Reading Through the Stacks: How Poetry is Classified in Libraries

Reading through the Oakland Public Library main branch’s poetry collection, book by book.

The way poetry is organized in a library is quite different from fiction. Fiction is often just organized by author’s last name. Some libraries separate (either physically with shelving or using a sticker or some other indicator) different genres, but most of the time you can find the book you’re looking for by looking up the author’s last name (unless it’s considered literature or is a new book….).

Poetry is different. It’s classified under literature and therefore falls under the purview of the Dewey Decimal system.

DDC (the c for classification) has several different areas for poetry:

  • 808.1 reading/writing poetry (also known as poetics) I’m reading books out of this section, but not writing about them individually. I can do a round up or best of at some point
  • 808.81 poetry anthologies
  • 811 American poetry
  • 811.6 American poetry in the 21st century
  • 821 British poetry
  • 831 German poetry
  • 841 French poetry
  • 851 Italian poetry
  • 861 Spanish poetry
  • 871 Latin poetry
  • 881 Classical Greek poetry
  • 890 – Every other world literature is stuffed into these ten numbers so…. browse carefully for poetry

Some of the Dewey Decimal Classification systems problems are easy to see from this list–by giving American and European literature so much space, the western and colonial viewpoint is pretty clear. There is not so much more poetry in these languages than any other–this is about giving space to the literature that was considered literature and was being actively collected and prioritized in the 1800s by white people.

The problem for me is pretty clear–poetry is everywhere! I started with 811, and I’m quickly working through towards the much larger 811.6 category. But this is clearly going to take a lot longer to comb through than I initially thought. And it’s going to get a lot less contemporary at some point. I’m tempted to stick to 20th and 21st century collections for the sake of this blog even though I’m interested in older poetry and have read quite a bit of it. Let me know what you think in the comments if you have an opinion.

But the next book I’m talking about doesn’t use any of these classifications (well it does, technically it’s 811.6). We’re talking about the books in the “NEW” section. This is one of my favorite places to browse.

Poetry doesn’t normally have the same waiting list/hold problem as new books. So you can often keep new books for more than one checkout period. And this is a great place to find contemporary poetry that’s been recently chosen to add to the collection, which means more diverse authors in more diverse styles. If you’re new to reading poetry, it’s a much smaller and easier section to browse and do some sample reading than going up against 811.6 to find something you like.

But I encourage browsing all around the nonfiction stacks. You never know what’ll jump out at you!

Do you have opinions on DDC? Have a favorite call number? How do you think libraries should be organized? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

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