I am ready to begin the physical work of genrefying our junior high library and am making myself hit the pause button to do a “pre-reflection” on the process so that I can remember everything and share with others if anyone ever asks.
Making the Decision
When I started out as a school librarian six years ago, I knew about the concept of genrefying (that is, organizing a library’s fiction section by genre so that all of the fantasy books are in one place, all of the mystery books were in another, etc.). I knew about the concept, and I hated it. In retrospect, I think there were two reasons that I disliked genrefication so much:
- It felt very elementary, and if we genrefied the middle school library, how would they be able to find anything in a non-genrefied high school or public library?
- As a speculative fiction fan (science fiction, horror, paranormal, fantasy, etc.) I couldn’t get over the hurdle of books that didn’t fit neatly into one genre.
I was in the same middle school library for five years, in a school with a terrific culture of reading. Every year I would get the same questions (especially from incoming sixth graders) about where to find _____ genre of books, but I used lists/collections and personal reading advisory to help them find what they wanted. Circulation was great, and the system was working okay. But as I entered that fifth year, I noticed that I was hearing a lot more about genrefying in the professional journals and conferences, and that my concerns were beginning to be addressed in ways that I could sink my teeth into. I also noticed that increasingly, the public libraries and high school libraries and bookstores in my area were organizing their fiction by genre, greatly minimizing the legitimacy of my concern about how I was prepping them for the future.
But more importantly: as I grew into being a more seasoned school librarian, I learned which of my cherished biases and beliefs to let go of.
It took time for me to relax, to be able to say to myself, “Yes, it is true that steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction under the umbrella of alternative history, and that science fiction is defined by explaining the speculative elements of the story using science rather than supernatural forces, so these superhero stories are science fiction while these superhero stories are fantasy…… but your students don’t know or care about that. Your students think superheroes are sci fi. Your students think steampunk is fantasy. And it isn’t important for you to teach the nuances of speculative subgenre to 12-year-olds. It’s important for you to get books into their hands.”
And just as I was wrapping my head around the idea of possibly trying it at that school, I ended up moving over here to the junior high.
Our library is physically small. Weirdly laid-out. Not ideal for genrefying at all; for best results, you want plenty of well-defined space for each section.
But this library also has low circulation. It’s not easy to browse. The kids aren’t proactive browsers. Their parents provide them with home libraries (which is a GOOD AND AWESOME THING, but doesn’t do my circulation stats any favors).
And when the kids did come in to check out books, probably 75% of them had the same question: “Where are the [genre] books?” And that question didn’t fade away as the year went on. They are still asking it in May even after being told repeatedly how to find the books alphabetically by author after referencing genre lists in our catalog.
In February or March, in that time of year when my creative energy begins to quietly percolate, I decided: cramped, weird physical layout be damned — we need to genrefy.
By fourth quarter of this school year, our library was divided into the following sections:
- fiction (along the west wall)
- nonfiction (along the north wall and on three shelving “islands” on the north end of the library)
- graphic novels (long shelving island adjacent to the computer lab)
- manga (two spinning media towers)
- short story collections (between the fiction section and the door)
- picture books and hi-lo reads (on one of the nonfiction islands)
- books translated into Spanish (on the same nonfiction island)
- an “archive” section containing old yearbooks, a collection of books about state history that technically ought to be weeded but that I couldn’t bear to toss, and oversized books, on the south end of the library
- audiobooks, on the south end of the library
My first step was weeding. My predecessor had done a pretty extensive fiction weed last year, which helped a lot, but I was able to go through and remove some unneeded duplicate copies and series that had lost popularity as well. I focused a lot of energy on weeding nonfiction, which was sorely needed not only to improve the collection but also because I wanted the space! My goal is to move the nonfiction entirely onto the three islands, opening up the north wall for fiction.
Next was planning for the actual sort. I read several accounts of how other libraries had gone about it, but I’m not sure that I’m going to do exactly what anyone else did. For one thing, I have more preference and aptitude for digital work than some, so my genrefying adventures started at my keyboard instead of in the stacks.
I started by emailing Follett and asking them to do a genre analysis report for me. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly I received the report (like, within the same business day!) and was able to easily manipulate it in Excel to reflect the information I actually needed.
I used my Excel Sorcery skills to massage the spreadsheet and sort most of the fiction books in my collection into one of six categories: fantasy, historical fiction, horror, mystery, realistic fiction, and science fiction. I chose these six because they are the most frequently requested genres, minus “funny books,” because it seems to me that funny books exist within every genre and aren’t a genre to themselves — maybe this is another area where I have room to grow, but for now, this is where we are. I know that more genres might be “more better,” but there just isn’t enough room in our space to accommodate them. Heck, I’m honestly not sure if I can make six sections work!
That left quite a few books that Follett couldn’t or didn’t satisfactorily genrefy for me, so my next step was going book-by-book and categorizing them. Many were easy; I knew the book and could quickly identify which section kids would think to find them in. Some took some research. Some gave me such trouble that I went to social media to ask all my friends where they thought the book would fit. And after days of this, I still have about a dozen books that I haven’t decided on a placement yet.
I color-coded my spreadsheet and bought transparent colored label covers to match. Then I did more Excel Sorcery and (virtually) broke down my fiction collection into its six new divisions.
This is giving me a chance to guess how much space each section is going to need, and see which of our new sections might benefit from some focused collection development. I’ve been really keeping my eyes peeled for good YA and middle grade mystery and horror after doing this analysis:
So then we get to today. Part of me is eager and excited to get started (I think my next step will be going shelf by shelf and applying the colored label covers). Part of me is terrified. Part of me thinks this is going to be relatively easy and effective. Part of me thinks it is going to be daunting, backbreaking, and that no one will notice or care.
But all of me ran our circulation stats this morning, and they weren’t pretty. Circulation isn’t good. I’ve never had felt like such a failure as a school librarian as when I saw those stats. And it’s not comparing our circulation to my last school’s — I know that would be dumb. In comparison to previous years at this school, this year has SUCKED. I’ve always been the book-moving fairy. And this has been the worst year for fiction circulation in solid decade, by more than a thousand books. It ain’t pretty.
So I’ve got to do something different. And this is a thing I can try. Worst case, we get to remove a heck of a lot of labels and move a heck of a lot of books back into place.
Here goes nothing. Or something.