Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Proposing the End of Nonfiction as a Label and Organizing Default

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.


laura said...

I often find myself explaining to people sort of just the opposite--that actually everything in the library could be put into Dewey, only we pull the novels and often the biographies out to make them easier to find. But we leave the plays and the poetry (and the UFOs...) in. It's a mess, I agree.

ricklibrarian said...

Hi, Laura. What I might like to see is a narrative and a how-to section with obvious subdivisions. Of course, nothing will work for everyone. I can still see a need for librarians.

Citizen Reader said...

There will always be a need for librarians. (At least that's the way I feel about it.)

I can't say the label nonfiction has ever bothered me, at least not as much as "creative NF" or "narrative NF" do. I really do believe the organizing principle used is secondary to the people helping you use it--William Langewiesche himself (one of my favorite NF authors) has said that bookstores never know where to put his books either. So as long as someone who knows the system can show you the ropes, with enthusiasm and kindness, I don't think the labels matter so much.

ricklibrarian said...

Thanks, CR. I know we are needed and hope the people who need us realize they do.

ricklibrarian said...

A further thought, CR. I don't think physical shelving is as critical as find-ability and discover-ability. Our catalogs, our social media, and our librarians need to be capable. Still, I'd like an updated system of shelving.

Donna said...

Thanks for a great post. I had a discussion with my philosophy-student son last summer about "truth" in fiction and "facts" in nonfiction, but neither of us was pleased where that discussion took us. I'm not so much a fan of separating out genres from fiction, but I do think we could relabel nonfiction and make it clearer than the Dewey numbers do. That's especially true since the numbering scheme was developed so long ago. I can never understand why computer books ended up with UFOs and not mathematics.

hapax said...


Whenever I do library tours for teenagers (I figure elementary students are too young to have their minds messed with like this) I always ask: "What's the difference between fiction and nonfiction?"

Some bright young thing always says, "Non-fiction is true, fiction isn't true."

Then I answer, "But Greek myths and fairy tales are in the non-fiction." I show them the section. "Are those *true*?"

Somebody then usually says, "Well, non-fiction is facts, fiction is imagination [or 'creative' or 'literature' or something like that]."

Then I answer, "Poetry and plays are in non-fiction." I take them to those sections. "Are those facts instead of imagination?"

Some smart-ass then usually says, "Fiction is for fun, non-fiction is for school."

Then I take them to the comics and the games section. "Don't you think that these are fun?"

If I have a *really* clever group, one might pull the "reality-based dodge" you use.

Then I pull out two books from, say, the political pundits section, with completely opposing views, and say "Which one is based in reality?"

By this point, they are usually completely baffled and disoriented. So I conclude with,
"I am going to tell you the great secret about the way public libraries are set up."

Then with a great dramatic stage whisper, I declaim: "Librarians put in FICTION the books that we expect people to be looking for under "Fiction." Librarians put in NON-FICTION the books that we expect people to be looking for under "Non-Fiction." And THAT'S IT. The words don't mean anything else."

P.S. "Fiction", btw, does not actually mean "not true", as you claim. It means "constructed" or "made up." It's a subtle difference, but an important one.

ricklibrarian said...

Thanks for the definition of fiction. I just assumed that I fully knew what fiction meant and did not bother to look it up - not what you want to hear from a reference librarian. Of course, nearly every work in nonfiction is a construction from the mind of its author. Each is only real to a point. And most most books of fiction are reality-based in that they have to obey observable truths to be believable. The best novels reveal truths through story telling.

I am glad you challenge those teens.

Unknown said...

Rick, I've been thinking about nonfiction for a few years now, and I have this vision of dividing the collections in two in libraries. One section would be nonfiction "fact books" or "useful books" or "how to" or I don't know what else we could call it, and the other would be nonfiction appropriate for pleasure reading.

It would be difficult to know how to divide the books up in some cases, but if we could do it, I think what might happen eventually is that the utilitarian nonfiction section would shrink as more and more information migrates online making the books on the same subject outdated.

This probably doesn't make much sense, as I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about it. But what got me started is the fact that browsing for good books to read for pleasure doesn't work so well in nonfiction when James Herriot is shelved next to The Encyclopedia of Veterinary Medicine.

Cindy Orr

Anonymous said...

Those non-fiction books aren't just lumped together in a big pile though. Dewey provides the specific sections you ask for: e.g. travel = 910s, art = 700s, psychology = 100s, religion = 200s. Why not just translate those for your patrons with big signs?

Jason Kuhl said...

Hey, good to see a picture from my library in this post. For those of you who don't know, the picture of the biographies is from the new Marketplace collection at the Arlington Heights (IL) Memorial Library. We're using that collection to do many of the things talked about here--multiple copies of new and popular books arranged by broad subject area (with no Dewey). We have sections like Hobbies, Gardening, Parenting, Sports, Cookbooks, Travel, etc. Our customers have loved it. We certainly still have the traditional Dewey ranges of non-fiction, but this new collection is far more popular. While it is only 9% of our total collection it accounts for almost 25% of our circulation.

ricklibrarian said...

Jason, you have a good eye. I had been going to write about what I saw at your library, but have never fully formed my thoughts.

Anonymous, you are right that Dewey is not arbitrary, but the arrangement works better for the discovery of knowledge than of reading pleasure. Habitual novel readers wanting story may not realize that there is good reading to be found in the Dewey subject books. We could just say "Their loss they don't know better," but as guides we should help them out. Of course, we can do this through booklists and interactive catalogs and displays easier than rearranging all the books. Still, if we could find another way to shelve, we could serve even more readers.