Organizing Your Collection

Think about your personal collections of books. If you walk into someone's home and look at their collection of books or even music, most of the time it's not in any real order. It's easy for them to find what they are looking for, but you would have a harder time. When customers walk into a library, they are usually looking for something. If your library were organized like someone's home library, the customers would not be able to find what they were looking for. This is why we organize the library. It makes it easier for people to find what they need.

Cataloging helps us organize the library. It doesn't have to be a mystery, although it is something of an art. Simplicity should be your goal. You may have the most elaborate and beautiful cataloging system in the world, but if no one can figure it out then it is useless. If items are simply arranged, it is easier for patrons to find what they are looking for, and it is also easier to train staff.

So how should items be arranged? There are some things you must consider. The first is your user. How do people look for things? Is the item non-fiction or fiction? You wouldn't want to mix the two. People looking for a history of the United States generally want facts, not fiction. What is the reading level of the item? Is it appropriate for children? Young Adults? Adults? It makes sense to sort some things out. You probably want to separate some of the children's books. We say some, because it is often useful to have children's non-fiction with the adult non-fiction. You may want to have a separate section for young adults, one they can call their own.

Your library should reflect your community, so how many sections you have will depends upon your users. Do your mystery readers want to peruse a section that is just mystery books? Or do they enjoy working their way through all the fiction? Here are some things to consider when organizing your library.

Some separate grouping of materials is customary:

  • By broad Reading Levels (picture books, juvenile and adult books)
  • Fiction (story) and Non-fiction (facts)
  • Format - magazines, audio recordings, videos, books
  • Reference and/or other material that can only be used in the library

Arranging the books within the section depends upon the type of book:

  • Picture books and/or easy books are for children in primary grades. These are also great books to read aloud. It is very difficult to keep these books in alphabetical order by the author's last name, so some libraries group them together by the first letter of the author's name. All of the authors whose name starts with A are together; all the ones whose names start with B are together, etc. Some libraries will put a colored label or tape on the spine of the book to aid in shelving.
  • Juvenile and Young Adult Fiction are usually shelved in a separate area from Adult fiction. The reading skills, interests, and height of the user are some of the reasons for this. You want children to be able to use the items, so you have lower shelving for children. A well-developed young adult section can encourage young adults to use the library. Some libraries will put colored dots on the spine of Accelerated Reader Books, which helps children identify what books will fulfill the Accelerated Reader program requirement.
  • Adult fiction is placed in alphabetical order by the author's last name. Some libraries have separate shelving for a particular genre of fiction, such as mystery, science fiction, or westerns. Many libraries will have stickers on the spine that indicate what genre a book is. This makes it easier for readers to find what they want. Readers may prefer having the sections separated. However, there are reasons for interfiling all of the adult fiction.
  • Shifting books or rearranging the collection is easier, which gives the library more flexibility.
  • Stories by one author are all shelved together.
  • Readers may be attracted to another title, which they would not normally seek out.
  • It can be difficult to determine what genre a book is from.
  • Nonfiction books are facts about real things, peoples, places, etc. Some libraries separate juvenile and adult nonfiction, but there are some reasons why you might want to interfile the nonfiction books.

Adults don't often go to the children's section. By interfiling both, adults can find quality children's nonfiction that may be useful.

  • Adults who are poor readers are not stigmatized by using the children's section of the library.
  • Children with excellent reading skills can easily find materials when all the books on the same topic are grouped together.
  • The collection is less fragmented in arrangement.

Typically children's books are labeled with a J before the classification number. Books are shelved by numbers, not by the J. Labeling the books makes it easier for library users to identify the children's books.

  • A biography is an account of someone's life. There are many different ways to shelve biographies. They can start with the call number 92, 920-928, B, or they can be interfiled with other nonfiction books based on characteristics of the person's life. The advantages of filing in any of these ways is probably not worth a change from what the library is currently doing.
  • Montana collections are books (both fiction and nonfiction) about Montana. Generally you should keep these items together, as this is a popular topic.
  • Reference books are used for informational needs, rather than to be read in their entirety. Encyclopedias, dictionaries, atlases, etc. are examples of reference books. Most libraries do not let reference books circulate, although library staff may give exceptions. People sometimes need assistance in locating information in the reference section, so it is useful to have the collection near a librarian's desk. This makes it easier for a librarian to assist the customer.
  • Magazines and newspapers can require different shelving units. Companies that sell library furniture have special display units for both. The biggest issue with both magazines and newspapers is how long to keep back issues. Most libraries try to keep at least the current year of magazines.
  • Some will keep issues longer. It depends on the amount of storage space your library has. Newspapers do not have to be kept for an entire year. Some libraries keep only three months worth of back issues. If no one in your community is keeping back issues of the local paper or microfilming it, then consider keeping these. For local history purposes, it is a wonderful service.
  • Paperbacks are handled differently in various libraries. Some public libraries only add donated paperbacks to the collection. They do not purchase or catalog paperbacks. Although paperbacks are a popular collection, they simply don't stand up well to repeated use.
  • Audiovisual materials are popular with library patrons. Today there are many formats to consider. Books are available on tape and CD. Movies can be VHS or DVDs. Consider your community when you decide what to purchase. Most libraries shelve audiovisual materials separately from the books.
  • Electronic books, magazines, and databases are part of a growing collection of electronic resources. Library staff can purchase magazine databases that will give them access to more magazines then they could possibly buy in paper format. The State of Montana, understanding the importance of these databases, has subsidized the purchase. Each year the Montana State Library explores the possibility of adding electronic databases.
  • Downloadable audiobooks or videos are another option for libraries. Currently many public libraries in Montana are a part of MontanaLibrary2Go, a service where library patrons can download a audiobooks and ebooks to their computers and mobile devices. To learn more about MontanaLibrary2Go please see

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