The Vagaries of History Shelf Sorting

Winston Churchill did say "We shall fight on the beaches, but...."

“We shall fight on the beaches…”

Do bookstore owners everywhere dread re-organizing the  history section? To me, this slog is something between an exercise in diplomacy and a stress test for depression.

To whom does “Western Civilization” refer, exactly? Do Romans go in Ancient History, or under Italy? And how does one divide Wars? (There are usually two or more countries involved, you know.)

Do World Wars I and II go under European or World history; how will South America and Australia feel about that? I have three books in here about South America, and finally wound up putting them in “Hispanic.” Yes, I know.

The Gulf Wars – ho boy. Middle East, or American History? Or in Christian Nonfiction, under St. Jude? (never mind)

Yes, I understand that the Enlightenment and Reformation were different in origin points and influences than the Renaissance, but I couldn’t fit the Renaissance on the Italian shelf because it’s also holding all those Caesar biographies, so those three epochs are bundled together.

Yes, I KNOW Africa is neither a country nor part of the United States, but African history and the American Civil War books wound up together because they took up a whole shelf between them and this arrangement kind of hid the fact that we have 900 books on the American Civil War and four on Africa, plus two on countries in Africa. It’s not a political statement.

The entire top shelf of the history section, stretching right around the corner from the two American shelves to the one European (and other) shelf, is consumed with the enigmatic category “White House.” It wasn’t sarcasm when I put Hilary’s It Takes a Village up there; where else could one place that?

But I didn’t think John Chretien (the Frankophile 20th prime minister of Canada) should be in White House; the French section had room. Yes, I know that Canada isn’t in Europe, thank you, sir.

What’s a bookstore owner to do? I’m tempted to just write “History, as written by its winners” on a sign and hang it above the shelves.

7 thoughts on “The Vagaries of History Shelf Sorting

  1. Sort by dates. Then, if readers don’t know the difference between 1066 and 1865. its their problem. you know, if they don’t know their history, they are bound to repeat it. And often do anyway.

    Janice Brooks-Headrick 865-429-1783 Storyteller Author Instigator Timeline: Email:

  2. Pingback: The Vagaries of History Shelf Sorting |

  3. I swear I’m not picking a fight with Janice. I was a US History Teacher and taught World Cultures before I was a bookstore owner. Regarding it being their problem if they don’t know their history; I say it’s our problem. Or to put it another way, be kind, help them out finding great books.
    Regarding the shelving topic in general, I hear ya sister. I may have been silly when we opened deliberating on this one but I had trouble moving titles between Biography/Memoir and our small Food Writing section.

  4. Major Sections:
    U S History

    1: General American History
    2: Native American
    3: American Revolution
    4: American Civil War
    5: 20th Century
    6: World War ii
    7 Vietnam
    8: War on Terror
    9: 21st Century
    10: Presidential History

    World History

    1: Ancient History
    2: General World History
    3: Greek / Roman History
    4: European History (World Wars from the European side)
    5: British History
    6: Russian History
    7: Middle Eastern History
    8: Continental History (By continent)

    History of Things / Items (such as the history of Coca-Cola)

    Oversize History Books All Genres

    But I agree with you, the History section is a pain.

    Bruce Campbell
    BSR Used Books

  5. In my recent previous life as a cataloger (I’m now retired), I was also constantly flummoxed by the fact that one book could fall into many categories. I was saved by the fact that the online catalog could have multiple subjects, so people could find the book one way (browsing the shelf) or another (subject headings in the catalog).

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