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How do you shelve fiction books in public libraries? Query from a library patron

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Mar 3, 2010, 3:29pm Top

When I was growing up, fiction was shelved alphabetically, right down to the last letter in an author's name (as in 'Mac' comes before 'Mc' comes before 'Moore').

Nowadays, at least in my part of the world, everything beginning with a particular letter is just lumped together on one shelf. I find it frustrating, because, say I'm looking for a book by Greene, I've got to search through all the Gs from start to finish. And if I do find one book, it won't be grouped with all the others. I find it particularly annoying if I'm looking for an author whose name begins with M, and I'm in the central library, because then I'm faced with 3 aisles of floor to ceiling books to search through.

Sometimes, the library puts those little subject stickers on the spine (I'm a fantasy fan), but they don't always bother on a consistent basis, or they put the wrong sticker on (say horror or crime thriller & mystery instead of sci-fi and fantasy), which just compounds my annoyance.

Is that the way public libraries are going everywhere in the world? I don't think it's too unreasonable of me to expect books to be 'properly' shelved. Sometimes I'm in a rush, and I just want to find a particular author and go. Sometimes I'm happy to browse, and discover an author I haven't read before, or haven't met in a long while, but I can do that just as easily - or more easily- with the 'old' system. In fact, the new system makes me unhappy enough that, if I do go to the library, I can't stand to spend much time looking through the shelves, and now I usually boycott the public library in favour of bookshops - where books are shelved alphabetically, and not just by first letter of authors' names.

Mar 3, 2010, 3:50pm Top

Library patron, rather than librarian, but I can tell you that the fiction is shelved alphabetically at the public library I go to. However, there are still some issues, mostly with regards to genre-based collections (and also occasionally age-based collections).

As seems to be common with libraries today, the public library I visit has a children's room and a separate teen section. There are occasions when part of a series will be shelved in the children's room and part in the teen area, and sometimes things will be split further into the general collection.

In addition, the library has a number of interest-based collections. Westerns, SF/F, Romance, Mystery, and Christian Literature all have separate collections, and most of the books falling into one of those categories will be shelved with the collection. Some, however, will be shelved in the general fiction area. Most paperbacks will be shelved separately from the hardback books, and the paperbacks also have the genre/interest divisions.

Some of the paperbacks are on spinner-rack style displays; these are seem to be only sorted as far as first letter of author last name, though the library does try to keep all the works of a particular author bunched together.

Mar 3, 2010, 3:53pm Top

When I worked in the public library, fiction had call numbers "FIC ABC" (1st 3 letters of last name); we tried very hard to keep author's books together. We also had separate collections for Mysteries, Science Fiction, and Westerns. We had pages to shelve and keep the stacks in order. Every library I've ever worked at or used has used this system. I imagine budget cuts have affected the hiring of pages. I would not be happy to see a library arranged as you have described.

Mar 3, 2010, 4:02pm Top

Patron here, annoyed by how her library shelves fiction. It's alpha by author's last name, but within that by title. Which is fine if the author whose books you are looking for is named Dostoevsky, or when I'm at my branch library (as there's not much to look through), but when I'm at the main library looking for books by someone whose last name is Smith, it's a pain in the patoot, as her books will not all be together!

But I suppose that's still better than lumping all the "S"s together.

Mar 3, 2010, 4:57pm Top

We label all fiction with the first four letters of the author's last name, and then we shelve them alphabetically. All the books with an identical label, for instance, SMIT, are together on the shelf but not in any particular order. We don't keep books by the same author together on the shelf, that's just impossible. (Patrons take out books to decide if they want them, and if they don't want them, they don't always put them back in the same spot, you know.)

Some books also get a genre-label, but they aren't shelved together by genre.

Sometimes it's not easy to find the book you're looking for, but the staff are always willing to lend a hand and help look for a book.

Maybe you should try talking to the librarian, see if that helps?
Anyway, I am glad you're not without books, there's always the bookshop and if you can afford ito buy every book you want to read, good for you!

Edited: Mar 3, 2010, 6:41pm Top

Humouress: Looks like no-one in the library has the time or inclination to shelve properly!

