Reinventing the library wheel

At my library we are currently giving every one of the 270,000+ items a new RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tag. Everyone from every level is expected to put in some time tagging, because we rented the machines to program the tags, and the longer we keep them the more we pay. It’s actually been fun to go spend an hour in a completely different part of the library, taking the books off of shelves that I never looked at before.

Coincidentally, I ended up tagging both the youth and the adult sex education sections. By the way, if you ever wondered, the kids’ sex education books go out much more than the adult ones. All of the ones that went out during the time we have been tagging got tagged on their way back to the shelf, so that’s how you can tell.

Anyway, tagging all over the library has made me think a little more about the current trend in children’s departments for throwing out Dewey or Library of Congress cataloging and making up a whole new system. Typically, the librarians will decide that shelving picture books by the name of the author isn’t friendly enough to patrons, and they will come up with some way of grouping the picture books by subject–dog books, say. My library did that with a few key subjects that patrons tended to ask for repeatedly. We have sections for:

  • ABCs
  • 123s
  • Concepts
  • Folktales (with multiple versions of The Three Pigs, The Three Bears, etc.)
  • Nursery Rhymes

That to me is being friendly to patrons. We’re getting ready to pull a few more topics that we find difficult to track down when they are scattered around–superheroes, princesses, transportation. Again, friendly to patrons, and good marketing of the collection.

But I’m queasy about the fad for rearranging everything into browsing collections.  While tagging, I noticed anew that you find things arranged basically the same way in the adult and in the children’s collections. Stories are by author; nonfiction is by subject. They too have some special collections pulled out (we have an enormous mystery/crime fiction section) but by and large you know to go look for the author’s name.  You can learn it as a child, and it is still true when you are a teen and still true when you are an adult and still true when you are 80.

We always want patrons to fall in love as we have ourselves with the authors that speak to them, and this is just as true of child patrons as it is of adult ones.  When you take all of the attention off of the person who created the book and focus all of it on the topic of the book, I think you lose something. Let’s say your child falls in love with Kevin Henkes’ Lilly, but Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse is off with the school stories while Julius the Baby of the World is off with the new baby books. How do you find another Lilly, or meet Kevin Henkes’ other wonderful characters?

The tension between being able to browse pleasantly and being able to locate a specific book has always been with us in the library. Every time you pull a book out for a display, you’ve simultaneously marketed it for someone to spontaneously discover while also making it much harder to find if you have someone who knows they want THAT book. There’s nothing new about that. What’s new is the idea that browsing should always trump locating a specific book.

The other thing that troubles me is that I have been a librarian long enough to know how sometimes I have had a great idea and over time realized that it wasn’t so great. Usually, there’s not a lot of damage done. But if you toss out the entire cataloging of your collection, or even just of your picture book collection, you are tossing out a system that has been tested and tweaked for well over 100 years, especially if you start switching around your nonfiction collections as some people are doing. From the stories people tell about making the switch, they are putting aside the expertise and training of catalogers to make very personal, immediate, almost impulsive decisions with stacks of books.

I just think back on my great ideas that weren’t so great, and I can feel my eyes getting big at the thought of what a huge consequence it is if throwing out cataloging and making something up isn’t so great after all.

This entry was posted in Children's books, Collection Development, customer service, Public libraries, Youth Services and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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