How To

A Library Scavenger Hunt for Exploring the Stacks

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Sarah S. Davis

Staff Writer

Sarah S. Davis holds a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania, a Master's of Library Science from Clarion University, and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Sarah has also written for Electric Literature, Kirkus Reviews, Audible, Psych Central, and more. Sarah is the founder of Broke By Books blog and runs a tarot reading business, Divination Vibration. Twitter: @missbookgoddess Instagram: @Sarahbookgoddess

While we at the Riot take some time off to rest and catch up on our reading, we’re re-running some of our favorite posts from the last several months. Enjoy our highlight reel, and we’ll be back with new stuff on Monday, July 11th.

This post originally ran Feb. 9, 2016.


Every Thursday afternoon I look forward to my shift as a volunteer shelver for my small town’s public library. Like most bookish people, I love the feel of a book in my hands, and I enjoy the light workout I get from reaching and bending and carrying heavy books around (I’m looking at you, James Michener). Thus I spend a lot of time in the stacks shelving returned materials and retrieving books for holds. It gives me a good idea about the pulse of what people are reading in our community.

Sometimes it’s totally predictable—it seems like every week I shelve a Elin Hilderbrand novel or a Reginald Hill mystery. And then there are the surprises, the books you almost forgot existed, like the Miss Read’s Fairacre Series or a dusty copy of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. Shelving helps me explore the stacks, taking me to rarely visited corners of the library and slotting books I thought nobody reads next to perennial bestsellers.

Getting to know your library in and out will broaden your knowledge of the library and potentially help you discover new favorites. That’s how I became a lifelong P.G. Wodehouse fan, by selecting Very Good Jeeves off the shelves almost by accident. Now you can have an experience like mine by following these clues in this fearless library scavenger hunt. You don’t have to read the whole book–you could just skim through the first chapter or make observations. Oh, and be sure to pack a tote.

  • Find a book that’s practically falling apart. This could mean a few things. First, that the book is extraordinarily popular—my library’s copy of Bridget Jones’s Diary is barely holding steady (partly my own doing, admittedly). Or it could mean that the book is old enough that it’s not a priority for repairs. These books need love, too, and could be your last chance to read something before it’s sent out to pasture, or it could finally connect you to a book that’s been loved by patrons many times over.
  • Pick a book in the most inconvenient location. There are books I almost dread shelving, such as books in hard to reach places for me like ones wedged into the tallest shelf in a corner. People avoid these books for a reason, but they could be a great read just waiting for you to discover it. Our Elizabeth George’s are in a somewhat inconvenient location, but I’ve had some great experiences with her novels once I persevere and retrieve them from the shelves. For this challenge, go to a hidden corner, a very tall shelf, or a shelf on the bottom that you have to do a little yoga to reach. Spend some time familiarizing yourself with these overlooked books and you might find buried treasure.
  • Find a book in the quietest nook of the library. Some farflung reaches of the library hold abandoned books. Quite simply, it can get creepy to go where it seems the books are untouched. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to encounter a ghost or a sidler. Anyway, for this challenge, find the quietest nook in the library and spend some time with the books housed there. Pick them up off the shelf, run your hands down their spines, and open them up (expect some dust). What are these forgotten books like? Which ones sound promising? See if there’s anything for you and brave the remote location.
  • Dewey know your destiny? The Dewey Decimal System is fascinating and contains all kinds of specific call numbers that can be the ultimate library exploration game. With this challenge, you’ll want to visit’s Dewey Decimal System Meme. Write your first and last name (and middle name, if you want), birthday, and a few other factors, and watch your data be Dewified. This will generate a few Dewey sections for you to browse next time you’re at the library. Instead of trying to learn Dewey all at once, this method helps you uncover call numbers you might have overlooked and perhaps even learn about a topic you would have otherwise never have explored.
  • Check out some oversized books. Our oversized books are housed together at the long end of a stack furthest towards the back of the library. Other libraries shelve their oversized books along with regular-sized books, sometimes spine up shelved horizontally, and you’ll know them by their massive size. In this challenge, find some oversized books—there’s liable to be some in Gardens (635 whereabouts) and Art History (709-ish)—pull them off the shelf, take them to a table or chair, and flip through them. Because these books are so, well, massive, sometimes people will avoid them entirely. For this challenge, the point is to confront these big and awkward books and see what they have to offer. This could mean finding a new style of art you’ll love or learning about Art Deco architecture. It’s one way to discover some of the books that blend into the background.


Going through these challenges should help you get a better sense of what’s in your library collection. Your next favorite read could be one that was overlooked or in unventured waters. Next time you’re in a library, throw the map away and explore.