location (as opposed to locations all looking like “800-899 Literature”).

  3. Thank you for pointing me in the right direction. I’ve made changes in our fiction section that are similar, but have felt a bit overwhelmed at tackling the nonfiction section. Our 800’s are the most used area however and in desperate need of some attention. Is it sacrilege to have American and English authors side-by-side?

  4. Great post!
    Here’s my question…we’re trying to make more room for our Middle School space by moving our video collection. One thought is to inter-shelve our DVDs in with our books on the same topics. This is NOT something bookstores normally do, and I’m a little leary myself on this idea, but I’d love your (or others’) thoughts on this. Do you think this would make ALL the materials more accessible and usable? Is there another way to display videos that could work better?

  5. Unless your teachers are giving out assignments specific to American/English authors, or your students are coming down looking for those categories by name, I don’t see why interfiling the two would be sacrilege. It’s all about how your teens want to navigate the library.

    Kate, for now I haven’t interfiled multimedia in with print books because my students who are looking for multimedia are asking for it very specifically–do you have the audiobook for Catcher in the Rye? or Where are your books on tape? (Interestingly, despite the fact that we have far more books on CD than books on cassette, students still often ask for “tapes.”) Laura Pearle made a great argument for interfiling media a couple of years ago at the YALSA Institute, and I always recommend checking out her slides to anyone interested in this topic.

  6. I’m loving this Innovation Series. I’ve just taken over a new Children’s/YA Collection that have evolved over time into a bit of a mess. I am definitely going to need to do some revamping and thinking creatively about shelving over the summer. You mentioned you’re doing genre stickers for SciFi-Fantasy… are you doing stickers for any other genres? The Fiction books in my collection are currently located separately instead of using stickers and I definitely want to integrate them all over the summer and sticker the most popular genres.

  7. I’ve labeled all the fiction I could with genre stickers- Fantasy, SciFi, Sports, Historical- I wish someone would make Paranormal and Dystopian labels. I might have to make my own. I also separated Classics into their own section. That has helped the kids find what they like, and me when I’m trying to locate a genre title.

  8. I started with sci fi/fantasy because we have Science Fiction as an English class and the teachers require independent reading, so I’m constantly getting students asking where those books are. I like stickers because you can avoid some of the angst of relocating genres–unless you have two copies of something it can’t be in two places at once, but a spine can usually accommodate more than one sticker. Going through your fiction collection to see where you’d categorize things is also a great weeding tactic.

  9. Thanks for this post. I organized my library by subject last summer and haven’t looked back. Now I’m on a mission to tell everyone how much I love it. If anyone is interested I’ve written about it on my blog Eliterate Librarian.

  10. On the labeling note, I haven’t really gotten on this train though I can definitely see its benefits. I DO, however; put red paper tape with the word “NEW” on it on all items I purchase in a school year. The label stays on even after the book is off display and shelved with the rest. I find this helps me find the NEW books when I remember we added something and am scanning shelves for something, and hope that users see the NEW tape as a way to get interested in what we add. Then at the end of the year, I take all the tape off so I can reuse it again next year.

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