In January, Follett, a leading provider of materials, technology, and services in the K–12 library space, launched its new Genre Solutions service, designed to help librarians and media specialists who want to genrefy their libraries by classifying some or all of their books by genre, rather than by the traditional Dewey Decimal classification system.

Genre Solutions is in part the result of the work done by a 27-member Genrefication Advisory Board assembled by Follett last year. The group met for the first time in April 2018 during the Texas Library Association Annual Conference in Dallas.

According to Nader Qaimari, president of Follett School Solutions, the idea behind the advisory board was to find a more streamlined way for his company to assist librarians. “The advisory board was brought together to see if it would be possible to create some standards around genrefication so that more libraries would be able to take advantage of it and not feel lost in starting the process,” he says. “We were beginning to handle one-off requests for libraries around genrefication, going in and doing the work for them, and we realized that was a little chaotic. Though each library was saying, and rightfully so, that they wanted to customize things for the needs of their demographics and their community, we were seeing a lot of similarities.”

Qaimari says that the board proved “there is an appetite and a willingness to at least start with a standard list, knowing that there’s going to be customization at the school or district level.” He adds, “We picked people who had gone through this process themselves and had a lot of opinions about it, and we had a really good group that helped us develop a lot of things.”

Journeys in Genrefying

The board, in partnership with Follett’s in-house team of librarians, evaluated more than a thousand genrefied libraries using custom genre solutions from the company. The board also offered feedback on the usefulness and look of various genrefication tools to help refine them. The result is the substantial Genre Solutions package, which includes access to a preselected list of Follett genres; enhancements to Titlewave (a collection development tool) and Destiny (a library management system); do-it-yourself genrefication starter kits; labels; cataloging and processing customization; signage; genre consulting; and a “Genre Best Practices” guide.

Board member Fran Glick, coordinator of library media programs and digital resources for Baltimore County Public Schools in Maryland, says she was invited to join the group as a result of her district’s pioneering moves in genrefication as well as a strong, longtime partnership with Follett. “Our intrepid library media specialist Sandy Bixby approached our leadership team in 2014 and requested permission to genrefy the collection at her school,” Glick recalls. “We were excited by her leadership and willingness. We supported her efforts and challenged her to document and share her experience, which she did in her blog, Bixby’s Bookshelves. Her willingness braved the way for others, and, as of today, 60% of our 165 school libraries have embraced this change.”

Teaming with Follett was familiar to Glick. “They are so much more than a vendor to us,” she says. “We brainstorm and we think about big ideas together. We have a willingness to solve problems for the benefit of students.”

Glick notes that she informed Follett of Bixby’s genrefication efforts along the way and “we talked with them about what we had to do to manipulate Destiny, which is their catalogue system, to make a genrefied library work.” She adds, “In order to put some meat on that bone, we invited them to come out for a visit.”

The advisory board is composed of librarians representing large school districts, such as Glick, and also individual librarians, including Rachel Grover, a middle school librarian in Northern Virginia. Grover was inspired to embark on her classification journey after tackling the topic as a research project while earning her library degree in 2014. She put her research into action when she landed her first librarian job that same year and began genrefying her fiction collection.

“Mine was the first school in my district to have a genrefied fiction collection,” Grover says. She created her own signage and other tools along the way because “there was nothing available,” she says. “I had nothing to go on besides my research and a couple of blogs.” Grover cites Louisiana librarian Tiffany Whitehead and her blog, Mighty Little Librarian, as an indispensable resource. Once the transition was made, “we doubled circulation that first year, and it has never gone back down,” Grover says. “It’s been higher each year since.”

Classification Debates

Genrefication has been the subject of great debate among librarians for more than a decade. But the discussion picked up steam in 2012 and early 2013 when it was raised in a statement of concern by the Kansas Association of School Librarians and then was presented as a “hot topic” program during ALA Midwinter in Seattle in 2013. There are passionate voices for and against the practice. Proponents claim that genrefication provides easier self-directed browsing and better discoverability, better readers’ advisory, increased circulation and reading, and a more enjoyable user experience for students. Those who oppose genrefication argue, among other points, that the classification is more confusing to some students and does not prepare them to use public and academic libraries, and that it helps devalue the role of the librarian.

“It is still a polarizing discussion sometimes,” Qaimari says. “But ultimately we’ll have to see how circulation and student satisfaction play out over time to see if this is something that will continue to have legs. Our hunch is that it will, but the data ultimately will be the proof.”

Qaimari maintains that the heart of any tension is not truly about genre vs. Dewey. “There is a fear in the library profession that certain things that really define libraries are being taken away,” he says.

The situation is made more complicated by the emergence of paraprofessionals and, in some cases, even parent volunteers trying to do the librarian’s job, Qaimari says. “Librarians feel that moving away from the things that were always cornerstones of library school and of the profession is going to make it easier for them to be displaced, and I think there’s some merit to that,” he says. “Deep down, many people probably think genres are an interesting approach. I think if the profession was solid and got tremendous support, as it should, this wouldn’t even be a discussion.”

As part of the pro-genrefication camp, Glick notes, “I feel that, for the greater good of encouraging kids to read and enjoy things and find things that appeal to them, there’s no argument. I think, on a national level, the community has much more readily embraced this.” She says that back in 2014, “we were on the edge of this work, and five years later no one bats an eye when you say, ‘We’re genrefying.’ You don’t even have to explain it anymore.”

And for anyone on the fence about trying to genrefy, Grover offers a supportive assessment: “It’s worth every moment. It’s worth every frustration, because at the end of the day, it’s really about the kids. It makes them more effective in their library, so why would you not?”