A lot has been said about the new direction of libraries. Whispers and shouts from all walks of the media have been decrying the death of our beloved repositories and many of us are scrambling to compete with the attention of young readers. The library has to compete with television, radio, the internet and social media, so the temptation is to make things easy. What could be easier than the bookstore format? Surely, millions of dollars have gone into corporate marketing studies to suss out the best way to get customers to find what they like and then buy it. Why not apply this golden knowledge to the library?
I’ll tell you, good friend. Because it isn’t a science. Book publishers pay a lot of money for premium placement in book displays and certain sections. They are the ones who identify the genre for the bookstore and place it on the back of the book. Suddenly, Jodi Piccoult’s latest title goes from Contemporary Fiction to Chick-Lit. This wouldn’t matter if certain sections/genres didn’t have stereotypes and connotations associated with them.
Is Beloved by Toni Morrison classic literature or African-American fiction? One would have her shelved with Flannery O’Connor and Faulkner, the other would have her next to Eric Jerome Dickey and Zane.
When genre placement is left up to the librarian or bookstore owner the opportunity for book ghettos emerge. These make it easier for some people to narrow their search to only those books for gay people or black people or whomever people, but it also creates a barrier for those outside of these narrow markers. If I were to browse the fiction section I may pick up a book and stumble upon a great title that just happens to have a gay main character. With genrefied shelves I’d never stumble upon anything, I’d have to seek it out.
The Dewey Decimal System we all learned in elementary school may be boring, but it is the great equalizer– democracy for information. Giving it up leaves far too many opportunities to marginalize, overshadow and subvert great books.