Why aren't libraries and bookstores arranged by the same system?
September 21, 2004 5:15 AM   Subscribe

Why aren't libraries and bookstores arranged by the same system?

I realize it may make me a plebe, but B&N is more easily navigable than the library. Credit goes to SLPL's unintuitively designed card catalog for inspiration.
posted by pieoverdone to Writing & Language (17 answers total)
I'm sure there are lots of librarians out there with actual answers to this question, and no doubt they'll be by shortly, but I'd say because they're meant for different things. Libraries are structured so that people can find specific books, or specific topics a directly as possible, so they can get exactly what they want. Bookstores are structured enough to get you approximately near what you want and then let you browse a bit to find it, and other things you might also wish to buy. Libraries = get what you need, bookstores = convince you you need more than you thought.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:24 AM on September 21, 2004

IANAL, just a library geek. Personally, I have trouble finding specific titles in large, chain bookstores without begging help from the service desk, especially for nonfiction. The systems aren't all that different, however. A store like B&N is broken up into subjects, and each section is usually arranged alphabetically by the author's last name.

In a library, whether it uses the Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress Classification system, the mysterious call numbers are also grouped by subject. Which means all (or most) of the fiction should be lumped together in one section, and also arranged (pretty much) by author's last name. Many times libraries are actually better for browsing, as books written about an author appear on the same shelves with their work. Whereas bookstores would put stuff like criticism in some dark corner called "Essays."

Part of the problem is ergonomic: libraries have lots and lots of books but can't afford floorspace, so you end up with row after row after of tall, intimidating stacks. The largest bookstore can't compete with a library for sheer number of titles: bookstores have multiple copies of each book, and can afford the square footage to keep their shelves low and aisles wide.

Jessamyn'll probably be here soon, and set things straight.
posted by steef at 5:53 AM on September 21, 2004

BN isn't more navigable; it just feels that way because you have more practice wandering around BN than wandering around a Dewey or LC library. Libraries are more rigorously and rigidly subdivided because they have a lot more stuff and to speed people on their way to a particular subtopic.

I've never been to St. Louis Public Library, but if they use Dewey, I already know where to go to look up stuff on state legislative structure: 328.73073. In the unlikely even that it uses Library of Congress, it's in the JK2880's--2900's. I have no idea where they keep any books in their Barnes and Nobles or Borderses, though.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:25 AM on September 21, 2004

Steef has it. Libraries are based on the organization of knowledge, not books. Bookstores are based on the presentation of product. The subject sections of your local Borders are weak at best (Go to "Military History" and see your choice of "Revolutionary War" "Civil War" "WWII" and "Everything Else").

Also, remember that libraries have to refile their books, while in the store, once the book leaves, it's gone. You need a system anyone can use to return the book to where it belongs. Bookstore systems are vague at best (they have improved in the past few years, tho) and leave much up to the whim of floor staff.

There are some lessons that libraries can learn from bookstores, though. I remember that my old local library kept their fiction sections in a manner akin to a bookstore for ease of patron use. Bookstores have likewise improved their cataloging/inventory system and created finer subject headings.

The rest of the Mefi Librarian Corps will have more, I'm sure.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:27 AM on September 21, 2004

Beacuse one is there to provide research materials, and another is there to make money. Different purposes, different methods.
posted by jonmc at 6:28 AM on September 21, 2004

Hi. Libraries are trying to help you find something. Bookstores want to sell you something. The library classification system is set up to be expandable so that if your library has, say, six million books, they can all be placed on shelves relative to one another in ways that make sense. It's all well and good to have all the gardening books together at B&N [and right up front in time for Spring!] but the arrangement doesn't scale well and falls apart when you have 300,000 books on plants, plant life, botany, and gardening. Many smaller libraries actually do try to arrange books to be more bookstore-like. In my library we have a "new titles" section which is arranged by genre [sci fi here, westerns there] and contains relatively few titles. Once a book is no longer a new title, it goes upstairs where it goes on the shelf next to the other books by the same author, like the rest of our fiction. People go in a bookstore to browse, they often go into a library to fulfill an information need. Try to get a bookstore clerk to answer a question for you, or tell you that the answer can't be found in their books. Try to get them to do a Google search for you. It's apples and oranges. The fact that they both have books doesn't make them the same any more than my typewriter is like my laptop.

