From the catalogs of babes











{April 21, 2009}   easy to be hard

Lately there’s been a resurgence on RADCAT, the “radical catalogers” mailing list. It’s good, as that list is generally pretty quiet, and the encouragement of introductions and discussions has stimulated conversation and participation. It’s bad, though, too, as that list is generally pretty quiet, and the encouragement of introductions and discussions has stimulated conversation and participation.

What I meant to say by that: I subscribe to a number of library listservs and mailing lists, as well as blogs, message boards, project wikis, etc. My inbox, my Google Reader, my bookmarks, my LiveJournal friends page, are all full of stuff I want to not only read but comment on and participate in every single day. There’s a wealth of good information, help, and support there, but sometimes I honestly fear opening my inbox after being sick for a day or two. The amount of information overload (a recurring theme in today’s world) makes me wonder which is worse–spending hours and hours sifting through it all, or just simply hitting the delete key and chance missing out on something important?

In an attempt to be more organized and efficient, I choose to subscribe to listservs such as RADCAT, AUTOCAT, etc., in digest form. I’ve had some suggestions on how to read the list on the web, which does seem to satisfy some users, but I personally don’t care for it.  So I get all the day’s messages delivered in one (supposedly) convenient email.  However, it’s not so much that I find it convenient, but rather it’s the least inconvenientof the current options available to me.  It’s long; and repetitive where people don’t delete the entirely of the messages to which they are replying; discussions aren’t threaded; and formatting from all sorts of email clients literally makes reading the emails difficult, as many of them come across garbled with code. There is a vast chasm between “convenient” and “least inconvenient,” between “easy” and “less hard.” I really wish I had a better way of filtering and organizing this information. As part of the recent RADCAT discussion, I mused that I would probably participate more if my participation interface was more user-friendly, even going so far as to say “let me know when I can subscribe to the list in Google Reader.”

Which made me think: why isn’tit? Is there any reason, besides continuity’s sake, that these groups have not moved on to harness a more current–and, in my opinion, a potentially more flexible and powerful–technology?

 For instance, AUTOCAT is peppered with posts containing cataloging questions: questions about using AACR2r, LCSH, MARC, etc. A couple of my previous posts about LCSH subdivisions would not be out of place on AUTOCAT. So why didn’t I post them there? Because to get an answer, I would have had to wade through unorganized and unstructured replies–some to me, some to the list itself, some replies to responses on the list itself…it’s just physically hard for me to read and follow. All I wanted was a quick answer to a quick question–‘can I subdivide “Trade shows” by industry?’ A simple “yes” or “no” was all I wanted. It struck me that a brief, direct question requiring a short, immediate answer, might be better served by a technology that was designed for short bursts of immediate communication. Now, I confess, I haven’t been much of a Twitter fan since it’s inception, but that’s because I never saw much practical use for it. Now I think I might. How great would it be to Tweet “anyone know the 040 for Italian?” and receive a real-time reply, without having to log in to email and scroll through numerous messages to find the answer. I know when I am sitting there with the book in my hand, in the middle of cataloging, I don’t want to put it aside and wait to finish when I might get an answer the next day (if I get one at all). How much more efficient might our cataloging be if we could receive quicker responses like this? Of course, Twitter doesn’t supply the ability for longer, more complex conversations, which are inherently necessary when talking about cataloging, but there are other technologies for that.

Like the recent flurry of activity on RADCAT: all these introductions are nice, but after a week or so, they’ve been archived in the depth of the list with no easy, instant way to refer back to them. What happens when I’m reading a message several months from now and want to revisit the author’s introduction to learn more about where they’re coming from? Gee, wouldn’t it be great if there was some technology out there where a person could have a page about him- or herself, and I could easily click on that person’s name and be taken to a profile, a page that told more about them, their introduction and background, what kinds of libraries they worked in, what other interests they might have? And Facebook has the capability for group pages and discussions, potentially allow people who wanted to participate in a 9/11 conspiracy debate to do so while others could talk about authority control on Ravelry.

The key word here is “easy.” The listservs, in my opinion, are not easy. I almost hate to say it, but Facebook and Twitter are. (Even my 70+ year-old aunt is on Facebook, and she is far from what I would call tech-savvy.) They are designed to be easy to use, because that gets them more users, and therefore more eyes viewing ads, and therefore more $$.  And it works–Facebook has 200 million active users. It’s not that this technology is “new” or “shiny” or “buzzworthy” or “cool.”  It’s that it’s easy to use for what people want to use it for, so they use it. It’s using the right tool for the right job. Technology too succumbs to the survival of the fittest. People will use what they find easy and pass on what they don’t: is anyone out there still running DOS? No, because something better, more powerful, and more user-friendly came along.

Now, everyone’s idea of easy will differ. Some people are not only content with listservs but prefer them. And that’s fine. What’s not fine is the inability for users to choose through which interface they prefer to interact. Wasn’t that part of the whole glory of Web 2.0? That we could make content independent of formatting, so that the user could view it in whatever format they preferred?

Whatever it is, we need to stop locking our content away in these outdated technology platforms. As technology evolves, we need to evolve as well. These listservs are a great concrete example. But I think they’re also a great analogy for libraries in general, and especially for cataloging. Whay are we still using the same difficult tools, rules, workflows, and softwares? Continuity can only carry us so far. Why are we fighting against technology and evolution, instead of using it to improve not only our jobs but our patrons’ experiences? And why do we continue to insist on making cataloging hard?

