Why Do Libraries Shelve Paperbacks and Hardbacks Separately?

A little help from the library geeks in the audience: Why is it that libraries shelve paperbacks and hardbacks separately?

So the hardback of say, Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis is in the hardback sci-fi section, while the paperback of Perelandra is in the paperback sci-fi section. And if you don’t get why that’s inconvenient, they’re both the first and second novels respectively in Lewis’ Space Trilogy. I don’t care if it’s hardback or paperback, I just want to read the trilogy.

Or an even simpler example, I’m looking for The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein (I told you I was on a sci-fi kick). But I can’t just check the paperback section (which didn’t have it), I also had to check the hardback section (which did have it).

How screwy is that? I love libraries, but I don’t get this. Is there some rhyme or reason to it? Is it easier to shelve books when they’re all hardback or all paperback? Does it save shelf space? And whatever the rationale, does it justify making it harder for patrons to find books?

Hmm… it makes about as much sense as having to call Northwest Airlines five times at three different numbers to finally talk to a human (and no, the “customer care” line did not result in talking to a human, no matter how hard I tried). I hate to put libraries in the same category as a bankrupt airline–but that’s where I’m at.

15 thoughts on “Why Do Libraries Shelve Paperbacks and Hardbacks Separately?”

  1. A lot of people like that setup more, actually. They can find it more easy to browse, etc. But hey, everyone has their own opinion.

    Also… libraries can do this for the purposes of organization and money. Different shelving costs, more efficient storage, managing hardcovers and paperbacks is different, etc. Paperbacks allow for closer categorization as well: you can have romance, mystery, etc. (something you wished for in an earlier entry, heh). Hardcovers are then generally organized by the Dewey system, etc. So a bunch of reasons for you… maybe not your preference, but there you go.

  2. OK, so maybe I’m just slow this morning, but that doesn’t help.

    Why would someone find it easier to browse all paperbacks/hardbacks separately (and do it twice) vs. mixed paperbacks/hardbacks (and do it once)? Does having relatively the same size book make that much of a difference? (I’ve never noticed in a bookstore before, and they don’t seem to care about separating hardcover and paperback).

    And why would paperbacks allow for better categorization? Often the same books are available in both paperback and hardback. You categorize them the same way, regardless of how they’re published. Certainly some genres would lean toward paperback, but who cares if one section is heavy on paperback?

    I’m still not seeing a reason that makes it all click. Not enough to justify making people check two locations for everything.

  3. I can’t say for sure, but here’s one possible reason. Hardbacks are generally taller, and thus require greater distance between the shelves. By keeping them together, you’re not wasting as much vertical space as if you mixed in paperbacks. Relatedly, this is why “oversize” or folio books are typically in their own section, as well. It may not be the best system for browsing (although I know many people who will only read paperbacks because hardcovers are too heavy/bulky), but for a library trying to make the best use of space, it makes sense.

    I’m also reading the space trilogy by Lewis. I haven’t read it since high school. I was reminded of it when some thoughts for my potential dissertation reminded me of some things Lewis says about space.

    I’ve also had many people recommend Ender’s Game to me, but I’ve not gotten around to it yet.

  4. Saving shelf space by fitting in more books vertically seems like the best rationale I’ve heard, but it’s still pretty iffy. I don’t remember if the paperback section actually had more shelves than the hardback section–I don’t think it did, but it certainly could have. I suppose that’d be the first thing to compare.

    Though books do come in all sizes–I’ve got paperbacks that are just as tall as hardbacks (the Space Trilogy paperback, for example, is just as tall as the Moon is a Harsh Mistress hardback I checked out. I would think you’d have to plan your shelf spacing with this variation in mind and it wouldn’t allow you to gain enough space to make separating paperbacks and hardbacks worthwhile.

    But that’s my stubborn ranting. I suppose I need to pay more attention to the shelving the next time I’m at the library.

  5. We use softcover books as a browsing collection. It sits behind our Readers Advisory desk and contains the most popular titles. We get lots of people who are looking for paperbacks specifically, either for travel or because they simply prefer them. It is also much more of an expendable collection since they are cheap can easily be replaced.

    Keep in mind that arrangement of materials is one of the challenges that libraries face. Do we shelve cd with cassette audiobooks? Some people will only use one format, but it seems artificial to have authors divided by format. What about Large Print? How visible should they be in a library? Preferably out in front so that people with disabilities can find them. However they are only used by a limited audience so that takes up valuable space. These are some of the challenges that libraries face in trying to organize and present materials to different patrons with different preferences / needs. It’s much different from the meta world of the internet that lets you access materials in varying ways.

  6. Have you been to the bookstores lately? Every bookstore I have been to has their books shelved in terms of paperbacks versus hardbacks. They may mix some up, but overall, there tends to be a separation. I can certainly understand your desire to have everything in one place. I don’t usually care as much of a book’s format when I borrow it from the library, though I like paperbacks a bit better (lighter on a backpack and easier to read on a commute).

    In terms of libraries (and I am an academic librarian), I think the space issue may be issue (paperbacks take up less space, so you can put them on smaller shelves, or use those little racks that rotate for browsing). On a different take, at home, for my own books I tend to separate between hardbacks and paperbacks. Again, it is a space issue. Paperbacks I can put in small crates, on a side shelf, on any small nook. Hardbacks require an actual big shelf; putting a lot of paperbacks on a larger shelf would seem wasteful to me. Anyhow, in the end, one goes with what works.

    tpy: Definitely pick up _Ender’s Game_ if you have not.

