Saturday, 30 January 2021

Reveries of libraries, the thirty-eighth: Emotional Classification


Two givens of cataloguing are that cataloguers classify works according to an agreed system of objective reality; and that they do not read the new books in library time. These two tenets, if you like, are given a shake when we consider a shop that arranges the stock according to emotions. 

Oh Hello Again is the name of a new bookshop in Seattle. According to The Seattle Times this month, the manager of the store, Kari Ferguson, practises bibliotherapy, “which posits that reading the right novel at the right time can help to console and guide people through moments of great emotional turbulence.” Presumably such therapy can extend to other literatures well. Kari has taken this concept to a whole new level. After sometimes initial confusion when entering the bookshop, visitors get the gist of this sympathetic shelf arrangement, with satisfying results. It may help if visitors are in touch with their emotions, unless of course it is the shop that alerts you to your mood. 

Emotional classification will have its challenges, especially for the seasoned cataloguer. I’m not sure exactly how it is meant to work. At present I am reading the a-laugh-every-page letters of Finnish storyteller Tove Jansson, and do wonder at the shop’s shelving of her ‘Moominland Midwinter’ under Melancholy. As in all her books, the emotional range varies, so you would have to shelve her titles in different parts of the store. 

This is possibly Melvil Dewey’s worst nightmare. There is no objective ordering of knowledge, whatsoever. Ontological, epistemological, and alphabetical order – the hallmark, benchmark, and bookmark of the tidy mind – are overridden by thematic arrangement. How, for example, do we shelve David Attenborough? Should he go in the Enthusiasm section, or under Wonder, or Sad when things don’t turn out so well between the lion and the gazelle? Such questions spring forth in leaps and bounds, when they are not stopped in their tracks with surprise and confusion. 

To be able to find something specific with this system, the classifier would need to know a lot about the book. A given of bookshops, as with libraries, is that staff not read the stock in work time. This is upended when staff must ascertain the emotion of a book, emotion being of its nature subjective. To arrive at a classification of Sublime for a book, the staff member must have read the book, thereby creasing the item and making it unsaleable. We think of the Alice books of Lewis Carroll, which could go under Confusion, Mirth, or Common Sense, depending on the personal response of the stockist. Emotions are also transitory, they pass through us to be superseded by other emotions. Do we classify our favourite theologian under Infinite Possibilities or Mind Boggle, depending on the day in question? And let’s not begin on our favourite poet. 

Transforming bibliotherapy into a complete book management system is an imaginative and creative move. It addresses one of the guiding factors in our own choice of reading matter, one that is not always named as such, finding something that meets our emotional needs. Our present state of being takes us to places we are sometimes not even conscious of, let alone owning up to ourselves in private.    

Emotional classification is the result of a rethink about how book repositories, whether shops, libraries, or other collections, may be presented for access. It is a response to how we often in reality make our reading choices. It can be how we arrange our private collections, with all the tolerable emotions at the top of the pile. How emotional classification works at the practical level of organisation is another matter. All staff would have to be trained in a sentimental education. Books that defy emotional classification may have to be lumped in the section labelled What The. Perhaps only a Kari Ferguson, attuned to the variations and possibilities, the complete rainbow of emotions, could deliver such a layout effectively. 


‘Seattle’s newest bookstore, Oh Hello Again, has a novel system; categorizing books by emotions,’ in The Seattle Times, 22 January, 2021, written by Paul Constant:

Facebook conversations with Elizabeth Wade. A link to the article was set up by The Folio Society’s FB account. 

Photograph by Greg Gilbert of The Seattle Times.

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