Playing in the rabbit hole of library genres

GoToVan, Vancouver Public Central Library, flickr (CC BY 2.0)

​I love public libraries (as you may have seen in my personal story last week), so I’m extending national library week to go playing among genres through the eyes of library catalogs. (It lets me browse new books, too, always a good time.)

I thought I’d see what categories my public library uses to classify books and, especially, to make it easy for people to find what they want to read. I know, there’s an entire degree in library and information science that includes expertise on this subject, and there are well-established systems for classifying books. I’m just exploring this topic as a reader (as well as genre-fan) to see what’s there.

Turns out it took me down a rabbit hole. A long, messy rabbit hole with lots of side twists and turns and places to burrow into. (I’ve never been in a real rabbit hole, so I hope those who have will forgive any mistakes in my metaphor.)

I started with the online catalog*of my hometown public library. The new homepage now lists categories by actions: Browse, Read, Play, Listen, and More (well, okay, “More” is not an action, but that’s quibbling).

Graphic Novels appear under Read, along with Magazines and Newspapers. And books. But Audiobooks appear under Listen, along with Music. Movies, TV, and Videogames are all Play, but books — even graphic novels — apparently aren’t play.


Libraries have definitely expanded their media since I was a child. So the first category seems to be media — do you read, play, or listen to it? Is it a book, movie, or music?

But wait, not so fast. It gets messier.

*(My library just shifted websites and both were still up last week when I compiled some of these lists, so there may be a bit of crossing over sites without my noticing. Most of the subcategory lists come from last week. Also, they spell it “catalog,” not “catalogue,” so don’t blame me.)

Then there’s the overlap across media.

Take a look at a book like Wonder by R.J. Palacio. It was once just a book but now there’s a movie version, too. But Wonder is also in the catalog (when I search for it) as an audiobook. Isn’t that a different medium from book and movie? Somewhere in between? Audiobooks were listed on the homepage directory under Listen, along with music. The catalog also has a separate listing for the e-book version — a different platform, perhaps, but not a different medium? I didn’t find a Large Print version of Wonder, but lots of other books appear in that format. Is Large Print more different from the original published book than an e-book is? There’s a soundtrack album listed, too, so Wonder hits the big three — book, movie, and music!

Medium, platform, format, genre.

Some seem pretty different — like book and movie — but others seem pretty similar — like large print and e-book versions. The audiobook version performs the whole book, while the movie performs part of the book and is considered a different art form. Are audiobooks a different art form since they perform the book differently and interpret the book for us? And the soundtrack takes part of the movie and presents it as a different art form, too, even though it comes directly from the movie.

Medium, platform, format, genre, art form. Differences without clear distinctions. I am definitely down the rabbit hole.

Hey, I promised to go exploring, not to come up with answers!

All intriguing, but I’m interested in exploring book categories, so I click on Books. Up pops a heading of “Books.” Now I’m getting somewhere.

That screen shows me many wondrous book covers, subcategorized under these headings:

New Books
Biography & Memoir
General Fiction
Graphic Novels
Large Print
Science Fiction
Urban Fantasy

Ah, these must be the categories the library uses to categorize books!

Not so fast, Rascally Rabbit.

Large Print is there as a separate category, but not audiobooks or e-books. OK, I can dismiss a little inconsistency if it makes it easier for people to find the books they want to read, and Large Print is a smaller category than some other formats.

But wait. I notice a “General Fiction” but not General Nonfiction. I know there is such a category in the library itself, on the physical shelves where new books are divided into fiction (with subsections for mystery, romance) and nonfiction. Where and how do I find a category to browse that might include popular trade nonfiction books?

I am still on the hunt.

Peter Dutton photo of mural side of Arrogant Swine, Elmer vs. Bugs, flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

So to narrow down from, well, all the books, I took a different trail by searching under New Books for the last 30 days.

As if I hadn’t taken us deep enough down the rabbit hole, I see on the side menu under “New Books” a filter for “Forms/Genres.”


I feel your pain, library. In my field of expertise, we have had long conversations about the differences between forms and genres. But even if you’ve wrangled with all that academic philosophizing, you have to pick a heading.

What do you call those labels we use to categorize books, even when they’re all just books, not movies or music or videogames? Are they all genres? Will readers know what we’re talking about if we say “genre” or will they think only of mysteries, romances, and westerns? And maybe some of those categories aren’t really genres (whatever it means to “really” be a genre).

Under New Books, when I search by “Form/Genres” I find this noticeably different but still manageable list:
Show more

But then . . . I click on “Show more”

Mike McBride, Oh No . . . flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

When I click on Show more, I get a list of “Additional filters for Form/Genres” that calls up 106 separate categories, ranging from the one with the most new titles in it, Fiction with 554 new books, to 45 categories with just one new book, in alphabetical order from A Amateur Manuals to U Urban Fiction.

I click on the second most numerous category, “Suspense Fiction,” and find 117 new books divided now into new categories, ranging (after “Fiction”) from “Psychological Fiction” with 23 new books to “Spy Fiction” with just 1 new book.

Obviously, these categories overlap. They also contain duplicates in different formats, so the regular book, large print, ebook, and audiobook would all be counted separately. Assuming the most popular books are the ones the library would purchase in multiple formats, the numbers still seem like a reasonable snapshot of what categories people check out of the library.

But it’s also a snapshot of what categories libraries use, of course.

I did finally find a way to see nonfiction as a category by going to “Advanced Search” where I could filter by “collection” and find one called “Adult Non-Fiction. ” If I filter for new books (past 60 days, same as for fiction), I find 100 new Adult Non-Fiction books.

More intriguing still in my hunt, I eventually discovered that the original New Books page has a menu for “Content,” which includes three categories and the number of new books in the past 30 days:

Fiction (584)
Non-fiction (377)
Undetermined (17)

Ooh, undetermined. You know I had to go there, but that rabbit hole would take me another 2000 words, and I’ve already tried your patience. (Oh, okay, I won’t leave you hanging: The first two books listed there were a collection of essays by Sloane Crosley and an illustrated children’s collection of Shakespeare. By William Shakespeare. Undetermined.)

​Well, even I must stop before I lose sight of the entrance to this rabbit hole. But what an adventure to burrow this way and that, finding seemingly endless labels for the kinds of books we read and media we consume.

Am I the Mad Hatter? Making you think libraries are insane? Or the Cheshire Cat, knowing the secret but merely smiling and fading away?

Just Alice Amy, discovering that my desire for tight logic and neat categories and clear distinctions may not apply when you’re a reader.

Some books sit politely in their genre, acting properly at the tea party and easily placed on a shelf. But many — maybe most — books are more like the white rabbit. Books don’t just hold still or behave.

They may even be undetermined.

And categories are slippery. Genres are tough. And I don’t envy the librarians who have to place a label — or even two or three or twenty — on every book.

Thank you to librarians everywhere for helping us find books, music, movies, or videogames that suit us, whatever they’re called.

Happy week after National Libraries Week!

isox4,Alice in Wonderland 1-Blackpool Illuminations, flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Revised form of original publication at Follow me on my blog at And thank you for reading

Writer, teacher, researcher, PhD, optimist. I explore language & everyday genres to help people see & choose the language & genres they use.