The Effect of Genre Displays on the Circulation
of Young Adult Collections in Public Library

a study by Maggi Rohde
Anne Hoey
and Pamela Chamberlain

SI 666 Fall 1998


Young adults are often thought to be underserved by public libraries. Only 37% of all public libraries employ a librarian targeted at serving both young adults and children, and only 11% have a young adult librarian (Heaviside et al, 1995). This implies that a minority of public libraries spend significant money or time on improving services for young adults. Conversely, many librarians believe young adults don’t take advantage of library services because of competition from other, more attractive activities. Thus, to increase YA involvement in libraries, the best course of action would seem to be to make the YA collection as accessible and easy to use as possible, without adding to the burden of existing staff or budget. One way to do this is to organize the YA fiction collection by genre.

Both early and recent studies on arranging fiction collections by genre indicate that this type of arrangement both increases circulation of books and is preferable to a majority of patrons:

• In the only fiction classification study done on young adults, in a
junior high school library in California, 88% of students found the
classed system easier to use than the previous alphabetically-
arranged system (Briggs, 1973).

• The earliest study was done in 1902, in which a portion of a public
library collection was shelved by genre and circulation patterns
studied for two years. After the rearrangement, 57% of circulated
books came from the genre-arranged fiction, a significant increase
(Borden, 1902).

• One British study done in public libraries reports that 59% liked
having the fiction collection classed and shelved according to
genre, while only 24% wanted it classed and shelved alphabetically
(Spiller, 1980).

• In another British study, 79% of adult fiction readers preferred
having the fiction classed and displayed separately (Ainley and
Totterdell, 1982).

• After writing a review of all aformentioned studies on fiction
classification, Sharon Baker performed her own study on public
libraries, in which she found that separating fiction into classed
categories does increase circulation, by as much as 98% (Baker,

From this evidence it seems reasonable to hypothesize that:

• Arranging YA fiction by genre on the shelves will increase
circulation of those items, and
• YA patrons will prefer this arrangement to the previous one
(alphabetical by author).

The primary goal of our study was to test this hypothesis.

Design and Methods

Our study followed this course:

1. Create an organizational scheme that is appropriate for YA
fiction collections, based on existing studies.
2. Implement this scheme on a small scale in a public library in order
to test the hypothesis.
3. Evaluate effectiveness, usability and practicality of scheme based
on patron feedback, completed surveys and circulation data from the
public library.

Creation of an Organizational Scheme

Before consulting the literature, we first sent a message to the professional YA librarian’s email list (YALSA-BK) to ask for success stories from librarians who had arranged their own collections by genre. The responses were encouraging. Kate McLean from the Tucker-Reid H. Cofer Library in Georgia said “I loved it! It is wonderful for browsing collections. During that summer [when my collection was arranged in this way] I do believe circulation grew; no stats though.” (McLean, personal communication, 1998) Lesley Gadreau of Seabrook Library in New Hampshire provided us with her set of nine categories, along with a suggestion to use a “secondary sticker” on the spine of the book to indicate crossovers in genre, such as romantic historical fiction, or humorous fantasy. She indicated that rearranging her collection into genres has helped her patrons choose new authors to read, which is one of the three fundamental purposes of genre-arranged fiction schemes:

“I rearranged my YA fiction collection about two years ago into genres and my circulation has more than tripled.... [T]he arrangement of the books by genre helped kids be more successful in finding books and in moving from books they knew they liked to new titles and authors. My faithful R.L. Stine readers started reading Duncan and Lovecraft and Nancy Drew fans gave other mysteries a try.... I don’t regret the reorganization one bit.” (Gaudreau, personal communication, 1998)

We also received pointers toward studies on fiction classification, such as Sharon Baker’s research from the late 80’s.

No definitive research has been done to determine the ideal set of categories for use in designing a scheme for classification of fiction, but there are some basic principles behind the success of such schemes. Sapp has made mention of the fact that using the Dewey decimal or Library of Congress classification schemes for fiction are too limited and restrictive to be useful in targeting these principles (Sapp, 1986), and thus they were not consulted when creating our scheme.

As outlined by Baker in her review article on fiction classification schemes, the three main points are:

1. Fiction classification should make it easier for library patrons to find the
types of books they want.
2. Patrons select books in many different ways, including genre,
broad subject, format and literary quality; classification schemes should
take these multiple methods into account.
3. Fiction classification should also expose the patron to new authors.
(Baker, 1997)

Thus, in accordance with point 1, our scheme included enough categories to appropriately subdivide the collection, but not so many as would confuse patrons. Categories were not subdivided below one level, again, for ease of use. To help fulfil point 2, categories included both genres (i.e. mysteries) and subjects (sports, adventure). However, we agreed to shelve the classics and graphic novels in with the contemporary paperbacks, rather than creating separate categories for them, as this would seem to increase the likelihood that patrons would read different formats and qualities of books. Lastly, point 3 was addressed in the fact that our organizational scheme would be presented as a collection of fiction shelved by genre, rather than labeled and shelved alphabetically, as this former method of presentation has been shown to increase the patrons’ exposure to new authors (Spiller, 1980; Borden, 1902; Baker, 1988).

