The November/December 2013 issue of Knowledge Quest   –titled “Dewey or Don’t We”–is dedicated to exploring the ins and outs of Genrefication, starting with a plea from the Kansas Association of School Librarians asking for clarification from AASL:

“Many school librarians are questioning the method of arranging their library collections. The move away from Dewey classification to genres has resulted in confusion, unanswered questions and a variety of attempts. We are seeking guidance from AASL to provide answers and guidance in this popular trend. Is it a viable way of arranging library materials; and if so, please help us in setting standards and appropriate genres for different age levels.”

I was not familiar with the details of this recent “popular trend”, other than that it had something to do with organizing school libraries by genres, sometimes called ‘the bookstore model.’ I dove into the issue thinking I’d finally get it all straightened out, but soon found myself getting more and more frustrated, coming up with questions and counter-arguments in my head… “But that wouldn’t work in my library, my teachers aren’t like those teachers, this is all so STOOOPID!”

Being the professional that I am, I calmed myself down and set out to finish reading the issue. I found that there are as many ways to genrefy your library as there are libraries, and it is helpful to look at the basic outlines of the issue before getting to specifics.

I could find no clear definition of the ‘system’; there are many ways of doing it, and many ‘levels’ of doing it, but it generally means arranging your library by subjects, or ‘genres’.  Many of us have experience with this in some part or other. If you have a section of Biography, maybe under 92, then just call it Biography and you’re genrefied. Story Collection, under SC for example, at the end of Fiction? Genrefied. If you use genre stickers on your fiction collection, for fantasy, mystery, romance? You’re taking a step toward genrefication. The Knowledge Quest issue refers to many steps on the road to Genrefication, and there is no set definition of where that road ends. Some libraries do use the BISAC system published by the Book Industry Study Group, and some Metis (developed by librarians at the Ethical Culture School in New York City), but it seems that most are finding their own way in this confused wilderness. One thing I did notice, and it helped me no end, was that the vast majority of librarians talking about the joys of genrefication are elementary and middle school librarians. Some say that since their patrons can’t read yet libraries should be shelved for browsing, with pictures as guides.

This makes some sense, and I was able to see reason in it, even if I don’t agree. However, when I got to the high school librarian who argued for genrefication as an easy way to arrange materials for high schoolers, he lost me when he mentioned the teacher who was “was adamant that the kids not spend time looking for the books and insisted I put them on a cart … for a one-stop shopping solution” ( Jeffrey W. Aubuchon, high school librarian, in “21st-Century Thinking at the Local Level.”)   Yes, when I worked at a combined middle/high school, and the whole class of 8th graders was working with ancient Rome, it made some sense to put books on carts, but I was aware of it as a short cut. Students will not get books handed to them on carts in college, and they need to learn how to find and select useful materials.

Here I was brought back to the mission of our library, which is in part to provide resources for current school work and to prepare students for libraries and resources in their future. At my school most students will be going to college, and will need to be prepared to use those libraries. Many college libraries use the Library of Congress system, but it is much easier to transfer knowledge of DDC to LC than to go from genres to LC.  Middle school librarian Juanita Jameson says “Students deserve to walk into a new library and have the skills to feel at home.” (“A Genre Conversation Begins”.)    I agree.  So we need to teach them how to use the libraries they will encounter in their future—they will be walking into a new library with their first college research paper, so we need to give them the skills to feel at home there.

Allison G. Kaplan, a faculty associate in the School of Library and Information Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, explores both sides of the issue, and concludes that “Librarians who have made the genre switch for their fiction collections are thrilled with the results. However, in my humble opinion, for information books and other resources: keep the Dewey.” (“Is it Truly a Matter of Dewey or Don’t We?”)

I am reminded of one key element of our position as independent school librarians. Very often we are Rulers of our Realm (okay, with the one little acknowledgement that someone else is funding this universe) and we are often able to arrange things to best meet our students’ needs.  We have a longstanding tradition of finding creative solutions that work for our own libraries. As always we can glean the best bits of the best advice on this issue to apply to our own situations.

It struck me that those libraries having the most success with the process of genrefication are those where the online catalog is not being used.  At my high school library it is imperative that our students know how to find specific titles for their AP United States History projects, and we catalog specifically for various subjects and projects.  Devona J. Pendergrass, high school librarian, makes a good point: “If Dewey is not working for other libraries it might not be the system but the teaching of the system that needs to be revamped (emphasis mine).”   Pendergrass also makes the (to me) obvious suggestion to address the issue of students not finding materials by genre on the shelf: “Another idea is to add those ‘genre’ keywords to the OPAC as new items come into the system. When a student searches the OPAC for that genre, items of interest will show up and the student can then go to the appropriate shelf and find the books”.   (“Dewey or Don’t We?”)

After careful reflection (and reading the WHOLE issue of Knowledge Quest Nov/Dec 2013!) I have come to the conclusion that there are 3 main points to ponder as we approach this question:

  1. Elementary, middle and high schools will likely approach the question from different directions
  2. Genrification is more of a spectrum than an absolute, allowing librarians to use it a little or a lot depending on their library
  3. It is important for students to learn systems that will help them have success in the libraries in their futures, whether academic or public

I leave the final thought  to Cris Grabenstein, author of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, who explains the wonders of the DDC so eloquently:

“So put me down as a fan of the Dewey Decimal Classification system, but only as a first step in a more three-dimensional approach. Because, for me, Shakespeare’s plays really come alive only when I know where to find the scripts (the 800s), plus a little about Elizabethan history, the meaning of ‘iambic pentameter’, what groundlings were (they paid a penny and sat on the ground), why religious folks shunned actors (the devil is the great pretender) and why every scene ends with a rhyming couplet (the plays were performed during the day, and without blackouts, the actors in the next scene needed some kind of cue to know they were on!). No single DDC number, not even “822.33 William Shakespeare”, can tell me all that. All ten Dewey categories, taken together, can.”  (“How Dewey Find What We’re Looking For?”)

Thanks to Knowledge Quest for providing a forum for discussion of this issue and many others. All quotes are from the November/December 2013 issue of Knowledge QuestKnowledge Quest  is the Journal of the American Association of School Librarians. If you’re not already a member of AASL, I strongly encourage you to join.

One thought on “GENreflections

  1. I must admit that I had a similar reaction to this this topic as you did. Thank you for your thoughtful reflection. I heartily agree with your points especially number 3 – “It is important for students to learn systems that will help them have success in the libraries in their futures, whether academic or public”. One of my main jobs is to help prepare students for what they will encounter outside the walls of our library – that could be something related to the library, to technology, to life in general. While we watch the trends and changes in our profession we carefully evaluate and determine if these changes best serve our students and their futures. Right now, based on our student population, we are sticking with Dewey.

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