Ditching Dewey? These Ideas Can Get You Started on Genrefication.

Here's how school and public libraries moved away from the Dewey Decimal Classification System to serve their students and communities better.

Fantasy books at Kendall Elementary School in Naperville, IL

"Kindergartners don’t know how to find books by author,” says Jo Ann Conlon, digital media literacy coordinator for the Thompson (CO) School District. That was just one reason to consider ditching the Dewey Decimal Classification System and organize the collection in a way that better fits kids’ intuitive browsing behavior.

Several schools in Conlon’s district have flipped their collections to organize books by genres, and librarians say it’s all positive. “When [one elementary school] began using icons to identify their genres, the students were not swarming the librarian. They were going to shelves and self-selecting. This was a big aha! moment,” she says.

In the past decade, more school and public libraries have likewise turned a fresh eye to fiction and nonfiction collections, using genrefication to increase use and enjoyment. It’s working, they say, and circulation usually rises, too.

Genrefication seeks to combine like with like, expanding browsing options and increasing findability. “I needed to make the library easy and usable for kids, because if they’re happy, I’m happy,” says Rhonda Jenkins, library media center director at Kendall Elementary School in Naperville, IL. Her genrefied collection, she adds, is “the greatest thing ever!” Jenkins uses categories to arrange fiction: historical fiction, sci-fi, animal fantasy, realistic fiction, mystery, and superheroes. Her fourth graders go on a “genre journey” each year, during which they read books from a variety of genres in the library. Now, students are “not just finding one historical fiction book but other interesting titles” that could have been lost in alphabetical arrangement.

The Darien (CT) Library got itself into an “ouroboros of inspiration” beginning in 2008 with a picture book reorganization project, according to Elisabeth Marrocolla, associate director of public services and former head of children’s and teen services. That project sparked a Dewey ditch in adult nonfiction. Youth nonfiction soon followed with a “hacked” approach, which Marrocolla refers to as “Dewey-Light.”

“Circulation was declining,” Marrocolla says. “We saw the schools assign projects and the [corresponding] books just weren’t moving here the way we wanted. How could we make this monolith of books more browsable?” Marrocolla also points to “baked-in” issues with Dewey classification, such as sexism and racism, which the library wanted to move away from.

“Genrefication empowers students to find exactly what they are looking for and browse subjects they’re interested in,” says Natasha Carty, a librarian at Tres Volcanes Community Collaborative School in Albuquerque, NM, a K–8 facility that opened last fall. Her fellow librarian, Josh Benjamin, hired to genrefy the collection, spent “four solid months” ordering books and arranging them in the school’s two libraries, one serving grades 3–8 and the other K–2. “Spheres of inquiry” including fiction and nonfiction delineate the collection for lower grades. For example, “Communities and Cultures” holds nonfiction traditionally categorized in the Dewey 900s, plus the fiction genre of mystery. “Science and Natural World” is home to adventure fiction and animal stories. “We’re catching kids’ interests,” he says.


Tackling the job

Genrefying a collection is no quick and easy task. Librarians will want to draw up their own plan, find the person-power required for the physical shifting, and use ready-made tools to ease the burden. “We needed full buy-in from multiple departments,” says Marrocolla. Darien Library’s decision to reorganize meant regular meetings to decide on categories and begin mapping out collections to their new locations. “We weren’t super scientific, but we reflected what kids are working on in school,” she says. It took a summer to reorganize and relabel youth nonfiction; signage in the area read “Under Construction.” A batch update in the library’s ILS revised location codes, and the books headed to their new shelves. “We kept two lists through the process,” says Marrocolla, “one with books that we weren’t sure were in the best spot, and one with areas that felt a little sparse so we could identify additional materials for purchase.” The effort was worth it.

Benjamin wanted to genrefy the two Tres Volcanes libraries similarly. He organized the K–2 picture book collection into 10 categories, first by genre and then with color coding. “I tried not to overthink it,” he says. “It’s tempting to create a ton of genres or subgenres. I try to make things fit into the scheme I established instead of making a new category.”

Jenkins worked her way through the fiction collection in late 2016, over the course of 61 work hours with a crew of volunteers and lengthy spreadsheets. She downloaded her title list through Follett’s Destiny software and assigned genres and color codes. She also created labels, color-coded circles for book spines, and used the week before winter break to shift the collection. “Books were everywhere!” she says. Spinner racks display extra-popular collections such as Minecraft titles and Scholastic’s Branches titles. “My nonfiction collection is still Dewey,” she notes, “but we’re starting to move toward sections.”

In January 2019, Follett released Genre Solutions to help libraries flip collections. Conlon, who served on a Follett advisory board of 27 librarians to help develop the service, recognizes that genrefication can place a “huge burden” on busy staff. She recalls the story of one of her district’s librarians who took it on single-handedly. “The workload killed the project’s momentum, and teachers and students were having a hard time with the chaos,” she says. Follett reps meet with interested libraries to customize an approach with a variety of tools. Conlon notes that feedback and ideas from library staff and youth “are shaping this service.”

A genrefied library at Tres Volcanes school in Albuquerque, NM


A district genrefies

Genrefication projects have been sweeping through the Clear Creek Independent School District (CCISD), home to 44 schools in Texas, including Clear Lake High School. There, librarian Shirley Dickey, also a Follett adviser, was the first in the district to genrefy in 2012. “After lurking for a while in genrefying sessions” at conferences, Dickey began work on her plan, incorporating data gathered from students through surveys and conversation “to maximize our student-centered environment,” she says.

