Getting Lost in LibraryLand

I got lost getting to work yesterday. It was my first ever shift at this particular branch and even though I gave myself an hour to get there, I found myself dismally lost, rushing through the shopping mall where the library is located. I walked into 4 shops to asked staff for directions and they all were surprised and had no idea that there was a library in the mall. I asked 2 separate people sitting reading (my thought being that “hey -they read. They’ll know where the library is”) and they too were surprised and did not know of the library’s existence. At this point I was not only stressed but I was also despairing of the kind of people that go to a jam packed mall (it had airconditioning on a 38C/100.5F day). I called my colleagues who were very understanding and suggested I asked for directions to McDonalds which is right next to the library. I turned to the person walking past me, asked for where the Maccas was, and of course, they knew. Not even a few minutes later I was at work. Flustered due to the heat and my run around but also saddened by the lack of people who were even aware of the library’s existence.

I can’t really blame the people walking in the mall. For such an important institution (well, important to some of the population), libraries rarely have advertising budgets for their whole services. Most libraries do a fair job in promoting events and in marketing aspects of their services but as a whole, libraries don’t have some big blockbuster ad campaign on buses, in the media etc. How can they, if you look towards the dystopian future of libraries in England where 441 libraries have been closed in the last 5 years with another 149 earmarked for closure, I think librarians everywhere are squeamish in looking over their shoulder and spending money on services and collections that their patrons need rather than on some expensive ad campaign.

Once I found the library, my lovely colleagues told me that EVERYONE’s first shift at that branch results in a stressed out Lost episode. And then, I got to do my favourite thing – a first shift at a library explore! I have worked at this particular library network for over two years and in this time I have browsed the catalogue many times, reserving and transferring materials from this new (to me) branch many times. But, as many digital information designers will let you know, there is a keen difference in the way that we search for books on the shelves and books in a physical library.

Library Haul
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Alphabet vs Genre

As a child, I remember progressing from the picture books to the chapter books at my local children’s library, The Warren in Marrickville. Upon my progression to the Junior Fiction section, disorganised child that I was, I made the decision to delve into the collection at the beginning. At A. And I would progress until I read every book in this, albeit tiny, branch library. I read Alcott’s Little Women, Brink’s Baby Island, Brown’s Flat Stanley, Cleary’s Henry Huggins and Ramona the Pest and as you could imagine the list goes on and on all the way to Zindel’s The Pigman. (As an aside, I spent about a year at E and F having hit the mother lode with Elizabeth Enright, Eleanor Estes, Edward Eager and Eleanor Farjeon). I went on to use the same method when I matured from the children’s library and I moved up two flights of stairs to the then Adult Library at Marrickville Town Hall under the beautiful stained glass ceiling.

Once again, I started at A and progressed slowly through the collection. Serendipity ruled for me. And browsing shelves alphabetically, whether in a bookshop or a library was great because, unlike Dewey, it was simple and unbiased. I just read whatever caught my fancy. Steven King, Leon Uris, Wilbur Smith, Isabelle Allende, Penny Jordan, Carole Mortimer all interfiled in the one big area. Horror, literature, romance, fantasy all there. Despite this, I still discovered my favourite genre, I still found my favourite romance authors. This was objective shelving, for while the library may not pass judgements on different genres, people sometimes do, and link a writer’s, and even reader’s quality, to their preferred genre.

Over the last 10 years, libraries have seen a shift in the layout of their spaces and the way people access their shelves. There is a lot more display space, bookshop layout is aspired towards, and this is all very positive as it makes libraries much more attractive and appealing places to their members. But I am ambivalent about the reorginisation of books according to the genre that they fall in. Unlike retailers, libraries are not about profit margins but about unbiased access to information and cultural materials. Selection may be unbiased but we are seeing a move towards subjective organisation.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of genre fiction. Over the last 30 years my reading has seen me devour comics, horror, literature, children’s fiction and, of course my mainstay fiction favourite, romance. To add to these, I will occasionally dabble in fantasy, science fiction and my least favourite (and only because I’m squeamish), crime. But I found my favourites by browsing unbiased shelves. And much as I love walking into my favourite bookshops and libraries and heading straight to the romance shelves I often wonder about the people who will miss out on reading a fabulous romance because they don’t want to be seen in the romance section or the science fiction fan who just doesn’t want to read literary work. Somehow, I feel that it is like apartheid for books (harsh words, I know!).

For, heaven forbid Dean R Koontz is shelved near Milan Kundera, or Roald Dahl to be seen alongside Victoria Dahl, or Howard Jacobson grace the same shelf as Eloisa James. And then, what of the books that sit across genres such as Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse and J. R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood books that sit comfortably in both fantasy or romance genres. Or benchmark setting authors such as Margaret Atwood – does she sit in literature or speculative fiction. Genre-based shelving endorses a classification of fiction that may not be needed.

I know that as a child, I loved discovering books and that none of them had genre labels. As an adult, I am struggling to decide upon whether I like the genrification of libraries or if I would like fiction, to once again, be a roll call of authors on shelves.

* strikethrough added a few years after I first posted this