Taking the guesswork out of genre

By Brendan Eichholzer

Brendan Eichholzer looks at different ways of shelving fiction and genre in school libraries, demonstrating how SCIS works to create an accessible library catalogue where every physical item has a distinct and logical place.

School libraries are not just designed for accessing curriculum material; they are also a playground for young minds. Students who discover the joys of reading for pleasure are well positioned for enhanced literacy, language acquisition, cultural understanding, and social skills (Clark and Rumbold, 2006). The school library is a vital part of this discovery process. The availability and accessibility of fiction in school libraries encourages students to read. This increases their literary skills while expanding their imagination. The question arises, how can this best be achieved?

While there is no question that creating an independently accessible shelving system–one that exposes students to as broad a range of fiction as possible–is ideal, there is increasing contention about how best to achieve this. In a bookstore, children's titles are usually found under generic 'children' or 'young adult' sections while adult fiction is shelved by genre. Some librarians believe that the tried-and-true system of shelving alphabetically by author surname is the best way to shelve fiction; others believe that by genre shelving they can encourage students to read more. A third group prefer a middle ground, where author arrangement and genre stickers combine to promote exposure to different titles as well as independent access.

It is our job at SCIS to ensure we meet the needs of school librarians in creating an easily accessible library catalogue, where every physical item has a distinct and logical home. In an attempt to do so, we have been working on a multi-fold approach to the issue of fiction shelving. By giving you the tools required to shelve fiction in your school library in a way that best suits you, we enable you to decide the ideal course of action for your school. For this purpose we have developed a system that facilitates traditional shelving methods while also catering to alternative arrangements.

Above all else, any system used for shelving fiction must be based around avoiding chaos. Knowing where each book lives is a key component of the job description. Ideally a standardised approach would be achieved; however currently there are multiple systems being used in libraries for shelving fiction.

Books labelled with genre stickers to make it easier for readers to identify genre on library shelves.

Genre identifiers in use

Traditionally in school libraries fiction books are given a call number beginning with 'F' and followed by the first three letters of the author's surname. These books are then shelved separately to non-fiction and ordered alphabetically by the author's surname. This system allows students to quickly and easily find books by authors they know, but it can be difficult for students to source titles similar to those they already enjoy without prior knowledge or assistance. It does encourage students to expand their horizons by placing different titles in front of them that they may not otherwise discover using another shelving system. However, problems may arise, if all a student knows is that they want to read a book about knights, for example. They would need to go to the catalogue, carry out a subject search for the term 'Knights - Fiction', and filter the results. This level of work required to find a title may be off putting to students, but it is a great learning opportunity. As this is the same system they would use to find non-fiction titles, it is a good way to teach students about how to look up material in a library, a skill that will last a lifetime.

Another option is to shelve fiction under the traditional system, while also including genre identifiers. By placing stickers on the spines of fiction titles next to the call number, it allows students to easily identify which genres they are consuming and enables them to find other books in a similar vein. This removes some of the requirement of looking up the catalogue and may make the idea of browsing for reading material more enticing. If a student wants a book about dragons, they can simply go to the shelves and look for the fantasy stickers and know that they will be able to find what they are looking for.

An alternative to these is to break with library tradition and shelve fiction similar to the way adult fiction is shelved in bookstores: by genre. This allows for students to quickly and autonomously find similar titles to ones they know that they enjoy. Proponents of this system claim that it encourages students to read more voraciously, as they know what they like and where to find it. It allows for a high level of individual accessibility but comes at the cost of using the opportunity to teach any relevant library skills. Even if a student knows how to find a genre book in the catalogue, that skill may not translate onto the non-fiction section. Issues also arise here in defining genres. How specific should these be, and what happens to titles that cross the boundaries?

Assigning an item to a single genre is one of the many difficulties associated with genre shelving. It is important that the same genre is used for a title across libraries. While many titles can be considered to cross genres, genre shelving only allows for a title to be shelved in one genre area, unless the library invests in multiple copies.

It is our job at SCIS to ensure we meet the needs of school librarians in creating an easily accessible library catalogue, where every physical item has a distinct and logical home. In an attempt to do so, we have been working on a multi-fold approach to the issue of fiction shelving.

SCIS assists those who wish to identify their fiction titles with genres by adding genre headings to catalogue records for works of fiction. Selection of the appropriate genre is determined by our cataloguers through a series of guidelines. The rationale behind these decisions can be seen in the scope notes attached to each heading. A brief overview of these genre headings has been recently updated and can be found in the Guidelines to using SCIS Subject Headings (2015, p6).

In collaboration with Syba Signs, SCIS has been working to ensure that the genre headings we produce are relevant to the libraries that use them. Syba Signs have developed a series of stickers designed to be fixed to the spines of books to indicate their genre. These stickers are indicative of the genre covered; for example, an alien for science fiction or a tank for war stories. These stickers cover most of the genre headings found in school libraries, including Australian and New Zealand specific stories.

Changing the way something is done is often time consuming and costly, and the way that you choose to shelve fiction in your library is no exception to this. All of the above techniques have pros and cons, and it can be difficult to decide which would be best to encourage positive reading habits in your students. As all of these options promote reading in different ways, the question becomes, which is the most beneficial for your library? Currently there is no hard and fast answer. What are other schools in your area doing? What system have your students come from and what system will be used in libraries they will use In the future? It is also vital to decide if the value of any change outweighs the time and cost requirements associated with altering how you currently shelve fiction in your library.

There are advantages for library staff in using a defined set of genres that are consistent across the school library community. By using the options outlined above, we hope to make it easier for you to create and promote an accessible fiction section in your library. Encouraging students to read voraciously and independently gives them skills for life and a passion for the written word. In the end, it is up to them to become interested, all you can do is set up your library in a way that appeals.

If you have any suggestions on how we can help to create a better set of genre headings for your students, please contact us at [email protected] and let us know how we can improve our services to you and your students.


Image credits

  • Genre identifiers in use. Photography by Laura Armstrong. CC-BY-NC-SA.
Brendan Eichholzer

Brendan Eichholzer

Project Administrator

Education Services Australia