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{February 12, 2009}   a rainbow of possibilities

I’ve decided that I want to classify our library’s collection by color.

 

 

Stop laughing.

It’s not a joke, I’m totally serious. Classification by color has always appealed to me in an esoteric sense. In my own personal book collection, I have long classified by what I’ve always referred to as “aesthetics”: I group books by subject, then by size (I live in a small apartment) and then arrange them by how pleasing they are to me on the shelf. I only have about 900 books, and I’m pretty familiar with all of them and so I know where a given book is at any time. I like the arrangement, and it pleases me, which leads me to wonder: if this sort of arrangement pleases me, how many other people might it please?

The more reading I do about information-seeking behavior of artists and art students, the more intrigued I become with alternative classification. A literature review shows that artistic types are more inclined towards browsing and “serendipitous discovery.” Who wouldn’t be drawn to browse through aisles and rows of  rainbows?

Not to mention the continual flood of inquires regarding books by color: I’m sure we’ve all gotten the patron who is “looking for that book with the yellow cover.” I’d be willing to bet the number of such inquiries only increases with artistic and visually-oriented patrons. It leaves me wondering: could art students benefit from an arrangement such as this? Would it really be functional, or it is just the joke everyone always laughs it off as? Could this actually work, and would library users like it?

There’s only one way to find out. (If you said that one way was “research,” then you my friend are indeed a librarian and in the right place.)

I started to do some poking around the good ol’ interotubes, and lo and behold, what did I find? A most amazing discovery: in 2004, an artist named Chris Cobb took the collection of 20,000 books at San Francisco’s Adobe Bookshop and organized them all by color. Under the guise of an art installation called There Is Nothing Wrong in This Whole Wide World, Cobb and a team of 10 accomplices entered the bookstore after closing one night and arranged all the books by color, where they were left for 2 weeks for customers to browse, before rearranging them all back into their original order.

 Besides being an amazingly visual experience with a powerful artistic message, I found people’s responses fascinating. Of course some people spoke of the issue of like subjects no longer together, but there were plenty of comments from people who were intrigued and pleased with the new arrangement. Many spoke of looking for a title and then finding something new placed next to it that they never would have sought out or given a second look in previous circumstances. Can we say “serendipitous discovery?” I knew we could.

If classification by color supports serendipitous discovery, and art library patrons enjoy serendipitous discovery, shouldn’t the two be a match made in heaven?

Of course, there are some significant issues to consider. Patrons are still going to need books on particular subjects, with specific titles, by certain authors. There would need to be a way to search the collection by subject, author or title…maybe we could even computerize this list, put it in some sort of database, even put it online so people could search in the library or remotely… Hm. Sounds like we’ve got that part pretty well covered.

We’d also need a way to connect the book to the search result, something in the record that says “this book has a red cover” so you know to find it with the red books, and, in the event of a large collection, know that it can be found between the “brick red” books and the “cherry red” books (not to be confused with the “fire engine red” books or (my favorite shade of lipstick) the “shameless red” books. A “color call number,” if you will. Interestingly enough, there does happen to be an international numeric standard for colors. Fancy that! They even make these nifty devices that would allow you to scan the book’s cover and determine exactly what color and number it is. Our library happens to have two. Seems to me the “Pantone(tm) Classification System” might be in order.

We’d need a way to physically convert the books and rearrange the collection. This where where a lot of librarians at catalogers often balk, but I tell you, I eat collection shifts for breakfast. I’m the one who spends 50% of my time reclassifying Dewey, so I don’t find spending time on an alternative classification to be a stretch. I’m also the go-to girl for all of our collection shifts, the one who does the alegbraic calculations to determine just how little space we can leave on each and every shelf when we move all the books. I somehow almost always end up being one of the few people doing the actual book moving, for some reason. Cobb did 20,000 books overnight with a crew of 10. We have two weeks between quarters and 20-odd staff members. With the right preparation beforehand, it’s easily achievable.

Then there’s the little hitch of selling the whole idea to the administration. And here’s where my heart will always be with this library, because I think if there’s any one library in the word this could ever possibly happen, it’s here. We’ve actually had color-based organization suggested to us before from higher-ups who don’t quite understand libraries. It’s rumored that the architect who designed our Orange County library wanted to rebind every single book in pink to match the campus-wide color scheme. Plus, there’s nothing that this school loves more than marketing and publicity, and this would bring it in droves: every library journal, magazine, and blog would eat this up, this crazy controversial idea of classification by color, as well as loads of other design channels. Not to mention the photo ops! This would put our library on the map (and I’d probably be invited to talk about this whole hair-brained scheme at all kinds of fun events…not that I have a big ego or anything). Really, it’s a win-win situation all around.

The worst that can happen is that it doesn’t work. Perhaps it will turn out to be significantly non-functional and all the patrons will hate it. So what? All the books have DDC labels, and we’ll just put the collection back the way it was. Maybe we just do the whole thing for a quarter, like Cobb’s transitory art installation.

But I really want to make this happen. Just to see. I think it could work.



et cetera