Mar 3, 2010, 9:36pm Top

I agree that it can be very frustrating to find books you want when the shelving doesn't seem to make sense. Our library divides the Fiction into General Fiction (F), Science Fiction/Fantasy (SF-F) and Mystery (M) (and no, we don't use stickers -- those are only used upstairs in the kids' department). Within each, it's the first 3 letters of the last name, and then shelve alphabetically, although we try to keep any series in order, as well. Example: F AUS or F CUS.

It's tricky to always make sure things are perfectly in order, and some sections tend to get a little untidier than others.

If you don't see something you like, always ask staff. And --- you can always write a suggestion or two down and give them to the library (either to the department that handles the fiction collection, or to the director).

Mar 4, 2010, 3:56am Top

I guess we're just obsessive at our library. Fiction is labeled F and the first 3 letters of the author's last name. That gets you to the right general area. Then all authors are shelved alphabetically by their full name. So Greeley is before Greene. Then, ideally, all books by an author are in alphabetical order so you can easily find any given title. Sometimes shelving is done by a volunteer who isn't quite so obsessive. But we try to keep the system in place.

We are a very small library, which makes it a bit easier to maintain order. The only place in our library where it's OK to shelve books only by the first letter of the author's name is in the picture books. It's impossible to keep those in order, though we do try to keep all works by an author together.

We sticker science fiction/fantasy and shelve them separately. But there will always be disagreements about what to include and what to leave out. Within science fiction (and YA), since there are so many series, we've started labeling with series name and volume number under the standard label. It helps keep things in order and cuts down on the people asking us which title is next in a series. Like I said, I think we're a bit obsessive about order.

Mar 4, 2010, 12:58pm Top

In a perfect world - and who lives in a perfect world- you would come to the library where I work and find books shelved alphabetically by authors’ last name. Within a common last name they would be shelved alphabetically by last and then first name, and then an authors' work would be alphabetically by title.
So... you would find King, Cassandra before King, Stephen, and "Bag of Bones" before "The Green Mile."
We try very hard to adhere to this, but there are few pages to go around, and too many books, dvd's, cd's, books on tape, etc.

Mar 4, 2010, 1:34pm Top

We also shelve by the author's full name, then by title (except when series are very clearly marked (Harry Potters), then they go in series order).

Mar 4, 2010, 2:57pm Top

Maybe if you nicely ask them for help finding a book in the M's (or another very large section) enough times they might get the idea that more precise organization is in order! You might sweetly mumble under your breath, "It sure would help if these were alphabetized, wouldn't it?" They might get the message subliminally.

Mar 4, 2010, 3:18pm Top

Theoretically, we shelve fiction as described in posts #9-10. The exception to that is paperback picture books (the cheap movie tie-in type) which are either lumped together in a sort of series (i.e. all Nickelodeon together, all Scooby-Doo together, etc.) or by first letter of author's last name. Those seem to be the books that get shuffled and scattered the most, so it is quite labor-intensive to try and keep them in any sort of order. Of course, all shelves generally get messed up in the course of time, and even with a regular shelf-reading schedule, staff can't always keep up with the mess.

In the shelving system as described in post #1, it would seem to me that it would make it difficult for library staff, too -- both in helping patrons in the library, and in pulling items that have been placed on hold by patrons.

Mar 5, 2010, 1:18am Top

We shelve our DVDs and CDs like that, with all the M's together and so on. But fiction books are labeled and shelved by author's full last name and first initial within the genre where they have been placed. Our big problem at our library is that the cataloging is outsourced so we sometimes get series where the first are shelved in Romance and later ones in Mystery, depending on who is deciding the genre.

I think there is a trend in libraryland to try to make library's more browser friendly. In some, this means eliminating the Dewey system in non-fiction. Others are experimenting with fiction shelving. Not all solutions are as user-friendly as others. Or maybe your library lost staff and so they are trying to streamline.

Mar 5, 2010, 8:29am Top

God I love the Library of Congress in times like these. But then, I'm in an academic library. The only time books are out of order is when a patron reshelves the book himself. I'm going with a wild guess to suggest that in your library, budget cuts have made them cut back on pages, librarians--everyone--and hours, plus that they are getting even more patrons wanting books who pick up a book, forgot where they put it and shove it back anywhere in the shelves. To test that theory, you may want to see how out of order the nonfiction section is. It won't be nearly as bad, but if there are some obvious screw ups, it's a good indication that your city is not properly funding a very popular service.

