Genrify your Catalog, not your Collection!

I still recall with a shudder the second school library I worked at in NYC: a small, cramped space that needed to be weeded, a large circulation desk taking up valuable real estate in a 500 square-foot room, and worst of all, a collection organized by category like a bookstore. And it wasn’t in any logical order. The music section was not by the arts but by science. The fairytales were separate from the folktales. The catalog was fine – the books were listed by their correct call numbers; they weren’t placed on the shelves that way.

The result was a hard time finding books for students when they wanted them and months of work reorganizing the collection to be searchable and accessible. Ugh.

The problem wasn’t the intention of my predecessor; she arranged the books according to a system that made sense to her. But the result was the problem because it made sense only to her.

Why Genrifying Your Collection Makes It Harder to Find Things

And therein is the fault with genrifying our libraries on the shelves; a title one person might classify as a mystery might be considered romance to another. Or what if it’s both? Or both and also dystopian? You can add different tags if the book is in your library catalog. The book probably has multiple subject listings. Students and teachers have various search pathways: keyword, subject, title, and an advanced Boolean search. But it only has one location on the shelf.

Why We Discourage Genrification in NYC

It’s hard to find anything consistent in education in this country, let alone in a colossal district like New York. I recently met a school librarian from Sweden who said that every school in her country has the same curriculum, funding, and pedagogy. Alas, schools in NYC can buy different curriculums, funding varies, and initiatives change every time there’s a new Chancellor. But at least our school libraries are organized by the Dewey Decimal System like our public library partners. No matter what library you visit, a book on cats is under 636.

Unless people have taken it upon themselves to genrify…

Please don’t.

Teach students to find books they want

Students need to have an informational, organizational structure that they can learn and understand. We can’t unpack the complex algorithms underlying the Internet and social media. Still, we can give learners the knowledge to empower themselves to find books on the shelves they want to read. And we can teach them searching strategies to locate books and series in our library catalogs like Boolean, related terms, subject v. keyword, and viewing curated lists and tags.

Genrify your catalog

So why not help students locate books they want with helpful tags that aren’t listed in the MARC record? Add multiple tags if the system allows it. Genrify your catalog, not your collection. It’s much easier to batch process a change in a library catalog than to relabel, reorganize, and reclassify books on the shelf. Not to mention updating specs with your vendors, explaining your system to someone else when you leave, and so on. Add stickers to books if you must, but keep them where students, teachers, parents, and your fellow librarians can find them!


Author: Leanne Ellis

I am a School Library Coordinator for the New York City Department of Education’s Department of Library Services. I plan and deliver workshops, provide on-site instructional and program support to school librarians, coordinate programs, administer grants, and am program coordinator for MyLibraryNYC, a program administered with our three public library systems.

Categories: Collection Development, Uncategorized

13 replies

  1. I could not agree more.

  2. I agree with this post…mostly. If we are, indeed, teaching students how to properly utilize the library catalog, in theory, they should be able to find the book they need–regardless of its placement. Do I think school libraries should be organized like a bookstore, no. Did I think that at one point, yes. However, I do think the Dewey Decimal System does need to be dismantled a bit; particularly in the 300s. I don’t think it is necessary for every book in every library to be classified under the same Dewey number because if students/ patrons can use the catalog, they will be able to find the book they’re looking for. Here’s an example: In the New York Public Library “How Barack Obama won: a state-by-state guide to the historic 2008 presidential election” is located in 324.973, social science but in my school library, the same book is located 973.932–the presidency of Brack Obama. Moving a book such as this to the 900s helps to break the Dewey bias because books about President Obama belong in the 973’s along with the other presidents, no? In short, as long as we, as librarians, are sublocating and adding our genre tags in the catalog, students and patrons should be able to find the resources they’re looking for.

  3. As a retired elementary librarian, I agree completely!!!

  4. Very good points! Yet, as an elementary librarian, a fully genrified library is very tempting. First, I struggle with finding the time to teach my students how to properly use the online catalog. I do as much as I can with the time I have. Second, staffing shortages make it very difficult to help students properly utilize a library. I’ve often thought to myself that if my nonfiction books were in browsing bins by category, my 1st and 2nd graders could more easily find that snake book they so desperately want. Do I have good signage? Yes. Am I constantly trying to improve my signage? Yes. But it is not very practical for me to tell a student who has not learned decimals yet to go try to find the 597.96 books while I’m frantically trying to check out an entire class in 30 minutes because I have no support staff to help me. So while I may now lean in opposition to genrifying libraries for older students, I’m still on the fence when it comes to elementary. What is my main goal? To teach a student how to use a library or to inspire a student to read? I want it to be both.