I think the larger question has to do with libraries' purposes versus bookstores' purpose. If a bookstore can sell you one more book, it makes more money and can afford more floor space, shareholder dividends, inventory, etc. In a library, circulation statistics matter, but not as much as being an accessible useful location for EVERYONE which includes people with bad English, people in wheelchairs, people who can't read, adults who read at a third grade level but want something interesting to read, people who want documentaries about the Al-Can highway, etc. There's a democratization of space that doesn't occur in the bookstore. Since we have an obligation to stock materials that are both currently popular and act as a repository for historical information, we have to strike balances between what will appeal to patrons and what makes the collection easy enough to manage for staff, including cataloging books, shelving books, reshelving books, shifting books, weeding books and displaying books.

The question you ask is what I often call the "cheeseburger in the library" question. If we really want to attract patrons -- and we sure do since our continued funding relies on the public at tax time, at least in Vermont -- why don't we serve them cheeseburgers while they read, let them bring in their lattes, and provide comfortable chairs in nice well lit locations with pleasant soothing music playing in the background? The answer is that that whole scenario is just one person's idea of what a good bookstore/library looks like. I know B&N seems ubiquitous and an everyman sort of place to go, but it's not. It's urban, it serves a niche market of folks with disposable income who value literacy and reading and also the occasional bargain, it serves the "customer" at some level. We serve the public.
posted by jessamyn at 6:35 AM on September 21, 2004 [1 favorite]

It's all well and good to have all the gardening books together at B&N [and right up front in time for Spring!]

Actually, I worked for B&N's main competition for 5 years, and the in-house system they had was at least sem-deweydecimalesque. All books were assigned a 4 digit code which would go something like "5621" ="Science & Nature/Gardening/Flowers/Orchids." Sometimes this worked well and sometimes it didn't. I ran the computer section where it didn't, so for a few years they let me create my own system. We switched managers and they made me do it the store way, even though mine increased sales, but that's a whole other story.

But jessamyn's correct in that the main factor necessitating differences between bookstores & libraries is that in bookstores you're dealing with a much more mobile and fluid inventory.
posted by jonmc at 6:47 AM on September 21, 2004

Just an aside: IIRC, Powell's here in Portland does use the Dewey Decimal System, but that's probably because they're so freakin' huge.
posted by frykitty at 7:32 AM on September 21, 2004

There is also the question of scale. Book stores have thousands, or at most tens of thousands, of titles. A medium size library will have hundreds of thousands, a large library millions, of titles. What works well for the thousands doesn't always scale too well.

Bookstores can be much more flexible than most libraries because of this difference in scale and becaue of their turn over. They can group current books by all sorts of ephemerally useful categories: hot topics, political books (whether they are more accurately biography, political science, history, economics, journalism etc.), books by black authors (whatever they are about), and so on.

Library classifications are supposed to help you find books; Dewy in particular is designed to put books on a similar topic together so that browsing is possible, but books are grouped by subject matter rather than the more flexible function grouping used by book stores.

The whole idea is that the catalog helps you find what you want, assuming that there is enough information in the record in the first place (all hail Sandy Berman). In practice, most catalogs have really bad "browse" modes (partly because that's not the way librarians tend to use catalogs), so searching for something in a library is usually straight forward, looking for "something interesting" to read can be more of a challenge
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 7:50 AM on September 21, 2004

most catalogs have really bad "browse" modes

I've always thought that this was because of the reverse problem... vendors [who are trying to make money] are designing catalogs for libraries [who want people to find things and who use them for inventory, cataloging, and subject cross-referencing] have to use them to locate and organize items, not push product. The more online catalogs look like amazon.com the more they suck for libraries in most ways, though they may be easier for patrons in SOME ways.

There has been an ongoing debate in the library blog world about why online catalogs are so terribly bad. Theoretically the catalog is supposed to facilitate access to the collection and the library generally. In practice it often puts a huge wall between patrons and the materials in the library because of idiot things that Google fixed years ago [typos, slowness, accessibility issues, UI issues, etc]. There are many reasons for that, some good, some bad, but the online catalog's organizational schema is not the same as the schema of the library [we didn't all move the books when we got an online catalog, they're in the same places]. In fact, some would argue that the reason online catalogs are so dreadful is because they try to make the library look like a bookstore [snazzy cover art included, pre-packaged lists of subject headings that may or may not match the collection, ten items at a time on the browse screen "what's near this on the shelf?"] and the library is not a bookstore.
posted by jessamyn at 8:27 AM on September 21, 2004

