Picture the trouble on our bookshelves: The local library was once an enlightening place, but now it's a closed subject to Anne Kirkman

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ONCE upon a time, you could go into almost any public library in the land and be confident about what you would find there.

On the one hand there was fiction, arranged neatly in strict alphabetical order by author. On the other hand there was non-fiction, arranged numerically according to the Dewey decimalisation system from 010 (Knowledge) to 999 (Extraterrestrial Worlds). If you did not know what number you were looking for, the librarian was there to tell you.

There did exist a few backward libraries where homogenous batches of fiction were shelved together and branded with a distinguishing mark (W for Western, for example), but professional librarians told

us that this was a Bad Thing because

it discouraged adventurous borrowing


Thirty years later, the professional librarians looked around their domains, and decided that this Bad Thing was, after all, a Good Thing, and might be an even Better Thing if non-fiction as well as fiction could be brought within its scope. Why not divide all the books in a branch library into broad categories, allot each category its own special pictogram, mark all the books in that category accordingly and shelve them together?

When I worked in a local library several years ago, these pictograms were already beginning to creep in, but they were still regarded with suspicion. But what do I find when I go into any number of my local libraries in Cambridgeshire today? You guessed it.

Chaos. You go in there wishing to find a book by Michael Gilbert. Under the old system, you would go to fiction, look under the Gs, and find all Michael Gilbert's works of fiction housed together. Now the would-be borrower has first to decide whether Michael Gilbert's works are likely to be categorised under Crime (in which case you would look for the pictogram of handcuffs) or Thriller (in which case you would look for a gun). You could get this wrong. So could the person who stuck the label on in the first place. If it was somebody well acquainted with the works of this author, he or she would probably allocate some of them to the handcuffs and some to the guns. If they were not (and not even a librarian can know all the works in his or her care intimately), they would take a cursory look, and make them all guns or all handcuffs. Your opinion and theirs are not necessarily the same. Is Tom Sharpe a funny face or an open book? Is Claire Rayner a house or a crown? Does it matter? Probably not, because even if you guess correctly and find your way to the right section, there is still no guarantee that you will find any of Claire Rayner's books.

In the good old days this was because they were all out. Now it's more probably because that they are no longer shelved alphabetically. They are not out, because nobody else has been able to find them either.

You are similarly daunted by the thought

of scrutinising a hundred or so books

to make sure the one you want isn't

there, so you give up in despair, and say

to yourself, 'What about non-fiction, then?'

What, indeed? Deprived of its respectable old Dewey numbers, this section has another batch of funny pictures for the hopeful borrower to contend with.

You want a book about tanks (military variety)? Don't for one moment imagine that if you see a shelf of books with tanks

on their spines that you are home and dry. Tanks (pictures of), represent the First

and Second World Wars. No, what you

are looking for are books with pictures

of a cogwheel on the back, representing


Never mind if that wasn't immediately obvious. Go and look for books on trees, bearing not the symbol of a tree, which is used for rural reminiscence, but that of a butterfly or rose.

Better still, go home and write a letter of complaint to your library manager. It has already dawned on you that this is a cost-cutting exercise designed to save the librarian's time by causing you to waste yours, so it will do no good, but you will find that the experience has improved your fluency and range of invective no end.