From the catalogs of babes

{May 20, 2010}   SOS: save our stacks

Man, I had a great segue of posts lined up for this week, with ideas that flowed into and built on one another, and then Donald A. Barclay had to go and write this.

It’s an article from American Libraries magazine (the online edition–I didn’t see it in the print issue) called “The Myth of Browsing,” and it purports that browsing the physical stacks  should not be a priority in the contemporary academic library. And with all due respect, I say “bull sh*t.”

Barclay offers a number of reasons why browsing need not be supported. First off, he claims that the physical stack browsing that current scholars feel is a historical precedent is actually false–public access to physically browse stacks is a relatively recent (20th century) concept. To this I say: so what? So what if it’s a new idea? Should we always do things the way they were done in the past? Should we take away OPACs and return to card catalogs–OPACs have even less historical precedence than shelf browsing. Oh, and let’s do away with full-text access in scholarly databases, too–that’s only been around, what, maybe 20 years? Just because something wasn’t done throughout the entirely of library history does not mean it’s incorrect or wrong–in fact, it’s quite possibly a positive innovation, and, in the case of public browsing, I think it’s been wildly successful.

Barclay also tries to shoot holes in the ‘serendipitous discovery’ valued by some researchers (especially in the humanities, and, near and dear to my heart, the arts). He tries to claim that because every resource in existence in the entire world cannot physically be on a shelf in a library to browse, that patrons are missing out, like “hitting the sale tables on day three of a three day sale.” Again, I must disagree. Of course we cannot offer every existing resource on a shelf at any given time, and yes, this will reduce some discovery possibilities. But aren’t our collections tailored to best serve our patron groups? Do not arts libraries acquire what they feel to be the best selection of books and resources for their clientele, while law libraries choose the best resources for their patrons, and so on? Yes, we must make choices, and yes, that mean perhaps choosing one resource over another and only offering selected books on the shelf. But isn’t that our job as librarians? Isn’t that what we are supposed to do, and what people rely on us for? Collection development and management are key components of professional librarianship, and to offer a collection of every resource in the known universe rather than a carefully tailored collection targeting user group needs, would be unsuccessful, and in my opinion, unprofessional. And at least with some resources on the shelves, something can be found, even if it’s only selected from a few dozen titles rather than every book in the world.  If resources are removed completely (say, to off-site storage as mentioned in the article) then nothing can be selected by browsing, and I personally think something is better than nothing at all. He also tries to claim that browsing is counterproductive due to issues with classification schema, but to me that reflects more on the appropriateness of the schema to the particular library. Regular readers of my blog know that I may be biased in this area, but I think such issues should motivate research into the library’s classification success (or lack thereof), even the success of the furniture design (as Barclay notes, books are more likely to be browsed at eye-level than on the top or bottom shelves out of view).

But what about digital access and browsing? Surely if we remove all those books off-site, people will be able to search and browse the library catalog digitally and find materials that way, right? This is Barclay’s claim–except he doesn’t mention libraries. He’s certainly keen to cite‘s “rich browsing experience” and how “so many of today’s academic library users routinely start by looking up books via bookstore websites.” He himself is saying it right here–library catalogs currently cannot and do not support the browsing needs of library users. Until we can offer the same sort of browsing and findability experiences digitally that library users can get from browsing the stacks, we are in no position to be removing stacks browsing access from our libraries. Now, I may be delusional, but I have optimistic hopes that the day will come when library catalogs are more robust and user-friendly than commercial book websites. But until that happens, we should not be putting our eggs in the basket of Amazon and other external sites and vendors over whose fate we have no control.

Finally, Barclay claims that large physical book collections have become an “unsustainable luxury.” I don’t inherently disagree with this. But why are the unsustainable? Because we’ve made them so. Perhaps better management and strategic planning, with a focus on sustaining physical collections, would alleviate this issue. As for luxuries–indeed, large book collections are luxuries. That’s what attracts people to them–it’s a luxury that most people cannot afford on their own. Libraries are luxury, that’s part of what they’re designed for. They are a luxury of civilized, educated societies, which we need to offer if that’s what we purport to be. And again, from the way I see it from behind my rose-colored glasses, if it’s a luxury people want, they will say so. Which is exactly what they did at Syracuse, and what prompted Barclay’s article. Which brings me to my final (and biggest) beef with Barclay’s piece: here are library users stepping up and saying what they want and value about the library–in this case, physical stacks to browse and a hallowed environment in which to study–and yet Barclay throws everything in his arsenal against it. He sees library users saying in no uncertain terms what they want, and yet he argues against it. No wonder librarians get a bad rap; no wonder people sometimes see us as snooty, uptight traditionalists who push our ways on people because we assume that we know better. Now, I understand that users may not always know what they want, or even what might work best for them, but we’re certainly not doing anyone any favors by shoving that down their throats and blatantly arguing against supporting their needs and wants.

I don’t know much, but I do know this: people want physical spaces to browse print materials and immerse themselves in the traditional atmosphere that occurs only when in the presence of a large number of books. I believe they want it so much, that someday, when all these libraries have taken it away from them in favor of digital access and offsite bunker storage, I will open a space for them where they can come and browse and smell and take in the atmosphere. Maybe if I’m nice I won’t even charge them for it. On certain holidays and every fifth Tuesday of the month.

ps> Way to go, American Libraries, for not allowing comments on the article.