  5. Yes! Quality cataloging means so much, you can utilize local subject tags too.

  6. I also agree with sticking with Dewey. However, I have made small laminated pictorial signs to help my younger students locate the nonfiction books they are seeking; a picture of dinosaurs on the end of the 567.9 shelf, a shark picture by the 597 + shark books, etc.

  7. In my elementary school, I often found that students and teachers alike saw Dewey as one more thing to cram into the day, and not a high priority thing at that. Once I introduced the idea of Dewey as code to be decoded, students and teachers both took more interest. Never, of course, as much as we would like, but now it’s not just some weird thing Mrs. Wilson thinks is important, but something they can approach systematically.

    I totally agree that updating our catalog records to record multiple overlapping genres is the way to go. It does take a lot of planning and implementation, but less than handling every item in the library and adding labels until the spine can no longer be deciphered.

  8. Great article! I’m currently doing this with the collections feature in Destiny in the hope that students will browse the library catalog like Netflix. Here’s to hope!

  9. While I agree with this in principle, I must point out that you are conflating “genre” with “subject.” Only fiction has genre — mystery, science fiction, fantasy, realistic, historical, etc.. Fiction is generally shelved by author’s last name for all of the reasons you mention, rather than by genre. In children’s and school libraries, it may first be categorized according to age/reading level — Easy/Picture books, chapter books, juvenile — for obvious reasons.

    Non-fiction has subject. DDC organizes non-fiction by subject area (yes, fiction can be classed in 800s, but that’s still by its subject of “belles lettres”). Too many librarians do not understand this simple fact, but it is what prevents music from being shelved with the science books. Also, DDC organizes materials in order of increasing specificity, so the general works on an area are shelved first (100, 200, etc.), then those that address broad categories within the topic (110, 210, etc.), then more and more specific.

  10. For me, it always comes down to whatever makes it easiest for students to find books that they want to read. I did a huge reorganization of my high school library last June ( I wrote about it for KQ–Genrefying the High School Library) and have found that this year, students are checking out more books as a result. I found that separating the young adult fiction books in categories like fantasy, sci fi, dystopian, and general was helpful to the students and me when searching for the type of book they know they’re interested in. Having a section solely for adult fiction helped my stronger readers and staff members find what they wanted. I also put the more modern nonfiction books in their own section, still using the DDC, but this way they are more attractive to students and teachers. I do think it’s important for teens to learn organized structures but from my experience, they are too distracted to care about learning the DDC so I have to focus on getting them to read (another struggle!).

  11. I could not agree more!

  12. I’ve worked in two different public libraries, one of them used the genrefication system for both fiction and nonfiction and one of them doesn’t genrefy anything. The library that used genrefication had independent patrons who were able to find books on their own, and staff members who could help without memorizing the entire Dewey decimal system. Every section from children’s to adult was categorized with a label (like Animals, Crafts, etc.) and then Dewey labelled from there. The nonfiction was always circulating, and fiction could easily be found, especially for teens.

    In my current library, there is no nonfiction that circulates, except perhaps for children’s. When kids want to find a nonfiction book, staff must Google the appropriate Dewey numbers (because none of us were taught them, even in my MLS) and then help the child find the book by number. Teens and adults are not interested in learning Dewey; they simply want to know where certain categories can be found. Other patrons are looking for romance books or science fiction books specifically, but there is no way to know which books are what. Our cataloging system doesn’t allow for tags or any extra categorization, so everything we do in terms of genre must be done by hand. I have inventoried my entire Teen section on my own just for reader’s advisory.

    I agree that teaching Dewey is still important for the places where it is used. But in my experience, categorizing books helps people gain independence and make for less work for library staff who need the time for other projects.

  13. I agree for nonfiction but for fiction it really helps to genrify because it allows for easier browsing. Someone walk into a library and sees hundreds of books but they must rely on a computer to list out the types of books they want? If you search a catalog under a genre, you will get a first page sorted by whatever criteria: pub date, “relevance,” etc. You’re immediately limiting options and I don’t know anyone that wants to scroll through page after page of potentially incomplete descriptions. Also, cataloging is not a perfect science so relying on only genres or subject headings is just not reliable in my experience.

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