Edited: Mar 5, 2010, 10:43am Top

I'm a library patron in Pennsylvania. My favorite (county) library is quite busy and large. I suspect that any chaos you encounter is a combination of lack of personnel/time plus patrons who are in a hurry and don't/can't pay attention. Some branches had baskets for reshelving, but I can't imagine the larger ones having time or staff. As it is, I notice that many shelves have a two shelf cart of returns!

At one point (not sure if it's still in effect), my library had an "Adopt a Shelf" program where patrons volunteered, signing up to keep an area in order. The time/frequency requirement was minimal and it seemed like a friendly, sensible way to tackle the problem. At the very least, some patrons would learn more about shelving! Hmm, I think I will see whether this still exists and sign up.

If I am searching for something and finding it very frustrating, I will at least put any obvious ones back in order. If something is way off or I am unsure, I will put it on its side in an empty spot. I hope that this "oddness" will call attention to it and that it will eventually get back to the right spot.

Mar 6, 2010, 11:28am Top

Thank you for all the sympathy! I have put in a couple of suggestion slips, when I felt really frustrated, but I doubt the library paid much attention. I've been to various libraries - central and branch - in the system, and they all do it the same way. I don't go to the libraries here much, anymore.

I think it's partly a cultural thing; I'm a die-hard fantasy fan, so I always head for the sci-fi / fantasy shelves as soon as I enter a bookshop (and nowadays, some bookshops even have separate fantasy shelves), but the local bookshops only have fiction shelves, and limited at that. They concentrate on serious stuff, like business and education - so I always feel a bit guilty when I look at fiction books. I haunt the foreign bookshops (eg Borders), which do catagorise fiction into different groups. And I think the libraries here are also geared towards more serious-minded people.

I don't buy everything I want to read - although my husband indulges me, he's starting to get an inkling of what my family meant when they warned him to keep me away from bookshops, those many years ago! But sometimes, especially if I've had a bit of a reading drought, I get an absolute itch for bookshop shopping (sometimes Amazon will cure it; sometimes it'll make it worse). It's not too bad, though; my 200+ LibraryThing library is everything (in fantasy - doesn't include eg home improvement) I've collected in the last 20+ years.

With libraries that label books with the first 3 or 4 letters of the authors' names, how do they / you deal with the Mcs and Macs? Do you have Mc, or Mac as applicable, followed by 3 more letters? Just curious.

Edited: Mar 6, 2010, 11:39am Top

Re: 16 We use the first 3 letters exactly as they are in the author's name. So McBain is McB, McCullough is McC, Macdonald is MAC. It drove me nuts when they were all labeled the same. I made it a personal project to make it all absolutely alphabetical. McIntyre (now McI) does not come before Mankell (MAN)!

Re: #12 I agree, I'd go nuts trying to locate books for ILL under that system!

Mar 6, 2010, 11:39am Top

We have McA, etc., and Mac.

Mar 9, 2010, 2:50am Top

We have quite a large fiction collection. We have the fiction sorted alphabetically by author, full name, first and last. This means that all the authors titles will be together. We use stickers to identify genres rather than separate them into different sections. We do have different sections for adult, young adult and children's fiction. Our catalogue will tell you which section an item is in, if it's not too obvious.

We take suggestions from our patrons very seriously and if a suggestion improves our service, we will try and implement it.

Mar 13, 2010, 4:26pm Top

The State Public Library where I live shelves the books according to Universal Decimal Classification, and according to Cutter-Sanborn Tables.

The shelves are identified: the UDC code is expressed with words and a color that identifies the country of origin of the book is placed both on the book and on the shelves.

Most readers already know the position of the genres in the library, and are quite able to find what they want. Unfortunatelly they don't have computers for the patrons to search in the OPAC, so they have to ask the staff for help.

Mar 14, 2010, 5:27pm Top

My teeny little library intershelves fiction genres, using labels to tell the romance from the fantasy (which is NOT the same as science fiction, thank you!).
When I learned that Mc=Mac=M' in library school I thought it rather stupid. I've always spelled those names as the author spelled them. The library world seems to have caught up.
Books are ordered by author, then title OR, in the case of mysteries in series, by series number. John Sandford's "Next Prey" will be labeled "SANDFORD P20" (or whatever number). Not all series are labeled, but I try to keep up. When I find time, I want to convert the old "FIC SAN" labels that the library started with.
Yeah... like I'll ever find time. 8-)

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