The Value of Book Covers in Libraries for Discovering Readings

Source books.

Mina tries to focus on her job as a flight attendant, not the problems with her five-year-old daughter at home, or the cracks 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, then another, Mina knows she must to act. But which lives does she save: her passengers… or her own daughter and her husband who are in serious distress at home? Twenty hours left to land. A lot can happen in twenty hours.

They say don’t judge a book by its cover, and I 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 for my teenage years that I took it out every time I took it out of the library, then carefully reattached it when I got back. The book was amazing; the cover not so much. However, book covers, whether I like the cover art or not, often help me discover books in libraries.

It’s not that I debate which book cover I prefer to make a decision; though I like the book cover art enough to sketch it in my spare time. It’s just that seeing book covers facing outward in a library draws me to those books like a moth to ignite. I don’t always have time to squint at titles amid a sea of ​​book spines and wonder if they look appealing. Sure, being surrounded by so many books is a magical feeling, but sometimes standing between those towering shelves tight with thousands of books can also feel overwhelming.

How do I know by looking 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 start then with so many books to choose from? Seeing book covers in display cases or strewn across shelves helps me make decisions faster. Often, when I go to the library, I also drag a toddler in his stroller. Every minute I spend browsing is a minute closer to the impending doom of a 2 year old collapse. The sooner I can choose something, the better.

About me

When I go to the library, I bring with me a librarian’s perspective because I have my MLIS and work as a library secretary in a high school. I have fun consulting other libraries, but I also learn from my visits. I come in with the lens of a client, observing 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 customers the experience I want as a customer, whether it’s being welcoming, offering book suggestions, or being excited about authors we both enjoy. I also create the displays for our library, so I love to take inspiration from the various displays that other libraries make.

As a library patron, I’ve been known to snag huge stacks of books that I find in the display cases, or those with the covers facing out on the shelves. Sometimes I wonder if it bothers the librarians who make these displays. Guess if I took too many pounds they put up. However, I try to remember how I feel when people take books out of the displays I make in my library. I am delighted when people consult books on my displays. That’s why I make them. The more starts, even if they come from just one person, the better because it encourages reading. And encouraging reading, even in one person, matters.

So why put outward-facing book covers in libraries?

The beauty of sailing

The number one reason I go to libraries is to immerse myself in the pleasure of browsing. Of course, I can always discover new good books through an online search. My Goodreads TBR list is huge thanks to this. At the library, however, I don’t have to stare at my computer screen endlessly scrolling, reading book reviews until my eyes blur. As I dreamily browse the shelves, I hope to stumble upon this perfect, elusive book, displayed right before my eyes, almost as if I had wished it to come true.

There’s nothing like finding a book that surprises me as exactly what I needed without knowing I needed it. Also, my mood often affects what I choose to read. Of course, at some point I may want to read the 1000+ books on my TBR. Do I want to read them all now? Not always. Like another Rioter, I maintain an ambitious list to read rather than a must-read list. I like to keep an open mind to be surprised by the books I come across.

As I browse, I enjoy the experience even more when I can see book covers mixed with rows of book spines along the shelves. I become curious as to what made someone in the library choose to give this book the honor of an outward-facing cover. In my own library, I don’t pick random books from the shelves to display, but rather try to make thoughtful choices. I see it as an opportunity to increase readership. The more books with outward-facing covers in libraries, the better the browsing experience for me.

The research backs it up

Not only do I find book covers useful when researching books, but the research backs it up as well. At the University of Memphis Libraries, Knowlton and Hackert (2015) conducted a study to compare circulation rates of books with publisher-designed covers to books with plain covers. They said: “Our survey of 1,719 recently released books in a university library showed that books with publisher-provided information on the covers outperform regular books in several measures of circulation. These findings corroborate those of previous researchers in school and public libraries, and support the observation that patrons still rely on browsing to find the books they want to read.

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

librarian shelving books

My ideal library: take advantage of the space for book covers

In my ideal library experience, book covers would be arranged in attractive, timely, and inclusive displays, as well as the space at the end of each shelf. When it comes to spacing, it makes sense that the majority of books are stored with only their spines showing along the shelves. Otherwise, we would run out of space pretty quickly. However, every traditional bookshelf has the option of displaying books with outward facing covers where extra space is left beside the bookend for shelving purposes. I would love to see these spaces used with book covers on display. This can help give a little insight into the types of books one might find on that particular shelf, whether they are books by the same author or genre in fiction, or books related to that subject in non-fiction.

Tips on Displaying Book Covers

When I select books to display as outward covers on the shelves, I consider the following:

  • Mix of genres and subjects
  • Books and authors I’ve noticed are circulating well
  • Books that are still relatively new additions to the collection
  • Under the book radar
  • Books representative of marginalized communities, including people of color, queer people, and people with disabilities

It is crucial to ensure that outward-facing book covers are representative and include marginalized voices. In a guest post for the School Library Journal Teen Librarian Toolbox (2020), Thai American author Pintip Dunn discusses the impact book covers have on her, including the cover of her latest book, Meeting makes perfect.

Meeting makes perfect

Dunn shares, “The 12-year-old me never dreamed I could one day have a book cover like this, and it would have meant everything to young Pintip to have seen this gorgeous cover centered on a gorgeous girl. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt like such a foreigner 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 long after college for me to feel attractive… At least that blanket would have given me hope that one day life would be different, better.

Book covers on display in libraries can have an incredible impact on patrons. Making a thoughtful choice about which book covers to display can help present excellent and inclusive readings in a collection otherwise hidden within the walls of book spines.

A few final thoughts…

I find as much fun selecting books for display in my library as I do wandering the aisles of other libraries, soaking up a rainbow of book covers. The cover doesn’t always reflect the content of a book, but it helps me find books. And isn’t that one of the best things about going to the library?

Mentioned works

Knowlton, SA and Hackert, LN (2015). Added value: book covers give university library users an extra boost to consult the books. Library Resources and 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’s Toolkit.


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