Architecture of genre

If you have participated in any kind of professional learning event in the last couple of years, there is a good chance you would have encountered the ‘genre’ presentation. Genre is a hot topic in school libraries, and who doesn’t like to hear the good news stories we often hear in these presentations? Children are reading because they want to, and it is now easier to find books they like in the library. Out-dated non-fiction collections are being weeded as library spaces are transformed into fictionfriendly environments replete with room to browse, display-focused shelving, and innovative furniture.

I attended the SLANZA conference in Christchurch in September, wanting to bring sobriety and a serious tone to the discussion. Genre is not just a buzzword; curriculum actually requires students to recognise and distinguish the language features and conventions within genres. Curriculum even asks students to explore genre reading preferences in preparation for a lifetime of reading.

But the sobriety was not all mine. There was another presentation by Linley Earnshaw that provided an excellent case study about implementing genre at a school in Christchurch, New Zealand. Earnshaw’s paper focused on the practical considerations and associated risks involved with genre projects. It was a well-thought-out and cautionary tale that also managed to foreground the warrant for the genre approach.

My cautionary tale was a little more theoretical, in part driven by my own professional learning in the area of enterprise architecture. In a nutshell, deciding to organise your fiction collection by genre will be a significant business impact. Like any business decision, changing the fundamental principle by which you organise your collection will present a risk, although I would suggest that organising fiction by genre should at least be considered. If you are considering a new genre solution, it is worth approaching the task with a framework. I am calling it an architecture framework because libraries, like other enterprises where information and technology are core offerings, face similar challenges.

Architecture frameworks assume that any business can be thought of as comprising four or five conceptual layers, depending on the flavour of your architecture model. A fairly typical stack of layers looks like this:

  • Business
  • Data
  • Applications
  • Technology

Your library already contains all of these layers. Firstly, your library is a business. It provides services to stakeholders: students, teachers and parents. You know these stakeholders and what they want because you are in constant communication with them: they provide feedback, you may ask them to participate in surveys, and, of course, they drive circulation.

But how do you know what is circulating? And how do they know what is available? Are stakeholders getting the services that they need? You can analyse these problems, and decide what to do about them, if you have data. This is where your specialties lie: librarians are data specialists. Your library represents a thoughtfully, thoroughly described and classified collection of resources. Catalogue records help stakeholders access resources, and they assist librarians and library managers to identify what is being used and what needs to be acquired – and removed.

Your data is largely inaccessible without applications that store and manage the data, and hopefully present it as meaningful information for you and your stakeholders. ‘Application’ is often used synonymously with ‘software’, and of course software is absolutely necessary in libraries as an interface for staff and users. But a bookshelf is an application too. Think of a shelf as an interface between your stakeholder and the data elements within a resource. Shelves allow classification according to some convention, whether it is alphabetically, by subject, or by fiction genre. Shelves that support cover displays allow significant access points (title, author, cover image) to be readily available to stakeholders.

Finally, there is a technology layer. In the context of library management systems, the technology might be the server architecture, operating system, or the programming languages used to write the application software. For shelving, that would include things like materials and manufacturing processes.

I recommend that genre projects are approached with this framework in mind, but I am not going to talk about the full stack here – the technology layer is important, but out of reach for many professionals. But there is a risk in jumping in at the application level.

Innovative shelving presents itself as a seductive solution for better access to resources and fiction collections. Similarly, library system software is always improving and has the capacity to present and foreground fiction collections to users in new faceted ways.

But are these solutions in search of a requirement? Perhaps. We can’t really know what stakeholders require without data. A few questions to ask when considering implementing genre classification in your library include:

  • How is genre encoded in your collection data? Is there any consistency?
  • Are controlled vocabularies used? Are they flexible enough to accommodate local variations or emerging trends? What are those trends?
  • Do we know what genres our users expect, can identify with, or understand?
  • What about collection management – do we need a common language with which to report gaps and acquisition priorities?

Planning genre in your library should be done with business requirements at the front of your mind. Firstly, work out what is going to accommodate your library users’ needs and make your library easier to run. The second step considers what data is available to make the necessary business decisions to provide improved services. In library collections, this includes bibliographic and authority data, but other sources could aid decision making. Once you have decided that you have a good fit between your business and data architecture, you may have the right foundations to specify and invest in new or upgraded applications like software and shelving.

SCIS needs to follow this pattern too. SCIS does a lot of work in authorities management so that a common language around fiction genres can be referenced. SCIS genre terms can be used ‘as is’, or as the basis of a mapping to locally preferred approaches to organising, filtering or foregrounding fiction works. The SCIS standards committee is actively engaged in schools, education agencies, and school library associations with a view to observing trends in fiction cataloguing, storage and retrieval. SCIS genre headings have been informed by many years of involvement within the industry. For the same reason, they are not set in stone. As preferences for genre access evolve, SCIS will be providing solutions in the data layer while watching developments in schools.

Les Kneebone

Metadata Services Manager

Education Services Australia