From the catalogs of babes

So I finally joined ARLIS, which I know seems strange that it took me this long to join the organization devoted to arts libraries. It’s not that I didn’t want to join before, because I did. It honestly sometimes just comes down to a matter of money. I started joining professional organizations when I was a student, and I personally find them very beneficial. It’s cheap to join as a student, but the membership fees often drastically increase after graduation. I don’t fault the organizations for this, and I don’t think any of their individual fees are outrageous, but by the time you’re joining 3 or 4 organizations, it can get pretty pricey.

I’ve tried to cull the herd and cut some of my memberships, but I find it very difficult. I don’t want to leave ALA, as I feel it’s the “core” organization of the field. With ALA comes ALCTS and LITA. I’m hesitant to leave SLA (although the debate about the realignment and name change may just drive me away), not only because the specialty library focus ties in so closely with our library and what we do, but also because they invested in me when I was a student, and I still feel I owe it to the chapter and the organization to make good on that investment. I was considering dropping SAA, since I don’t currently work as closely with archival materials as I used to, but then they published my paper in their journal, and I’d feel bad leaving so soon after that. So I’ve got those three, plus their subdivisions and local counterparts, plus now ARLIS, and I still think ASIS&T would be worth the membership if I could afford it. By this point, we’re talking hundreds, if not $1,000+ per year for professional organization memberships alone.

But I finally ponied up the dough to join ARLIS, since I’ve been wanting to attend one of their conferences for a while and though 2010 might be a good year to do so. And I’m really glad I joined–it really does seem to cover the niche area I want to work in. I got several friendly and welcoming emails, including one that alluded to a local discussion group specifically for catalogers in the arts! I know must know how excited that made me–how awesome to find a group of people like me, and even better, their next meeting was coming right up, so I was chomping at the bit to attend.

I wish I hadn’t gotten so worked up. Don’t get me wrong–it was a nice meeting, with a lot of nice people, and well-educated catalogers, which was a nice step up from some meetings I’ve been to. Unfortunately, I missed the introductions, so I’m not sure exactly which and what kinds of libraries everyone was representing, which was dissapointing becuase I feel that’s so intrinsic to cataloging work–what type of library are you, who do you serve as your patrons, what types of materials do you collect? I know quite a few attendees came from art museum libraries, which are going to have very different research needs than art schools. What I didn’t understand was how no one else seemed to understand that.

I felt a very strong presumption in the room about Cataloging Rules and How Things Should Be Done, and not very much about users at all. Most of the agenda covered what I consider to be very niggly little bits of cataloging propriety: is the entry in this 1XX field correct, is “$vCatalogs” being used correctly in this record, should this piece of ephemera be described as “1 sheet, folded” or “1 folded sheet”? I know I’m probably going to get flayed for this, but really, people: who the hell cares? Software, if designed properly, makes all those issues irrelevant. Google’s search algorithms will find your folded sheet either way, and probably even if you call it “folded paper,” too.

I was shocked at the apparent prejudice–while discussing whether or not a “cheat sheet” for cataloging exhibition brochures was correct (see above re: niggly minutiae), many people were asking “why would anyone bother to collect those things anyway?” and similar narrow-minded comments. Perhaps that institution has the largest art ephemera collection in the world. Perhaps those materials are in great demand in that geographic area. Perhaps the brochures are used as examples for graphic design classes or instruction in art exhibition design. Who knows? None of those catalogers, because they didn’t even bother to ask before ripping into not just the proper application of MARC and AACR2r on the cheat sheet, but also the reason for the collection itself.

There was so much narrow focus on minutia that it seemed like the considerations of library users didn’t even exist. One woman from an art museum brought up a dispute with a classification number assigned by the Library of Congress to a book about 4 artists. LC classed it in ND237.O5, evidently specifically under Georgia O’Keeffe, but she felt LC was incorrect and a broader classification would be more appropriate. After spending a lot of time hemming and hawing and discussing why LC had classed it that way, based on the rule of three and classing on the first listed subject heading, and how it was biased for LC to class it only under O’Keeffe since she was the most famous, and how this woman had seen the exhibition herself and it was beautiful, and how the book might be classed under women artists, and why the book shouldn’t be classed under women artists because it’s not specifically feminist enough, about how the book might be classed under American painting, but the book wasn’t all painting, there was one piece of sculpture included… it was all I could do to bite my tongue to keep from shouting: “If you don’t like it, just change it!”  (Someone alert the classification police, because we do it here all the time. I changed the classification numbers on no less than 10 titles this morning alone.) Especially since the women’s primary complaint was that her museum curator would “not understand why the book was classed there” and would be unable to find it! I think books should go where your users will find them, most especially in arts libraries, where established research repeatedly shows a preference for browsing access over searching.

As if that wasn’t enough for me to bite through my tongue, another cataloger actually said that “classification is nothing more than an address” and “not to fret over the call number.” I wish I knew which library she worked for. I’m sure this is a fine model for more research-oriented libraries like perhaps the Getty or LACMA. But as a group of not just catalogers, but catalogers serving arts libraries, I was appalled at the lack of understanding of patrons’ information-seeking behavior. These people are so busy counting the knotholes in the trees, not only do they not see the forest–they’ve forgotten the forest even exists.

It was my first meeting, and as a newbie and relative unknown, I wasn’t quite ready to vocalize my thoughts and make waves. (You might not guess it from my outspoken rants on this blog, but I’m actually fairly introverted and shy.) I’m still glad I went–I saw a few more potential rogues in the woods, and the meeting really opened my eyes in a lot of ways to just how entrenched we are in our methods of cataloging, how much momentum the history of cataloging carries, how hard it just might be to switch to a user-based model of cataloging. It’s going to be an uphill struggle, that’s for sure.

And now that I know what the general tenor of the group is like, I feel better about starting to broach the idea to the group slowly, perhaps with an announcement at the next meeting in February about my forthcoming book chapter about cataloging for art school users. It also makes me wonder if maybe the time isn’t right to pitch a session on user-based arts cataloging to ARLIS…but one thing at a time. Sometimes I have the problem of seeing just a little too much forest and not enough trees!

{March 6, 2009}   stupid question time

Okay, call me stupid, but is there really no LC subject heading that covers the concept of non-western art? I can find headings for indiviudal movements/regions (i.e., “Art, East Asian”; “Art, Middle Eastern”) but none show any broader terms. When I look up similar books in other library catalogs, they either list each individual movement or they use the generic “Art–History.” “Art” can apparently be subdivided geographically, but I’m not sure how that would work: “Art–Eastern Hemisphere”? And of course, not a single one of the examples in SCM 1250 apply to general works on non-Western art.

I know some of all y’all out there must be more familar with the art headings than I am. Any tips?

{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