The quantum(like) effects of e-book shelving

So this guy walks into a bookstore and goes looking for Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel. He doesn’t know who Asimov is, but he’s been assured by a good friend that the book is a wonderful mystery story and, being a fan of mysteries, he’ll eat it up.  He makes his way toward the  back of the store where the genre shelves are normally hidden, and finds the mystery/crime section. Once there, it shouldn’t be that difficult. After all, the author’s last name begins with an A, and the books are sorted, with passable accuracy, alphabetically.  However, he doesn’t find the book. Not completely dejected, he goes off in search of someone who can help him. The young man he finds has never heard of this Asimov fellow, but he knows how to use a computer so he looks it up. “We do have the book,” he tells our hero. “But it is not shelved under mysteries. You can find it under science fiction.”

This has been the problem with the way books have been shelves for as long as I can remember. There is no easy way to shelve a book in more than one place. Certainly, if you have five copies of a book, you might put three in science fiction and the other two under mysteries, but I have yet to see a bookstore that does this. And it makes sense that they don’t. Bookstores have trained us all that books fall under one and only one category when more intuitively, we know that is not the case.

From early on, this was a major advantage I saw to e-book “shelving”–or how e-books are categorized in their respective online bookstores. Through taxonomic methods like tagging, a book can be shelved in multiple places at the same time. Someone skimming “mysteries” might come across Asimov’s Caves of Steel, but so might someone skipping “science fiction.” The very fact that the book itself is electronic and not physical lend it to this kind of improved taxonomic markup.

Of course, this is also true of physical books purchased through clearing-houses like Amazon because a physical book becomes a non-physical construct in a database, as opposed to something on a shelf that takes up space. In this situation, the book does have to be stored somewhere and a person in a warehouse has to be able to find the book, but in doing this, you are only adding a single layer of abstraction to the process, mapping your virtual taxonomy to a physical location.

I like being able to search for books in this way. Better yet, I like the fact that it allows books to be categorized in more than one way. A book doesn’t have to be just science fiction or just a mystery. They don’t have to be just memoir or just humor. They can combine as many categories as suit the book. And who decides these categories? There are two sides to this: one set by the publisher and one set by the consumer. And it is the consumer categories that often win out because they are crowd-sourced. A publisher might classify a book as science fiction because it involves a spaceship. But that spaceship might be the space shuttle and the story might be a contemporary one and the crowd-sourced aspect of tagging allows for this. It also allows for a better expression of cross-genre books.

Ultimately, this ability to “tag” books in multiple ways, combined with crowd-sourcing might begin to blur the lines of genre more effectively than anything in the past. No longer will books have to be one thing or the other. Instead, they can be put into a kind of “superposition”, being both science fiction and horror at the same time. And who is looking for the book affects how they see it. Searching for the book under horror, one may not notice that it is also categorized under science fiction.

This kind of flexible, user-friendly taxonomy does not necessarily replace the ability of wandering through the stacks of a dusty old bookstore, and looking a piles of yellowed books in seeming disarray. But it does help to address the difficult problem of classifying books and ultimately makes them easier to find.


  1. Tagging is nice but the online book stores seriously lack in being able to offer browsing. There should be a balance between tagging and traditional cataloging/shelving.

    1. I completely agree. You’d think that would be common sense because it would satisfy the largest possible audience. I prefer the tagging/taxonomy approach myself, but I can see the benefit to a browsing approach as well.


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