The Value of the Book Cover: My Favorite Way to Discover Books in Libraries


Mina is trying to focus on her job as a flight attendant, not the problems with her five-year-old daughter back home, or the fissures in her marriage. But as the plane takes off, Mina receives a chilling note from an anonymous passenger: “The following instructions will save your daughter’s life...” When one passenger is killed and then another, Mina knows she must act. But which lives does she save: Her passengers…or her own daughter and husband who are in grave distress back at home? It's twenty hours to landing. A lot can happen in twenty hours.

They say “don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” and I do try to keep that in mind. In fact, one of my favorite books growing up was an Arthurian fantasy novel with a cover so appalling to my teenage self that I removed it every time I checked it out from the library and then carefully reattached it upon return. The book was amazing; the cover not so much. However, book covers, whether I love the cover art or not, often help me discover books in libraries.

It’s not that I’m debating between which book cover I like best to make a decision; though I do love book cover art enough to sketch it in my free time. It’s simply that seeing book covers facing outwards in a library draws me to those books like a moth to flame. I don’t always have the time to squint at titles amidst a sea of book spines and think about if they sound appealing. Sure, being surrounded by so many books is a magical feeling, but sometimes standing between those towering shelves squeezed tight with thousands of books can also feel overwhelming.

How can I possibly know from staring at these book spines if I’ll like the book unless I start pulling them all off the shelf and taking a closer look? Where to even begin then with so many books to choose between? Seeing book covers in displays or scattered throughout the shelves helps me make quicker decisions. Often when I visit the library, I’m also wheeling a toddler in tow in his stroller. Every minute I spend browsing is one minute closer to the impending doom of a 2-year-old meltdown. The faster I can choose something, the better.

A Little About Me

When I go to the library, I bring with me the perspective of a librarian because I have my MLIS and work as a library secretary in a high school. I have fun checking out other libraries, but I also learn from my visits. I go in with the lens of a patron, observing the things that work or don’t work for me. Then, I take that into consideration when I’m back in my library. I want to give my patrons the experience I would want as a patron, from being welcoming to offering book suggestions to getting excited about authors we both enjoy. I also create the displays in our library, so I love getting inspired by the various displays other libraries make.

As a library patron, I am notorious for snagging enormous stacks of books I find in displays, or ones with covers facing outwards on the shelves. Sometimes, I worry about whether this bothers the librarians making these displays. I second guess whether I’ve taken too many of the books they’ve set out. However, I try to remind myself of the way I feel when people pull books from the displays I make in my library. I’m delighted when people check out books from my displays. It’s why I make them. The more check outs, even if just from one person, the better because it’s encouraging reading. And encouraging reading even in just one person matters.

So, Why Put Book Covers Facing Outwards in Libraries?

The Beauty in Browsing

The number one reason I go to libraries is to immerse myself in the joy of browsing. Of course, I can always discover new good books through some online searching. My Goodreads TBR list is enormous thanks to that. At the library, though, I don’t have to stare at the endless scroll of my computer screen, reading book reviews until my eyes blur. While dreamily browsing shelves, I’m hoping to come across that elusive perfect book, sitting on display right before my eyes, almost as if I had wished it into reality.

There’s nothing quite like finding a book that surprises me as exactly what I needed without knowing I needed it. Plus, my mood often affects what I choose to read. Sure, I may at some point want to read the 1000+ books on my TBR. Do I want to read them all right now? Not always. Like another Rioter, I maintain an aspirational to-read list rather than a must-read list. I like keeping an open mind to let books I stumble across surprise me.

While browsing, I enjoy the experience so much more when I can see book covers intermixed with rows of book spines along shelves. I become curious about what made someone from the library choose to give that book the honor of a cover facing outwards. In my own library, I don’t grab random books off the shelves to display, but rather try to make thoughtful choices. I see it as an opportunity for increased reader’s advisory. The more books with covers facing outwards in libraries, the more pleasurable the browsing experience for me.

The Research Supports It

Not only do I find book covers valuable when browsing for books, but research supports this as well. At the University of Memphis Libraries, Knowlton and Hackert (2015) conducted a study to compare the circulation rates of books with publisher-designed covers to books with just plain covers. They stated, “Our survey of 1,719 recently published books in an academic library showed that books with publisher-supplied information on the covers outperform plain books in several measures of circulation. These findings corroborate those of earlier researchers in school and public libraries, and support the observation that patrons still rely on browsing to find books they wish to read.”

While library catalogs can also serve as a helpful tool for patrons to find books, Knowlton and Hackert (2015) emphasized the significance of browsing over catalog searching. They explained, “Just as the covers add value for publishers by attracting readers in bookstores, so do they add value in libraries by engaging readers in ways that catalog entries do not.”

librarian shelving books

My Ideal Library: Taking Advantage of Space for Book Covers

In my ideal library experience, book covers would be arranged in engaging, timely, and inclusive displays and also in the space at the end of every shelf. When it comes to spacing, it makes sense that a majority of books must be shelved with just their spines visible along the shelves. We’d run out of room pretty quickly otherwise. However, every traditional shelf has an opportunity to display book(s) with covers facing outward where extra space is left next to the bookend for shelving purposes. I would love to see these spaces utilized with book covers on display. This can help give a little sneak preview of the kinds of books one might find on that particular shelf, whether that might be books by that same author or genre in fiction, or books related to that subject in nonfiction.

Tips on Displaying Book Covers

When I select books to display cover facing outwards on the shelves, I take the following into account:

  • Mix of genres and topics
  • Books and authors I’ve noticed circulate well
  • Books that are still relatively new additions to the collection
  • Under the radar books
  • Books that are representative of marginalized communities, including people of color, queer people, and disabled people

Making sure the book covers facing outward are representative and inclusive of marginalized voices is crucial. In a School Library Journal Teen Librarian Toolbox (2020) guest post, Thai American author Pintip Dunn discusses the impact book covers have on her, including the cover of her latest book, Dating Makes Perfect.

Dating makes perfect

Dunn shares: “The 12-year-old me never dreamed that I could one day have a book cover like this, and it would’ve meant everything for young Pintip to have seen this gorgeous cover centering a gorgeous Thai girl. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt like such an alien in my own skin. Maybe I wouldn’t have gone through my childhood feeling like I didn’t belong — could never belong. Maybe it wouldn’t have taken until well after college for me to feel attractive…At least this cover would’ve given me hope that life would one day be different, be better.”

The book covers on display in libraries can have an incredible impact on patrons. Making a thoughtful choice over book covers to display can help showcase excellent and inclusive reads within a collection otherwise hidden in walls of book spines.

A Few Final Thoughts…

I find as much joy in selecting books to display in my library as I do in wandering through the aisles of other libraries, soaking in a rainbow of book covers. The cover doesn’t always reflect how the content of a book will turn out, but it does help me find books. And isn’t that one of the best parts about going to the library?

Works Cited

Knowlton, S.A. & Hackert, L.N. (2015). Value Added: Book Covers Provide Additional Impetus for Academic Library Patrons to Check Out Books. Library Resources & Technical Services, Vol. 59 (3). Retrieved June 24, 2021, from

Dunn, P. & MacGregor, A. (2020, August 18). Judge a Book By Its Cover — Sometimes, a guest post by Pintip Dunn. Teen Librarian Toolbox.