{April 22, 2010}   Dear Mr. Lagerfeld

Karl Lagerfeld's Personal library

Dear Mr. Lagerfeld,

Don’t you need a cataloger for that massive book collection of yours? Why don’t you give me a ring sometime.


your friendly neighborhood fashion librarian

Dear Readers,

I’m looking for concrete examples of libraries currently using alternative classification schema (i.e., not DDC or LCC) for some reasearch I’m doing regarding our library’s reclassification project. BISAC, Bliss, Colon, locally-designed, home-grown, what-have-you are all okay. Examples of academic libraries (regardless of size and specialty) are preferred, as are corporate libraries. Not so much on the public libraries (I’ve already noted Maricopa County and the other public libraries recently featured in the press) but I’ll take whatever I can get. Beggars can’t be choosers, and all.

If any of you faithful readers out there know of any examples, please leave a comment with any info you have and you will earn my undying gratitude (at least for now, until the next project…)

With sincere thanks,

your friendly neighborhood cataloging librarian

{August 1, 2009}   Dear journal editors,

Dear journal editors,

Please do not take almost a year to read and review my manuscript and then ask for a revision in six weeks. I understand the level of cat-herding that must be involved in the peer-review process, and do not fault you for your length in responding. However,  you can’t for a minute believe that it would take such significantly less time to actually do work on the paper than to simply read it and offer a few comments, can you?


Someone who has other things to do with her time in the next 6 weeks

{July 12, 2009}   Dear ALA,

I know schedule conflicts are unavoidable, and I know you can’t please all of the people all of the time, but really, what were you thinking scheduling two of the most important cataloging-related sessions of the entire conference in the same time slot??


1:30 PM – 5:30 PM on 07/12   
The Future is Now: Global Authority Control

Location: McCormick Place West in W-179
Unit: LITA/ALCTS – Subunit: n/a

1:30 PM – 5:30 PM on 07/12   
Catalog Use and Usability Studies: What Do They Show and How Should This Evidence Affect Our Decision-Making?

Location: McCormick Place West in W-196c

Unit: ALCTS/RUSA – Subunit: n/a

Dear Congressperson,

I am writing you today regarding the state of our nation’s libraries; specifically the Library of Congress, which, as I’m sure you know, is our nation’s oldest federal cultural institution and the largest library in the world. The mission of the Library of Congress is to make its resources available and useful to the Congress and the American people and to sustain and preserve a universal collection of knowledge and creativity for future generations.

One of the resources provided by the Library of Congress to assist with the sustaining and preserving of knowledge is Classification Web, a paid subscription service for libraries and librarians offering online and searchable access to Library of Congress Subject Headings, Classification schedules, correlations, and more.

Like many other libraries across the nation, my library has a subscription to this service. As I have previously mentioned, ours expires every year in October. Every year, in October, we send a payment to renew our subscription. And every year in October, they cut off our access, telling us that our subscription has expired. They are nice enough to cut off our access with no warnings or reminders. So every year we make numerous phone calls to the Library of Congress, playing lots of phone tag and wasting our time and theirs. After several weeks, when we finally get a hold of a live person at the LOC, they tell us, yes, we did pay (which we obviously already knew) and that it will take a few weeks to reinstate our service. (And in this day and age, I’m agog at any web subscription that takes 2 hours to reinstate, much less 2 weeks.)

This year, I had the opportunity to attend the ALA Midwinter meeting, where I chanced upon the LOC booth in the exhibit hall. I stopped to speak to a representative from the LOC about this problem and possible solutions. After I explained the situation to her, I asked her what we might volunteer to do on our end that would help expedite this annual snafu?

And that, my honorable Senators and Representatives, is what brings me to you. I’m sure by now you are wondering why I am writing a letter to you about ClassificationWeb and not, say, lobbying for public library stimulus funding (you should be receiving those letters shortly, if you haven’t already). I am writing to you about my library’s ClassWeb subscription because that was the exact and sole solution supplied to me by the LOC representative at the ALA Midwinter booth.When I asked, “What can we at our library do to help expedite this process and eliminate this problem,” she told me (and this is a direct quote), “Write your Congressperson.”

She babbled on to say that the LOC is short-staffed and under-funded, facing budget cuts and layoffs, and that writing my Congressperson would help them solve those problems. And here I thought it was just a simple customer service issue: I have a problem with my service, I contact the service rep, we work it out. But apparently this is a problem of national proportions requiring a letter to you, my Congressional advocates, to stop everything you are doing and address my small customer service problem, that might have easily been solved by a reasonable customer service rep by saying, “Gee, I’m really sorry about that, why don’t we prorate you for the 3 months lost service, and I will put your name down on the top of my list to investigate why you don’t receive warnings and reminders about upcoming expiration dates.”

I am really sad about the budget cuts and layoffs at our nation’s cultural repository. But really, if this is the standard acceptable level of behavior and functionality from the world’s largest library, perhaps the cutbacks are for the best. I found it interesting that they apparently still have money to set up a booth at ALA and attempt to sell services for which they cannot seem to provide adequate support.

So, my senators, here I am, as directed, writing you for solutions to my issue. Clearly, there is nothing the LOC can or will do for me.  Can you solve my ClassWeb subscription problems?

Your respectful constituent,

the catalog librarian


(Afterward: I did bully the rep into starting our subscription year from Janaury 2009 rather than the original renewal date of October 2008. At my suggestion, not hers, btw. But I still have no way of knowing what will happen with our renewal until next January.)

et cetera