I am taking off my beret and replacing it with my Library Dork hat. This actually works out for the best, because the beret was hiding my blue streak of hair, which hardly anyone can see anyway. Hairdresser Jeff chose a lovely shade of blue for the lock, just lovely, but it falls in the midnight blue end of the spectrum, and is therefore hardly distinguishable from the rest of my head. I’d say that it can only be seen in a certain slant of light, but I don’t like Emily Dickinson, so nevermind.
Because this post shall be devoted to the organization of library materials, I expect that most of you will discreetly close your browsers and instead peruse the Cute Overload story about the dying hamster. I defy you not to cry. And if you don’t cry, I don’t want you reading this blog anyway, as you’re a monster and a blight upon the earth and I don’t like you.
I do however hope that public librarians might at least skim through today’s posting. (If you get too choked up to read because of the hamster, come back later. It will still be here.) I hope that Technical Services folks in particular will keep reading.
I feel toward catalogers the way D. H. Lawrence felt toward women. I hate them, I love them. They destroy my soul; I must have them. I want to dominate them, own them, control them. I am their slave—in the bad sense (human chattel) and the bad-but-nuanced sense (willful bondage).
(Not that anybody really needed that imagery. Sorry. You start with an innocent comparison to a master of the British modernist novel, you end up with whips and chains. Not quite sure how that happened.)
(Not that I am casting judgment on my fine friends in the BDSM crowd. Though I am not sure if I have friends in the BDSM crowd. I may well, it’s only they’ve never talked about it to me. )
Right. Catalogers and me. I am a public reference librarian (“Side of Good”) whose job it is to help patrons find books that were organized by catalogers (“Side of Evil”).
Thing is, the folks in the Side of Evil camp are not deliberately wicked. It’s just that their founder was. (I am not making this up. Melvil Dewey was a miosgynist, a racist, and an anti-Semite.) Most of them really do want to arrange books in such a way that people can find them, but they’re working with a very flawed system.
Also, some of their subject headings are just insane, but I am not going to pick on them about subject headings, not today. Today we are going to restrict outselves to fussing over classification.
Catalogers in public libraries classify books according to the Dewey Decimal System. You may recall having been plagued with this when you were in elementary school. There is no good reason why any normal person should care about the Dewey Decimal System. The best way to find a specific book is to look in the catalog, which will tell you the exact call number you need to locate. If you feel like browsing in a particular subject area, you can get the catalog (or a helpful reference librarian from the Side of Good) to point you in the right direction. No need for you to commit the system to memory; once you have the general call number, you’ll find that similar books are all grouped together.
Except it’s not really like that.
Here, stop reading this for a moment and see what the Swiss Army Librarian has to say.
And if you STILL haven’t looked at the hamster, now is the time.
Okay, did you follow all that? Catalogers (“Side of Evil”) who faithfully follow their dark lord’s decimal system wind up placing similar books all throughout the ever-loving library, and dying hamsters will break your heart.
Did I mention that the Dark Lord’s Decimal System keeps changing every few years? Just enough to be noticeably irritating?
Now we on the Side of Good will sometimes take it into our heads to undermine the Dark Lord DS. When I first got to my library, I noticed that one of my collection areas (004-006, for you library dorks) was guarded by a minotaur. You ducked in to try to find a book on Windows XP, but it was wedged between a Microsoft Excel 2003 book and a book on operating systems, pub year unknown, and the minotaur hadn’t eaten since yesterday. Scary stuff.
My plan involved clumping all of the similar books on the same shelf (i.e., Microsoft Word books next to Microsoft Word books. Fancy that!). This involved assigning more precise Dewey numbers than we had been using—so it’s not like I completely abandonded the Dark Lord, but remember, this was my first recataloging project. I was still in his thrall.
It also involved adding publication years to the spine labels, and—here’s where the dissent gets exciting—I took away the author name from the spine labels because, let’s face it, nobody has author loyalty with computer books.* Instead, the letters show the subject (ACC for Microsoft Access, etc.)
*Okay, maybe David Pogue
My full conversion to the Side of Good came about two years later, when I, along with some renegade catalogers, moved our graphic novels the hell out of 751.5.
Once upon a time, all of the books with panel art—from Jeffrey Brown’s wonderful but very smutty grownup nonfiction memoirs to collections of Garfield comic strips—lived in 741.5. I will not go into the details, because it is getting late, and because you can hear about it at the state library conference this year. But the end result is that we threw Dewey in the trash* and arranged the books in a sensible order.
*the recyling bin, actually, but that doesn’t sound as dramatic
We kept the cartoons and comics in 741.5, and moved the graphic novels to three different sections, one for adults, one for young adults, and one for children. Nonfiction comes first with each section, and then the books are grouped by…
Oh get ready for this, this is the great part…
…grouped by recurring character, if applicable (Batman!) or series (Fables!) or, failing that, title (Black Hole!).
O’course, that only solves classification problems for one tiny collection in the library. The great unwashed masses of books throughout nonfiction are still to be conquered. We don’t even have books grouped together by subject, necessarily. Thet’re grouped together according to a system that made sense to Melvil the Dark Lord, but folks wanting to find books about home repair are, understandably, bewildered.
Another question I get all the time—“Where are you self-help books?” Damn near everywhere.
And then—and this is a particular peeve of mine, seeing as readers’ advisory is my schtick—all the narrative books are grouped in the with the instructional books. I deliberately chose not to purchase a book for the library the other day, even though the review was good. It was a reflective collection of essays about the trials of moving. I decided not to get it because I knew it would be shelved with books on moving. This makes sense, if you’re going by subject—but in real life, people aren’t going to check out that book when they’re hunting in the moving sectino, because they’ll be busy fussing with packing and boxes and selling their homes. That’s not the appropriate time for a contemplative leisure read.
If we had a section of nonfiction books with collections of thought-provoking essays (and a collection of memoirs, and a collection of investigative exposes, etc.), then I’d have purchased the book. But we don’t have these collections, because our books are organized according to subject, not according to mood or intent. Which makes nonfiction readers’ advisory really extraordinarily difficult.
All right, catalogers. Flay me alive. I’m ready for it.