It's been said before. "Nonfiction" is a poor label for what is a majority of the books in our libraries. As librarians, we define these books by what they are not instead of what they are. It is no wonder that some readers fail to be attracted by this ill-defined category of books. We are not touting the legitimate appeal factors of reality-based books when we use such a vague word. "Reality-based." See, I am struggling myself to find an alternative encompassing term.
Think about "nonfiction." This term means "not fiction." "Fiction" itself means "not true." So we offer our readers a "not not true books section" from which to find books. Who'd go there if they did not already know the treasures to be found? Terrible labeling. Let's try to clean it up. Cancel the two negatives, and we are left with "true books." Better, but can you truly believe everything you will read from a book from the not fiction section of the library? No, there is much to dispute in reality-based books (lacking a better term). Will scientific theories prove true? Do histories recount events correctly? Are the policies of one political party really as bad as the opposition pundits claim? "True" sounds certain when much of the content is not.
"Real books," "verifiable books," "fact books," or "Dewey decimals books." I try to replace the term "nonfiction," but I find no better collective word or phrase, a brand with a good ring to it. Perhaps the reason is that "nonfiction" is really the section that we have created - a grouping of books with little in common other than not being fiction.
I think our stumbling block to connecting books with readers is our mind-set of grouping together all these diverse books that are not fiction. In libraries, when we separate fiction from everything else and then group all the remaining books together by Dewey Decimal numbers, we imply there are only two kinds of books - fiction and nonfiction. Then, when prospective pleasure readers enter the nonfiction area and come face to face with the 000s or generalities, they may stop and turn back toward the dramatic, action-packed, suspense-filled novels. They may never discover the many well-told narratives scattered among the books of psychology, religion, science, art, sports, history, and biography.
Librarians are not alone under the yoke of nonfiction. Some book review journals use fiction and nonfiction labels for grouping their reviews and lists. Laid out much like a library, part of a typical journal is the fiction section and another is the nonfiction section. Navigation to reviews can, of course, be improved with headings, and readers who have learned the layout can find what they want, just as they may in a library. But is it a good layout?
There are beginning to be some signs of breaking apart nonfiction at review journals. Library Journal has turned nonfiction into several sections. Also, within the last five years, the editors of the New York Times Book Review moved how-to and self-help books off of the "Nonfiction Bestsellers" lists (hardcover and paperback) and into new lists called "Advice and Misc." I suspect the literary minds at the newspaper tired of seeing investing guides and cookbooks crowd well-reviewed narratives off the revered nonfiction bestseller lists. Making new lists dividing the books was a simple but effective act. Dividing our library nonfiction books will take a bit more effort.
While I sometimes find it difficult to pinpoint the titles that I seek in bookstores, I do appreciate that they rely less on the nonfiction idea for grouping books than libraries do. Instead of a big nonfiction section, shoppers find specific sections for travel, art, sports, business, psychology, religion, cooking, health, history, biography, etc. The bookstores do not suggest by placement that mathematics texts or guides to writing resumes belong with histories of polar exploration or memoirs by movie stars. Dependent on sales to stay in business, bookstores are betting that most of their customers are browsers or will ask for help. Sadly, we see bookstores closing. Perhaps this is not the time to embrace the retail model expecting it to be enough to lure folks to the library.
Reorganizing and relabeling the reality-based books will help, but we will never find one method that will serve all of our readers well. Each reader comes into the library with different interests and skills at navigating collections. This is why libraries need skilled readers' advisory librarians who know their collections and their tools of discovery. The library is a service, not a building full of books, and the staff is the primary delivery system getting books to readers. Using word of mouth, in-library displays, printed book lists, book review blogs, and even social media, we tout our titles. We will lead readers straight to the books when allowed. Even when readers find the books on the shelves themselves and use self-checkout machines, staff have made discovery possible. In an effort to advance our cause, we need to design better tools for ourselves and for our readers, especially better online catalogs that serve discovery more than inventory.
Can we do this and not say "nonfiction"? Habit is hard to break, but we would be better off without it. Readers trust us to organize by design, not by default, and to be able to lay our hands on specific books or lead them to topical material. Some even know that we earned advanced degrees to learn how to organize and manage our collections. Let's not discourage them by using fuzzy words.