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Judging a Book By Its Cover

by Melanie A. Lyttle and Shawn D. Walsh on February 12, 2014

In theory, book cover art gives an idea of what the story is inside.  Often it is the exciting, tantalizing, or intriguing hook that gets a person to pick up the book and see what’s inside. Why can’t we use that art to help us separate books into genres? It seems like that would make things much quicker and easier.

Our adult books have never really been separated by genres. We’ve tried, but since everything was shelved together by author, it didn’t really matter whether a book got a science fiction or fantasy genre sticker. At least patrons knew it wasn’t going to be a mystery or western before they pulled it off the shelf. However, now we need to separate our books literally and figuratively into some broad genres as we work toward aligning our entire collection with the BISAC system of organizing materials. That means we have staff trying to separate books into genre categories who aren’t familiar with the authors who exemplify the various genres.

Fantasy and Science Fiction are our favorite examples of how helpful cover art can be. Fortunately with the exception of several authors, a well designed cover will tell someone what genre the book is with as much accuracy as reading the inside cover or checking the cataloging or subject heading information.

Science Fiction books have a certain look. Frequently well-muscled women or men brandish weapons menacingly. There can be futuristic buildings or vehicles spread across the cover. A space vehicle of some sort is always a good clue. If anything on the cover looks like it could be part of a Star Wars or Star Trek plot, it’s science fiction.

Fantasy books also have a certain look. Beautiful women with flowing hair and dresses stare off into the distance. Knights or medieval soldiers with swords and shields march across the landscape. Dragons or other mythical animals may or may not be in the same places as castles or rolling fields. The landscapes on the cover seem remote and idyllic at the same time.

So with this information, we set out to find all our mislabeled fantasy and science fiction books. And the person separating these books sadly had no clue about what authors belonged in what genre. The staff person did amazingly well separating books just based on the pictures on the covers. The only author that really tripped her up was Anne McCaffrey. She writes science fiction about dragons!

The interesting thing is we also have adults from the community helping us by separating children’s books into genres based on their covers, but that’s a whole other blog entry! Stay tuned!