On the Organization of Things

Being the official unofficial librarian has its perks. Last semester, I got to help decide which books to purchase with the $8000 or so allocated to new book purchases each year. And it was exhilarating. I also got to propose a new literary initiative to promote students’ love of reading–complete with school-provided incentives!

But being the official unofficial librarian also has its downsides. Like extra hours after school that are essentially unpaid. And also organizing our bookshelves.

Problem: We now have more books than shelves.

Solution: Some new bookshelves were donated a few months ago.

New problem: The bookshelves were disassembled and moved into storage, and since our building presently lacks a school-wide engineer (thank you, public school district!), said shelves are presently stuck in storage.

Solution: Patience. Or I call all my big and burly friends to help move shit.

Neither seems the best option at the moment for a plethora of myriad reasons, so we’re forced to wait and at least plan where to put the shelves when they finally arrive.

[Author’s note: Since I wrote the draft of this post about two weeks ago, our school was informed that our lead engineer had been out on health reasons and that, sadly, he passed away. Our school held a fundraiser on Thursday, with which we’re going to start a scholarship in his honor. I hadn’t known him, but apparently many of our students had.)

What acquiring new shelves means is also planning where to put all the books. Which also means planning where to move all the books. Which also means organization.

We definitely need to better teach children how to navigate the Dewey decimal system of our nonfiction section, but the real stickler is the fiction. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the division between ROMANCE and REALISTIC FICTION and YOUNG ADULT fiction. Seriously, they overlap more than criminal convictions and the Trump administration. So why all the artificial boundaries between so many books?

And then, off in the corner, is a section called SPORTS that somehow combines fiction with nonfiction, and an entire portion of our nonfiction section is labeled MEMOIRS even though plenty of the memoirs belong to other areas of the Dewey decimal systems. And then there’s a lonely book in the CLASSICS section that isn’t fiction, but a nonfiction title about how various fiction books came to be which should be with the nonfiction instead, and honestly, why are books published in the year 2000 labeled as CLASSICS at all?

Seriously. I’m not that old.

And does what is arguably considered classic literature deserve its own section? Does separating these titles like Slaughterhouse 5 or 1984 or the Alchemist (all on my reading list for the year) make such titles seem unnecessarily pretentious and elite? Do students ignore the CLASSICS section because classic literature is dated and hard to read? Do we need to set these titles aside, or can we bring them all together under a single umbrella?

Granted, it makes sense that SCI FI & FANTASY has its own section (but then again, why are they allowed to be together if YA and ROMANCE are not?), and GRAPHIC NOVELS should also be its own section, as should HORROR and MYSTERY. Except we don’t have a horror section; instead it’s all erroneously labeled MYSTERY. They’re not the same thing, and while I don’t disagree with their proximity, the mis-labeling has me bothered.

Thus my conundrum: As we move books to new shelves, should we continue this unnatural division among literary genres, or should we diversify and desegregate?

I’d like to think it’ll be nice to put ROMANCE and YOUNG ADULT and REALISTIC FICTION and even HISTORICAL FICTION all on the same shelves: the stories share similar veins, and in fact we have some books that have multiple copies in multiple categories. We can still label them, to help students as they browse, but their similarity, to me, justifies shelving them all together. SPORTS fiction can also be included in these “aisles.”

SCI FI & FANTASY and MYSTERY / HORROR and GRAPHIC NOVELS can all stay.

And hell, even CLASSICS should probably be kept to itself–but as a school, we need to do better connecting students with classic literature and explaining why they’re not always unnaturally hard to read and very rarely if ever actually dated (c.f. 1984).

Then the Dewey decimal system must be organized. Even memoirs should be properly placed. Sure, keep the spinal stickers that say BIOGRAPHY, but keep them all together.

And, lastly, we need a new section: POETRY

A long time ago I wrote a post about labeling blog posts, and if memory serves correctly, it was Freshly Pressed. All that, however, is internal: I get to decide where things go, and if it fits for me, it fits for everybody. In the library, what makes sense to me doesn’t make it right: It has to be right for the students who visit. Watching kids browse through the books, I’ve noticed clear trends in migratory behavior: HISTORICAL FICTION is passed over; boys don’t dare go near ROMANCE; and nobody even knows where to find SPORTS. NONFICTION and CLASSICS are generally ignored. And the only ones who delve into the graphic novels are the ones too low-skilled to feel confident reading a book without pictures, because usually they don’t read it all: they just look at the pictures.

A library is a treasure trove of knowledge and adventure, but this cavernous depth is not guarded by a dragon with scales and fiery breath: it’s guarded by the current mindset that reading is old, that books don’t speak to me, that reading is hard and the only people who read are smart people, rich people, white people, or nerds. All these things are false–and not just fiction, but false. And, I hope, how we organize our books matters.

Yes, all books matter–but they only matter if they’re being read. A story never told is a story that doesn’t exist. CLASSICS aren’t classic because they were just written by old white men (and sometimes women), but because they’re timeless, still speaking to us even after decades or centuries in print. And YA ROMANCE is not (nearly) the same formulaic genre fiction found in supermarket aisles of new releases–but those small heart-shaped stickers are definitely driving away the boys that might become more sensitive men if they could see romance through a girl’s perspective. If the way we organize our books pushes kids into tracks that detract from all they could find, then the way we organize our books is broken and only discourages a love for reading.

So maybe it’s time we move things around. The new books we’re adding to our library feature authors from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds, diverse sexual and gender identities, telling stories fantastic and full of magic and realistic and tragic. They tell stories that will speak to our students–but only if our students bring them home.

I have a small wooden sign behind my desk that says “Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are.” It’s escapist, maybe, or maybe it’s liberating.

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