To select a set of appropriate categories, we turned to textbooks for YA librarians (Jones, 1998; Arnold, 1998). We also consulted with a YA librarian at Canton Public Library, Wendy Woljter, as well as several librarians in other states who have arranged their YA fiction by genre. Eventually we settled on this set of nine categories:

1. Adventure & Survival
2. Crises and Life Changes
3. Families & Friendships
4. Historical Fiction
5. Mystery & Thriller
6. Relationships
7. Science Fiction & Fantasy
8. Sports
9. Supernatural

This set was broad enough to encompass all the fiction we wished to include in our study without resorting to the vague “General Fiction” category. We also purposely chose the name “Relationships” instead of “Romance” to see if that would draw a larger audience, but as the results will show, this was probably a poor choice. “Supernatural” defined the category of realistic fiction with a twist, such as vampire and ghost stories, but which were not targeted at scaring or grossing-out readers. “Crises and Life Changes” included themes like death, abuse, sucide, racial tension, and abortion.

Implementation of Chosen Scheme

After confirming our organizational scheme, we chose a set of books to fit these categories. Our first choices were books which were less than four years old and had been favorably reviewed by ALA, Booklist or another source. We used lists which we found on the ALA web site and in profesisonal journals, as well as drawing from our personal experience with YA literature.

In order to test our hypothesis, we worked with actual circulating collections of books, as well as using an online simulation. We contacted three libraries with which we had familiar interactions: the Canton Public Library, the Howell Carnegie District Library, and Huron High School.

Real World Testing. The Youth Services Coordinator at Howell Carnegie District Library, Holly Ward Lamb, agreed to allow us to pull a subset of her YA fiction collection to display in a genre-arranged format for one month. We chose all the fiction which was present both on our list and in the Howell collection, and then supplemented with additional appropriate titles from the collection. We labeled a final set of 91 books with colored stickers, one color for each category, and shelved the set under a small legend for the categories. After one month, circulation data for the genre-arranged fiction was collected and compared to the overall circulation of YA fiction in the Howell YA collection. Results are summarized in Table 1.

Online: A Simulated Browsing Environment. Because we
would not be able to set up a similar physical arrangement of books
at other locations, we created a web page which would help us
simulate the browsing environment a patron might encounter at
the library. This presented the patron with a bookshelf of color-coded
books, on which they could click and browse through the books by
subject, looking at the covers (scanned photos of the books) and
reading the dust jackets (short abstracts). This “web bookshelf” was
used both at Canton Public Library and at Huron High School; the
media specialist at Huron, Gail Beaver, employed a more controlled
environment by guiding two freshman classes to the web page and
asking them for feedback.

Both settings were provided with a one-page survey to solicit feedback. At Howell and Canton, the surveys sat out for patrons to fill out as they chose. In addition to basic demographics, the survey asked the following questions (see Table 2 for a summary of survey results from the forty surveys which were returned and usable):

• How much do you read? How often do you use the library? Do you
read for pleasure or for school?
• How do you most often find fiction books at the library?
• Do you want your library’s YA fiction arranged in genre format,
rather than by author?
• Would you like to be able to search the computer catalog by genre?
• What kinds of fiction books do you like? (offering choice of genres)
• Would you have chosen the same names/types of categories that we did?
• Other comments, etc.

Results and Evaluation

The hypothesis presented in this study had two aspects. First, that arrangement of YA fiction by genre, shelved separately, will increase circulation of these items; and second, that the patrons of the YA fiction collection will find the genre-arranged fiction easier to use and preferable to alphabetically-arranged collections. We find, by examining both the surveys and circulation statistics at Howell Carnegie District Library, that both aspects of the hypothesis are supported by our data.

The Howell data provides support for the first aspect. The percentage of circulation across the entire YA collection was 20%, while circulation of genre-arranged items was 38%. This is not a large enough sample or an extensive enough study to give any truly credible data, but it does correlate with previous literature: arranging fiction by genre increases circulation of those items.

Data from the surveys support the second aspect of our hypothesis. According to the survey, 80% of respondents would prefer to have the YA collection in their library arranged by genre, as opposed to 18% who like it the way it is. This is consistent both across frequent library users and those who “hardly ever” use the library. Anecdotal data from incidental browsers of the collection at Howell also indicates that YA’s find genre-arranged fiction much easier to use.