Another good question would be, "Why don't giant bookstore chains have an online catalog with a terrible user interface, like the library?" When I look up a book on bn.com, it tells me nothing about where to find my item when I go to the store. How about a subject heading or "shelved with" on the store website?
posted by steef at 9:07 AM on September 21, 2004

Just a quick OT observation...the Portland, OR public library downtown has its own Starbucks. I understand (and generally agree with) jessamyn's "cheeseburger in the library" argument, but there are some good things that the libraries can learn from the big-box bookstores while still retaining their mission to serve the diverse needs of the public.
posted by gokart4xmas at 9:30 AM on September 21, 2004

Discussion of library catalogs is sort of a derail, but forgive me because it should be that the catalog makes up for some of the lost ease of use you find in a bookstore. The fact that is usually doesn't is a real problem for many library patrons.

Book covers, while not bad in themselves are so prominent because they add "flash" without the need to change the underlying system at all. It doesn't help the patron much but we can all pretend to ourselves that were just as good as Amazon!

Why are catalogs bad? The vendors make what is feasible, economic and sells. What sells? To find that out you need to think of how automation systems are chosen. Depending on the library, it's either what the director likes or what a committee of librarians (few of whom think of catalogs even vaguely the same way as most patrons) think suits their own needs best. Read an RFP for a large automation system and you are unlikely to find compelling public user interface, rich browse searching, and the like to be very high on the list. Sophisticated searching is much more likely to be a priority, but while the ability to construct complicated boolean queries with lots of complicated modifiers,proximity and the like, is wonderful it is remote from the needs of the users who are often a little hazy on the difference between author, title and subject. What's Shakespeare? All three depending on the circumstances; most of us know which to use when, but it isn't obvious until you learn. Many patrons won't ask, so librarians can't always just do the work for the patron (not to mention that many librarians if asked for help to find a book often just write down the call number -- in a bookstore the staff usually physically leads you to the book).

Amazon is not the ideal library catalog, but it is at least centered around the needs of the users not the needs of the people in the back room.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 9:40 AM on September 21, 2004

Uhh... I have a simpler explanation!

You have to pay to use the Dewey decimal system. Bookstores aren't all that rigorous about perfection when it comes to sorting out books -- as long as the book is within a shelf stack or two it's not all that important to the consumer. So why pay for something useless to them.

I'd also give strong credit to what jessamyn is saying. It makes perfect sense that a bookstore will arrange books in a manner that makes you say "Hmmm, that unrelated item looks interesting also, I'll take that too." Whereas, a library would prefer to arrange books so that you get all you can be given on what you're looking for, but not in a manner where you're going to end up leaving with books on topics you weren't interested in and probably won't read.
posted by shepd at 10:09 AM on September 21, 2004

You can have the best of both worlds via a bookmarklet that lets you instantly pull up a book you find on Amazon (or other book sites that have ISBNs in their URLs) in your local library catalog.
posted by kindall at 10:44 AM on September 21, 2004

"DEWEY DECIMAL CLASSIFICATION" is indeed a trademark of OCLC, and to use the latest version with all its picky details you would need to buy the book/subscribe to the service.

However, the concept of decimal classification is old enough that you don't have to worry about copyright and patents on the basic system (though OCLC would prefer that you believe otherwise) if you don't need the latest tweaks, call number rules and so on, and just want to follow the general arrangement of:

000 Generalities
100 Philosophy & psychology
200 Religion
300 Social sciences
400 Language
500 Natural sciences & mathematics
600 Technology (Applied sciences)
700 The arts
800 Literature & rhetoric
900 Geography & history
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 10:46 AM on September 21, 2004

When I look up a book on bn.com, it tells me nothing about where to find my item when I go to the store. How about a subject heading or "shelved with" on the store website?

There's several reasons for this. The first is that Barnes and Noble and BN.com, while owned be the same company were not the same company. Secondly (I hope this is one of the real reasons), until there is some way to check store inventory online, if the web page said "this is where you'll find it in the store" Barnes and Noble stores would get a huge influx of customers saying "it said you had it on the net."

Also, most of the time, knowing where a book is supposed to be shelved doesn't seem to help customers and they end up having to talk to an employee anyways. This (I think) is one of the main reasons BN doesn't offer computer terminals for customer use.

My guess is that in the next few years there will be far more integration between the website and the stores, especially know that they've been truly combined into one company.
posted by drezdn at 4:18 PM on September 21, 2004

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