    Best, and keep on blogging.

  7. Paperbacks are harder to shelve with Hardcovers. Often, a smaller book would be pushed back and fall behind the stack, lost forever. This often happens with graphic novels (which is also why some libraries shelve these separately.)

    It is possible to get a backstop in some cases, but often the backstop makes the shelf itself too small for the hardcovers.

    Furthermore, many books go out of print are available ONLY in paperback. This is maddening. As you say, having a book series in different formats is very frustrating, but often that’s a publisher’s decision.

    Lastly, paperbacks are often preferred by the senior population as it is easier to hold and lighter. Having them in all one place (like large print collections) makes it easier for them. Some people prefer just paperbacks.

    Hope that helps. Libraries try to make it as convenient as possible, but too often, outside factors end up creating something that doesn’t make sense to the average user.

  8. Angel- OK, so I’m a Barnes & Noble shopper, and they combine the paperbacks and hardcovers. I haven’t been to a bookstore in a while that separates (and if it wasn’t recently I probably wouldn’t notice or remember).

    In general– it’d be interesting to compare the shelving practices of businesses (i.e., bookstores) to nonprofits (i.e., libraries) and see if that might shed some light. Are libraries really trying to serve the needs of the elderly when they separate? And have bookstores (B&N at least) found greater profit in combining? That’d be a curious study (at least to a geek like me)

  9. Kevin,

    B&N and Borders do shelve separately, but instead of dividing along HC/PB lines, they put the mass markets together and the HC & PB together. This is almost universally true in sci-fi and romance, although lit/classics and nonfiction usually sees all of them put together. I have the feeling you’re usually in the lit or nonfiction sections, which are usually grouped together; since there are so few MM, it would be too much of a hassle to keep them separate.

    Having worked both in a bookstore and in a library, I can say that there are definitely people who want to browse them all together (like you) and those who want to browse paperbacks (especially MM romance and sci-fi) separately. In the library where I worked, MM romance was shelved separately, and we were told not to bother ordering them too carefully because they were so thoroughly ransacked all the time.

  10. Ah, now I’m starting to see the light. Mass market paperbacks–that’s a huge distinction. Since they’re all the same size (I’ve got four sitting on my desk right now and while the thickness obviously varies, the cover sizes are practically the same, maybe an 1/8 inch variation) you could save some space in shelving. I can also see how they’d get pawed a lot more. But that wasn’t the distinction the library was using–the paperback Out of the Silent Planet is at least an inch larger on two sides than a mass market paperback, yet it was in the paperback section. So I’m not sure that library was getting all the shelf savings everyone is pointing out.

    The B&N by me puts all the Sci-Fi/Fantasy together. I guess I should pay closer attention to how other stores do it, but again I’m wondering about the profitability.

    The only time pulling out the mass-markets seems to make sense is when you’re highlighting them–a quick sell rack of MM romance or mystery or sci-fi, or my old favorite–the 88-cent MM paperback table in the used section.

  11. Hi,

    Here’s my inputs as a public librarian from Singapore:
    I remember when I was a teenager, our public libraries shelved the paperbacks and hardcovers separately. But since 1995 or so (can’t remember), all fiction books, regardless of whether they are paperbacks or hardcovers, are shelved on the same shelves by the first three alphabets of the authors’ surnames. I believe that’s called the Cutter method of shelving. However, we don’t shelve our books by genre though we have special logos to signify the different genres.

    My two cents.

  12. For the record, this particular library had the same number of vertical shelves in the hardback section and the paperback section. So they’re not separating the book to maximize shelf space.

    Also, I finally found some of the books I was looking for–in the Young Adult section(?!). So apparently the same book can be found in at least three different sections (and we’re not even talking large print or audio versions). Sigh.

  13. Part of it is processing costs. A “mass market paperback” (discussed in other comments) is generally cheap but they don’t last very long. In order to carry a wide variety and a larger quantity of popular titles, libraries will buy mass market paperbacks. In order to save costs, the libraries do a couple things. One,t hey minimally process the books. There’s no since of buying the cheapest paperback if you just jack up your costs by putting protective covers on the book, etc. Some libraries don’t even bother to catalog mass market paperbacks. They just slap a barcode on the book and all it says in the catalog is “paperback”. Once again, saving staff time reduces the ownership costs of this book that the library knows isn’t going to last a long time. Second, by keeping these books in their own shelving section, it’s cheap, quick, and easy to monitor the collection and pull severly worn/damaged books for disposal. Their all in one place and you don’t have to sift though all the books just to find the mass market paperbacks that are falling apart. And since the fall apart more quickly than other hard or paperbacks, they need to be evaluated more often.

  14. G’day Kevin,
    I work in a public library in Sydney. We currently separate hc and pbk books. The pbk books are situated at the front of the library in a very visibly area. High impact, impulse type items. Statistics show however thier loans don’t justify the realestate and so I am trying (and failing) the convince the powers above to integrate them into general fiction…. Wish me luck!

  15. I can only speak about libraries, as I work in a library for children and teens. I’ve learned that shelving paperbacks with hardbacks leads quickly to the mutilation of soft covers as little fingers struggle to shove them back onto the shelves. Teens often accomplish similar damage through plain carelessness.

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