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 Amazon.com‘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.

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Last week, a very interesting book came across my desk.

 

Now, we do tend to get a few auction catalogs for our collection, especially for costume sales and the like, so it didn’t seem all that unusual. Until I looked at the back and was about to scan in the ISBN.

 Above the barcode reads the publisher-assigned description “Fiction/Graphic Novels.” My immediate thought was: “Wow, this is the first time I’ve ever seen such an egregious typographical error from the publisher.” But Farrar Strauss Giroux really isn’t some two-bit hustler house that would let a mistake like that slide by. Something had to be up.

Looking at the t.p. verso, I found the CIP data from the Library of Congress, which assigned the DDC number 929′.20973 and listed the following subject headings:

  • Doolan, Lenore–Archives.
  • Morris, Harold–Archives.
  • Doolan, Lenore.
  • Morris, Harold.*
  • Personal belongings–United States–Case studies.
  • Couples–United States–Case studies.
  • Man-woman relationships–United States–Case studies.

No subdivisions for fiction whatsoever. I know CIP data is preliminary and can change, so I found the record in OCLC where one of the many libraries who edited the record was thoughful enough to add the genre/form heading “Experimental fiction.”

That’s right.This book is fiction. The people are not real. The made-up story of the two characters’ relationship is told though the fabricated “items up for auction” and their descriptions, letter excerpts, etc. It’s not a traditional novel per se, but it’s certainly not non-fiction and it’s not a real auction catalog. In my opinion, it’s genius, is what it is. But it’s hard to say if the Library of Congress shares my opinion, since it seems like the book stumped them but good.

It’s hard to blame them, though–the book is so well done that it stumped me too, at first, and most of the other library staff with whom I shared it. And if it stumped all of us, imagine the possible patron confusion that could ensue. Which brings me to my next challenge: where to class the book? I fear classing it with other auction catalogs may encourage the false belief that this was a real auction and the characters real people. But shelving it with The Devil Wears Prada and The Perks of Being a Wallflower not only opens up the potential for a constant barrage of questions from staff and patrons about whether or not the book is really in the right place, but it also almost nearly guarantees that, in a library focused on browse-based discovery, it may never be found by the patrons that might use it.

 

*WTF is up with listing the personal names twice, once subdivided and once not? I seem to recall some bizarre rule stipulating this, but it seems very redundant to me and I’m hard pressed to come up with any reasonable logical explanation.



{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.



Our museum department recently received a very large donation (>500 pieces, I think) of hairwork jewelry. Of course we purchased a quite a few titles on the subject to support the museum’s new acquistions.

“Jewelry” is usually classed in 739.27; however, this falls under the larger class of 739.2, “work in precious metals.”  Hair, last I checked, is not a precious metal, so it seems a little strange to me to class these books there. Hair care (braiding, etc.) is classed in 646.724. Interdisciplinary works on jewelry are classed in 391.7.

Where should I class my books on hairwork jewelry?

Obviosuly, I want to class them where it’s easiest to find them. In our library, this would either be 739.27 or 391.7. Of those two, I’d also like a way to class all the hairwork books together, so as to keep them next to one another on the shelf. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find a standard subdivision for “products made out of hair.” (Shocking, I know.) -028 for “auxiliary techniques and procedures, apparatus, equipment and materials”? -04 for “special topics,” even though that subdivision is only supposed to be used when stipulated in the schedules?

If, for some bizarre reason, you were looking for books on hairwork jewelry, where would you look?



{January 15, 2009}   the power of fashion

Tim Spalding makes a t-shirt and the next thing you know, OCLC creates a Review Board of Shared Data Collection and Stewardship to “discuss the Policy for Use and Transfer of WorldCat Records with the OCLC membership and library community.” While I can’t say for sure that it was the t-shirt that caused OCLC to finally make an effort to engage its members in a discussion about its controversial policy and its even more controversial application, it does reinforce the idea that fashion can be more than a simple visual statement–it can be a political one as well.

Sometimes, I feel like I find myself discriminated against because I work for an institution devoted fashion. Other librarians and professionals perhaps think we’re not as serious or scholarly as libraries that serve the sciences or literature or ‘capital-A’ Art. It’s true–we’re not often about the in-depth historical or theoretical research, although, to our credit, we do serve those needs to a few of our patrons. But what we are about moreso than scholarly research is inspiration and practical, hands-on knowledge. Our students aren’t looking to write theses, they’re looking to start fashion lines.

My recent reading on the information-seeking behavior of visual artists and art students shows that our patrons are not an anomaly: arts-oriented people are looking for inspiration. They browse the library for “serendipitous discovery.” They prefer to ask a human being where to find something rather than search the catalog themselves.

This seems like it should make librarians’ lives easier, no? If they’re interested in random discovery, could we not then just put all the books in acquisition order and let them have their serendipity? If they prefer human interaction over online searching, could we not just do away with the catalog?

But I think it’s the opposite. I think this type of behavior makes the librarian’s job even more difficult. Because we can’t just do away with our catalog–even if it’s not made available to assist our users directly, it serves serves the function of assisting librarians, both in retrieval and also in inventory management and collection analysis. While patrons prefer browsing, they also have legitimate needs for specific information, especially specific images (“I need to see Marc Jacobs’ collection for Spring/Summer 2008” or “I need a photo of the Chrysler Building”) or practical business or construction information (“Who is the CEO of Nordstrom?” “How do I sew a French seam?”). So, unlike some other libraries, we have an equal need to support both browsing and searching, which is exactly why we need to look at our catalogs and evaluate how they might better serve both. I also think that by making our catalog interfaces more browse-friendly, we might just channel some of that browsing behavior into use of the catalog itself, perhaps assisting in library and research education as well as helping to support the increasing number of distance and online students who also need library resources but may have information-seeking behaviors not currently supported by traditional online catalogs and interfaces.

People think fashion is easy and frivolous. I think math is easy. I think fashion, and supporting a fashion library to truly best serve its patrons, is hard.



et cetera