One reason given in the literature for the preference for genre-classed fiction is that of information overload in large collections. Patrons browsing in a large library often feel overwhelmed by too many choices, and this leads to a difficulty in making selection decisions (Baker, 1998). Genre classification helps decrease this confusion. Baker ascribes information overload only to users of large collections, however; one study shows patrons in a library with 4,700 books did experience information overload, but not in one with 1,700 books. Another study found information overload in a library with 6,000 books, but not in one with 2,500.

Obviously the question of “how large is large?” is difficult to answer when considering the effects of information overload. While the YA collection studied here has fewer than 2,500 items, the question of the skill and experience level of the patrons in making selection decisions must be considered. Young adults between the ages of 12 and 15 are not as skilled at making choices as an adult, and therefore the possibility exists that they may experience information overload at much lower stimulus levels than adults. It should be pointed out, for example, that shelving YA literature apart from adult literature significantly increases its use in all public libraries, no matter what size the YA collection is (Heaviside et al, 1995). Further study is necessary to address the question of information overload in young adults.

When considering what we might have done differently in the course of the study, we first examine the surveys. The focus of the survey was to obtain data about our population and generally whether they preferred the genre arrangement over alphabetical arrangement of fiction, rather than on whether this arrangement would actually cause them to check out more books. In this case, we felt it was more accurate to let the circulation statistics determine whether or not patrons would truly cause an increase in circulation, and have the patrons only give feedback on their personal preference for a browsing display. However, it would have been useful to include some questions about whether or not patrons experienced information overload when dealing with undifferentiated collections.

The names for categories used in the classification scheme proved to be a bit confusing for some patrons. A few girls asked “What about romance?” without making the connection to “Relationships” as encompassing romantic literature. Similarly, some patrons asked for “suspense” or “horror,” feeling that our categories of “Supernatural” and “Mystery/Thriller” didn’t cover all the bases. Were we to revise the classification scheme, we would probably rename the categories using the more customary categories used by booksellers. In addition, we might choose to combine “Friends and Families” and “Crises and Life Changes” into a single category of “Realistic Fiction” to make it easier for the cataloger. Finally, determining the difference between “Supernatural”, “Science Fiction & Fantasy” and “Mystery/Thriller” might prove to be too complicated, and two of those genres would probably be merged in some way. Further studies regarding genre labels for YA’s is definitely indicated.

Other procedures we might have done differently include a longer period of circulation of the books at Howell. More data would have provided a better idea of whether there was an actual, statistically significant increase in circulation. Another thing that would have helped is closer involvement and a more proactive approach with the public library users in obtaining feedback. Very few patrons submitted responses in a usable format in an entirely unsupervised setting; several surveys were returned with joke answers, which is to be expected, but could be minimized with closer observation.
Works Cited

Ainley, Patricia and Barry Totterdell. Alternative Arrangement: New Approaches to Public Library Stock (London: Assn. of Assistant Librarians, 1982).

Arnold, Mary. “ ‘I Want Another Book Like...’ Young Adults and Genre Literature,” Young Adults and Public Libraries, Mary Anne and C. Allen Nichols, eds. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1998, p. 11-22.

Auerbach, Barbara. “Hangin’ at the Library,” School Library Journal 42:60, Jun 1996.

Baker, Sharon L. and Gay W. Shepherd. “Will Fiction Classification Schemes Increase Use?” RQ 28:366-376, Spr 1988.

Baker, Sharon L. “Fiction Classification Schemes: The Principles behind Them and Their Success,” RQ 27: 245-51, Win 1987.

Borden, William A. “On Classifying Fiction,” Library Journal 27:121-24, Mar 1902.

Briggs, Betty S. “A Case for Classified Fiction,” Library Journal 98:3694, Dec 1973.

Heaviside, Sheila, Christina Dunn and Judi Carpenter. Services and Resources for Children and Young Adults in Public Libraries. National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, Aug 1995.

Gaudreau, Lesley. Personal communication, October 20, 1998.

Jones, Patrick. Connecting Young Adults and Libraries. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc. 1998.

MacRae, Cathi Dunn. “The Secret Lives of Teenagers,” VOYA 21:168-169 & 175, Aug 1998.

Marshall, Margaret. Libraries and Literature for Teenagers. London: Trinity Press, 1975.

Maughan, Shannon. “YALSA and Booksellers: Building A Bridge,” Publishers Weekly 245:31-32, Jun 1998.

McLean, Kate. Personal communication, October 22, 1998.

Sapp, Gregg. “The Levels of Access: Subject Approaches to Fiction,” RQ 25: 488-97, Sum 1986.

Spiller, David. “The Provision of Fiction for Public Libraries,” Journal of Librarianship 12:238-65, Oct 1980.