One night when I was still working, a prisoner shouted to me from across the library,
"Miss! Where you keep the black books?"
"We don't segregate books in this library."
"Seriously Miss, how am I supposed to find other books this guy wrote? You should have a system and put them in some kinda order, like, by genre, you know... law, cooking, fiction..."
"Yeah, we do have a system."
"You gotta fiction section?"
"It's arranged by the author's last name."
"Oh, right. That's a good system."
"I think so too."
Setting aside the fact that I obviously failed that prisoner when I gave him the library induction, the way books are shelved in a library can actually be a complicated notion. The inmates who worked for me in the prison library were tasked with shelving the library materials. It was a continuous struggle to get them to put the books where they belonged instead of in the first space they came across. One time they tried to convince me that all the books should be re-shelved according to size because “it would look so much nicer” and had completed a section before I could stop them.
Everyone’s heard of the Dewey Decimal Code, but it’s actually a really outdated coding system (i.e. Philosophy & Psychology get the 100’s, Religion gets the entire 200’s section, but computers only get from 004-006). However, with the DDC and other subject based shelving systems, items placed next to each other are usually related. This system lends itself well to browsing, as people are often searching for a specific topic rather than author (except in Fiction). In the library world, there is a notion of the ‘serendipity of browsing,’ the loss of which is often bemoaned when discussing the digitization of information – when card catalogues became online catalogues, and when people started using Google to answer their questions, instead of the Reference section. The serendipity of browsing is the idea that one often finds exactly what they are looking for, seemingly by accident.
But it’s not an accident – not really. You may be randomly browsing the Just Returned shelf, or wandering the stacks with a vague idea of what you’re looking for, and suddenly stumble upon an entire section relevant to your interest. There is a psychology to this – people choose reading material either because it was recommended (in reviews, by a friend, and by virtue of having been recently read) or because they are looking for specific information. Non-fiction books are not shelved alphabetically because people would have to run all over the place to find what they were looking for; it would incapacitate the ‘serendipity of browsing’ and diminish the influence of proximity.
The influence of proximity is really a matter of convenience. People usually shop at the grocery store closest to their home, pick the restaurant closest to the movie theater and fall in love with “the girl next door.” And when browsing, they look for more information on a subject and expect to find it within arm’s reach. Those aren’t the only options and they may not be the cheapest, the best, or even available, but close and convenient often rank high when making decisions (at least, when I make decisions). And it is this somewhat lazy human personality quirk that Mr. Dewey was catering to when he came up with his system.
*This entry was first published at The Daily Theme on September 27,2010