Working with CCISD director of library and media services Suzanne Ferrell, and collaborating with her library assistant and ELA teachers, Dickey helped establish a district-wide genre committee to set standards that other schools could follow. It took Dickey and her team a full school year to flip her 18,000-item fiction collection. The district’s genre standards include adventure, fantasy, historical fiction, humor, mystery, realistic fiction, science fiction, scary, and sports fiction. Student aides helped with labeling: A color-coded overlay label offers one method of visual classification, as do stickers with the genre section typed out to serve color-blind students. Initially, titles were reshelved alphabetically after labeling; that took nearly a year. Over the summer, Dickey and her own children mapped the library and moved the books to their new homes. Since Follett, her vendor, has embraced genrefication, she says, genrefying is now part of the ordering process.

Tamiko Brown, SLJ’s 2017 School Librarian of the Year, is part of CCISD’s genrefying wave. She took a semester to genrefy the library at Ed White E-STEM Magnet School. “I don’t think there is an end in sight,” she says. “It’s like working for perfection...there’s always a mistake to fix or new books to genrefy.”

Students and teachers love the change. “It’s amazing to physically see where your collection is strong and weak,” Brown says. “The students have an easier time looking for books,” her primary goal. Brown uses pictorial icons to represent categories. In the “everybody” section of picture books, easy-to-access “specialty boxes” house the most popular collections, including LEGO books, princess books, seasonal books, and STEM-themed titles.

Debbie Klein, librarian at CCISD’s Ward Elementary School, started her genrefication journey by pulling out highly popular graphic novels. Follett provided a list of suggested genres for each title in her library. Klein and five volunteers sorted, labeled, recataloged, and spent the week after school ended to do the genrefication flip. While the Destiny online catalog includes genre to assist in locating a title, Klein’s students find it easier to simply walk to the category they want.

Katrina Zannier, library instructional leader at CCISD’s Victory Lakes Intermediate School, had the bookstore organizational-model bug in her ear for a few years before Ferrell “inspired, encouraged, and helped organize” the genrefication leap. “My library was being renovated, and all books had to be boxed up at the end of the year,” she says. “When the library was done, all the books were ready for their new home.”

Follett’s Genre Solutions helped, but it still took Zannier and three to five volunteers five days to organize almost 8,000 titles. “One of our concerns was breaking down the giant realistic fiction section,” she says. There was talk about subgenres, but she stuck with her main categories, including highly popular humor and mystery. “Realistic fiction is still huge, and perhaps breaking into smaller subgenres will be readdressed next year,” she says.


The final product

Reconceived collections take a little getting used to for librarians and users. Benjamin overhauled his library instruction curriculum, eliminating Dewey, and kicked off the year with a BreakoutEDU game designed to lead students through the library’s spheres of inquiry. “They are more easily finding what they need on their own, but they also aren’t learning the various functionalities of the OPAC,” he notes. Carty helped Tres Volcanes kindergartners get oriented to the picture book system by playing “musical books” to sample different genres. “Students know that if they want a superhero picture book, they go to the adventure genre section with orange label protectors,” she says. “In nonfiction, we have special pictures for each genre. If students ask, ‘Where are the dinosaur books?’ I tell them to look for the little dinosaur on the spine.”

Jenkins used WeVideo to make a short film about the changes. “Teachers view it with their class before their next trip to the library,” she says. She visited classes to describe the changes and got a round of applause from one excited classroom. She also encourages students to tell her if they think a book belongs in a different genre. Circulation has increased since the flip, she adds.

In Dickey’s library, circulation has also jumped and “has remained steadily higher,” she says. Dickey has adjusted her scheme, adding or removing genres to increase findability. Her presentation, “Genrefication Demystified,” at the 2016 Texas Computer Education Association conference included tips such as “DO NOT let yourself be stressed about books that cross genre” and “If it doesn’t circulate, you can move it...no big deal!” Genrefying is reversible, she emphasizes. “If you decide you don’t like it, then put [the collection] back in alpha order. The genre labels will still be there to help readers.” The Darien Library reversed one area that had been genrefied: the teen section. “It just wasn’t working, with all the YA series and titles that cross genres,” says Marrocolla.


Getting started

Are you genrefication-curious? Research is the first step. Benjamin visited several schools in his district that had genrefied to see what worked and what might need adjusting. Marrocolla recommends starting with a lit review and finding case studies to get inspired. “We have a section called ‘fun,’” she says. “It’s all the random Dewey numbers like paranormal, travel, LEGOs....We have eight full shelves of fun books. This is our highest-circulating section of nonfiction.”

Weeding is also key before genrefication. “We weeded, but gingerly at first. Six years in, we got ruthless,” says Marrocolla. Circulation rose.

Zannier found that unboxing her collection after the library renovation provided the perfect opportunity to weed. She also recognizes the power of a good genre name. “I named a nonfiction genre ‘Self’ to suggest books about confidence, or family issues, or suicide prevention,” she says. But students didn’t understand what types of books are there, so it was underutilized. She rethought that section, and others, to help invoke “interest and wonder about reading.”

Carty adds, “[Genrefying] has made our library a dynamic, exciting place where students feel comfortable and capable of finding the books they love.”

April Witteveen is the community librarian at the Deschutes (OR) Public Library.

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