Now that we've looked at how back-of-book indexes endeavor to organize and present the information found in a book, we can consider organizing books themselves. It's quite astonishing, how many people go to libraries and bookstores who never seem to stop to think about how books end up on particular shelves in particular areas. There is no magic Book Placement Fairy!

Let's consider the problems we're trying to solve for a moment. A library has a lot of books, on which ordinary inventory-control processes must operate. So librarians as well as patrons must be able to locate the specific book they're after based on information they have about the book, and once they have the book in hand they must be able to reassure themselves they've found the right book.

What information should librarians capture about the book in order to make this possible? What should they put on the book, and where should they put the book, to make it easier? (Before you answer, consider a book with multiple editions, or purchased in multiple copies.)

The next problem we'd like to take a stab at is enabling patrons to discover useful or interesting books based on the books' physical location. This hasn't always been a desideratum: consider books chained to lectrums, closed stacks, and the more recent phenomenon of offsite book storage. Still, just about any library with open stacks wants the physical location of a book to be a Hansel-and-Gretel breadcrumb trail, leading readers almost invisibly to related materials.

So, just to throw one oft-mentioned possibility out right away, organizing books by cover color is probably not the way to go here… It's also worth mentioning that physicality sometimes interrupts the perfect vision of library classification: "oversize" storage is necessary for books that don't fit on the regular shelves alongside what would otherwise be related materials.

We do have one important constraint to consider: a book is a physical item that can only be shelved in one place. (Multiple copies of a book are just about always shelved together.)

What librarians do to identify books and put related books near each other is called "classification," and as I hope you've guessed by now, it usually involves determining what the book is "about" and what other books are "about" the same or similar things. The phenomenon of bringing together related information packages is called "collocation" in librarian-speak, and is an important principle underlying classification.

(There are exceptions to "aboutness" as the underlying criterion for classification. For example, many public libraries shelve fiction by genre and author rather than "aboutness," and there are longstanding arguments about how best to shelve biographies and memoirs.)

Classification is not an exact science; for one thing, it tends to be contextual. The same book may be in two very different places in different libraries, depending on the contours of each library's collection and the predilections of its patron base. Still, librarianship has developed several classification schemes to assist with this problem… and I'll be discussing some of them in my next post on the subject.

In the meantime… go to your local library and scrutinize the shelves for a bit.


More like this

It's been a while since I did anything on my series about library ways of knowing. If you'd like to refresh your memory: The classical librarian The humble index Classification Today I'll finish my discussion of classification, and distinguish it from subject analysis, since that distinction often…
One of the most important things librarians do to manage their book collections is weed. That involves removing the really old, useless stuff to make way for the shiny, new, useful stuff. Shelf space is limited, of course, but you also don't want to clutter your shelves with items that are too…
I have a whole pile of science-y book reviews on two of my older blogs, here and here. Both of those blogs have now been largely superseded by or merged into this one. So I'm going to be slowly moving the relevant reviews over here. I'll mostly be doing the posts one or two per weekend and I'll…
Ernst Rutherford, the "father" of nuclear physics, once airily declared "In science there is only physics. All the rest is stamp collecting". By this he meant that the theory of physics is the only significant thing in science. Such mundane activities as taxonomy in biology were just sampling…