From the catalogs of babes

{June 18, 2009}   it’s a miracle we can find anything in this library

Today the head librarian comes up to me. Apparently one of the staff members was looking for two books about footwear and could not find either one. The head librarian showed me the catalog records.



The head librarian is concerned (and rightfully so) that something about the call numbers may be incorrect. 658, being a number used for business management, seems an unlikely number for foot wear books. I agree that it seems odd, although it is possible that the books are about managing a footwear business, and I can’t really tell for certain from the record alone (although I have suspicions that they’re not, due to the pattern-making references). In the back of my head, I seem to recall previously using a number in the 600’s for manufacturing footwear, but it wouldn’t have been 658.

So I do a little research and I discover that there is indeed a number in the 600’s for manufacturing footwear–685. Holy dyslexia, Batman. I go the the 685 shelf and ta-da! The books are there. The spine labels were correct, but the records were not. Once again, those books were essentially lost.

Between misshelving, lack of shelf-reading, incorrect interpretations of shelf order, and mislabeling, it’s a miracle we can find anything in this library at all. Some of it I can understand–we try to encourage patrons to not reshelve materials, but it’s not very effective, and that and our jam-packed bookshelves accounts for quite a few books out of order. But something like this, what happened? And how can I even begin to puzzle out where it went wrong along the way so I can fix it? Usually in these cases, it’s a simple typographic error, but in this instance, the spine label was correct and the record was wrong. Perhaps the person who added the holdings mis-typed, but then the corresponding spine label should have had the typo as well. I’ve been wondering if it was my error, and my fingers got sloppy (hey, it’s been known to happen to the best of us), but that still doesn’t answer how the label ended up correct. The idea of multiple errors, while not impossible, seems unlikely. (See Occam’s Razor.)

Obviously I fix item I or other staff members encounter and bring to my attention. But that’s piecemeal. I know the first place to fix this should be before the materials make it out onto the floor, and believe me, that’s something I want to tackle as soon as I can. But even if that reduces the problem, there will still be a certain percentage of errors. In addition to performing a complete system analysis to discover when and where breakdowns in cataloging & processing occur, I want to know: Once the books get out of the workroom and into the stacks, is there any global way of finding and correcting errors? You can’t fix this by shelf reading or running reports–the first won’t tell you if the catalog is wrong, and the second won’t tell you if the label is wrong.  But short of giving an employee a list of every book and manually checking each item one by one, what else can be done?

I feel sure that our library must be anomalous with our high amounts of such errors, but on the off chance that anyone else out there has had a serious issue with catalog record/spine label discrepancies, what did you do? Are there any other, more efficient ways of tackling this issue besides manually auditing the entire collection?

robin says:

Actually I’d say our library is anomalous in our low number of errors these days. All the other libraries I’ve worked at had big catalog maintenance issues. UCSB for example had about 4 full time staff devoted entirely to catalog maintenance. Every error found by any staff member in the main library would be printed out and placed in their endless pile. Talk about a futile job. I never once saw those piles go down in size. And that’s all these folks did. No other cataloging chores or anything. At our library I once tried to establish formal catalog maintenance procedures, which is really just as simple as having all staff print or write down all errors and suspected errors at the time of discovery and give them to one designated person, but, well… you know how it goes. We’re doing better than we did years ago, and I hold out high hopes for RFID.

geekylibrarian says:

Sadly, I am currently conducting an audit of our entire local history/genealogy collection. However, that issue concerns a fairly unique set of circumstances that have forced the full audit and I really wouldn’t recommend this to anyone else.

I was going to say what Robin did – RFID can help in this situation, but, RFID is also expensive and has privacy/security problems. Not really a solution. Another partial solution is spot checking the cataloging as it goes out. Take your throughput volume, take a truly random sample, and the percentage sampled should be high enough to be statistically accurate. Doing this for a little while should give you an idea of the types of errors that happen and how often they happen. Then you can revise your workflow accordingly. It’s something I’d like to do in my dept., but we’re still in emergency get-our-heads above water mode. Someday…

Ivy says:

I’d be curious to see percentages from a large library (a la UCSB) vs. FIDM, as opposed to anecotal amounts, which is kinda all we have to work with on both sides right now. Not saying your assesment is off, just out of curiosity.

RFID is definitely on my list of “things I would do if I ruled the library world.”

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