Monday, April 10, 2017

Week Fourteen Prompt: To Separate?

Deciding how to shelve collections can be a very difficult decision. On one hand, we want to "save the time of the reader". On the other hand, we may actually be making titles more difficult to find by putting them where a library user may not think to look. I am ultimately opposed to treating GLBT and African American titles as special collections including labeling and assigning separate shelving locations.  

It's true that shelving is a method of passive readers' advisory, but I think it's beneficial for librarians to examine their motives for separating fiction. GLBT titles are often the most frequently challenged books, admittedly usually children's and YA titles, but adult titles may be challenged because they may fall into the hands of a child. Moving "undesirable" titles to a separate collection is often a compromise when materials are challenged, as well as a method of keeping materials from their intended audience.  

Separate shelving may have a chilling effect on reading. The American Library Association is opposed to labeling, thus presumably opposed to separately shelving, GLBT collections. Identifying books as GLBT "may prevent library users from accessing them for fear of being outed" (American library Association). Shelving African American collections separately may also keep readers away from checking out titles because they assume the books "aren't for them".

I question whether GLBT and African American fiction really separate genres, and I think it's reductive to ignore the diversity of GLBT and African American authors and shelve them together regardless of subject matter. N.K. Jemisin wrote an excellent take on this issue upon finding her science fiction/fantasy series shelved in the African American fiction section of a public library.

Joyce Saricks wrote in a 2006 Booklist article that sometimes we focus too much on genre and get caught up in how to classify a book that seemingly defies classification. This dilemma often is resolved by shelving materials where we think our users would look. (Saricks, 2006). What about Beverly Jenkins? Should she be with Romance or in African American fiction? Does James Baldwin go in the GLBT, African American, or classic section?

I think good cataloging and readers' advisory, including passive RA techniques like reading lists, social media posts, and finding aids are the best way to promote these collections.

The American Library Association. Open to all: serving the GLBT community in your library.

Saricks, J. (2006). Thinking outside the genre and Dewey boxes. Booklist. 1 March 2006.


  1. I agree that separation could have a chilling effect, as you put it. My library is in a very conservative area. I would worry that separating these titles would give the patrons the similar feeling of self-consciousness as they have when looking through the YA section as an adult.

  2. Darcy,

    I want to comment on your statement about good cataloging to promote the library's collection.

    I agree that a good catalog record makes it easier for the patron, Reference Librarian, and the Reader Advisory Librarian. For example, using MARC 21 rule set the 520 field is the summary field. It is very important for the cataloger to have a summary that is correct and interesting.

    Also, the 650 and 655 fields represent the subject fields. Using controlled vocabulary in these fields will help maintain order when searching for books on the same subject. However, I am also an advocate for also using terms that are not official LOC subject headings that will help the local patrons and library staff find the book. For example, a book could have a minor, but important LGBTQ character in the novel. However, there is no mention of it in the title, summary, table of contents, official subject headings etc. So, the cataloger can still create a 650 field for LGBTQ and use a subfield delimiter of local subject field heading.

    In short, the cataloger can attach any subject heading or other types of locally assigned fields to indicate that a book has LBGTQ, African American literature, and/or other information to the bibliographic record. This would make the topics searchable without having to create a separate area in the library.

    1. I like your idea about cataloging these books in a way that will allow patrons to identify them so they won't be separated but how will for instance will the cataloguer know about a minor character if you have not read it? Will it be required to read ALL the books so they are be more specifically tailored to whatever genre you want them to be. It just seems really time consuming and I am not sure really practical.

    2. Hi Lisa,

      Catalogers do not read all the books. There is not enough time. In the past two months I have cataloged between 150-250 books/DVDs a month. I use dust jacket summaries, Amazon, Goodreads, and other review sites if I am unfamiliar with the book.

      However, a great source to ask is the people who order the books for the library. I am in charge of ordering for different sections of my library. I do my research about the books before I place my order, so I have reason why a certain book was chosen over another one.

      The YA librarian will leave me notes about books that she orders and will inform me why certain books were purchased. For example, a book about suicide or gender issues. I will incorporate these terms into the subject fields of the bibliographic record.

      I do not do this for all books. In fact, since I became the sole cataloger due to the passing of the fiction cataloger I have been churning out items as an assembly line just to try to catch up. So, you are correct that my theory works only when there is plenty of time and is not always practical.

      Thanks for the question.


  3. I do agree that separate shelving does limit access to specific works when it should be the library's to promote all genres for their patrons' benefit. Passive RA techniques like reading lists and finding aids would be effective ways to promote the library's collection in its entirety as opposed to segregating specific genres in different sections that serves to alienate those who enjoy them. I really appreciated your post, and I agree that separating these titles ultimately keeps these materials from not just their intended audience, but all patrons who may enjoy them.

  4. Quite a few good points, Darcy.

    I liked your reference to Joyce Saricks. That's a good reminder that we (both staff and patrons) get bogged down by genre. So many times I've had patrons tell me "oh, I don't like (that genre)" or "I only read (this genre)." We play into that by separating our collection into specific genres.

    And thanks for sharing that Jemison blog post. That was enlightening.

  5. Excellent prompt response! I like the link you included and the other resources used. You argued your opinion well and created great dialogue on the comments! Great job!