Cracking the code of library shelf classification

Faced with a stack of 55 books, sixteen library users at Oulu City Library got on with the task of placing the titles under seven newly introduced subject headings. This exercise was one of several in the year- and-a-half long project where library users, their expectations and perceptions of library services and collections have been the focus.

“We’d already tested between-the-shelves duty, with good results, and heard of inspiring examples of developing customer services from outside the library world, e.g. the (state monopoly) liquor store, Alko”, explains library director Pirkko Lindberg. In addition to user service, collection development had been in the air. When the library put together the two, plus service design which had been discussed at a library meeting, the Proactive library professional and the new library collection concept was born. “New ideas take some time to simmer”, says Lindberg. The overall goal for the project which runs until the end of this year is a better-quality collection, more userfriendly presentation and easier accessibility of the material. The library collection needs to have a fresh look and feel which demand stern and extensive weeding.

When it comes to customer service, the staff need to be more approachable. “Marketing library materials, being available for users on the shop-floor, between shelves, acting as hosts and hostesses on the premises, a friendly and cheerful service attitude” are means to this end according to Pirkko Lindberg. Interaction between staff and patrons, involving the user in the service event is important.

Feminism – that’s art, right?

During a three-day period library users were invited to take part in a study where they classified 55 books representing different main categories in the classification system used by Finnish public libraries under new headings which would hopefully make more sense to them. The group in charge of the collections part of the overall project wanted to test a new way of organising the books on the shelves. Instead of the library-centred classification system, new categories were tested on alive and kicking library users.

Librarian Heidi Mustonen and her colleague Saana Kaleva approached library users and asked if they were willing to take part in the study. “We explained that we were not testing the customers but the functioning of the new subject headings”, tells Heidi. Several of the sixteen patrons who offered their help became extremely engaged in the assignment and spent well over the intended 15 minutes on the task. These were regular library visitors who were more or less familiar with the organisation of the library collection.While the classification system might be more of a mystery, they had nevertheless been able to locate the material most important to them even if some topics were harder to find and place than others. “One user was wondering why philosophy and history were placed so far apart.” The results were compared with the plans, and the subject headings were revised accordingly. The initial headings are Society and economy, Countries, languages and history, Nature and animals,Well-being and health, Technique, Hobbies, and lastly, Literature and the arts. As part of the reorganising project, students from the local university of applied sciences are involved in an obser- vational study of user behaviour as part of their thesis. (Oh, and in case you were wondering. The title of the paragraph is a quote from a 47-year-old male user while classifying the 55 books in the study.)

User expectations count – as do non-user expectations

Approximately a thousand inhabitants between the ages of 15 and 79 will be interviewed on different aspects of library use later this year. The phone interviews are meant to unearth more than the usual positive response from library patrons: public libraries fare so well in all kinds of user surveys that it is impossible to use the results in developing the services. The goal is to include non-users as well as library users. The service design angle will hopefully help in relocating the service desks and approaching and serving the users in new ways. The collection will also be re-organised according to the results from the shelf- reordering project.

Talking to users, letting them have their say on shelving and organising the library space will probably result in happy and engaged library users. Out with Dewey, in with user-driven ways of looking at things.

Päivi Jokitalo
Freelance Library Specialist
paivi.jokitalo AT

Freelance Library Specialist