From the catalogs of babes

Today a student responded to a suggestion to search the library’s catalog with: “I know how to use the catalog. I’m just lazy.”

Welcome to our patron demographic. This is not the first time we’ve heard this sentiment (although not in such blatant terminology), and I doubt it will be the last. I once was reprimanded for referring to our patrons as “ignorant” (and not in a pejorative way), so I would never dare refer to them as lazy (at least not outright). But this came straight from the horse’s mouth!

I’ve mentioned it before, but patrons of art and design school libraries are known to prefer real, human reference interaction over searching via computer interface. But it makes me wonder: why do they prefer that? Are they really all just lazy, like that self-admitted student? Is it that the interface of the catalog is so unfriendly to artists and other visual types that it’s difficult for them to use? Are they in such a hurry and have such a short amount of time at their disposal between studio classes, jobs, homework, and other projects? Is it that a real, in-the-flesh person offers more authority and credibility in this age of Wikipedia and Google? Or maybe a human being is more sympathetic than an unfeeling computer screen, or better able to distill down to their actual information needs in a way the computer can’t? I’d guess that all of these things apply in one way or another, in some combination. And I confess, it baffles me personally, a girl who prefers to attempt to find things first on my own, only turning to actual people when other self-reliant methods are exhausted.

So what does it mean for cataloging, if patrons are “lazy”? Are we obligated to combat their laziness by directing them to use the catalog themselves? Or should we approach it from the customer service standpoint of fulfilling their information needs in the way that works best for them?

{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.

{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.

My philosophy on librarianship is user-based. There’s a lot of talk these days about “the user-centered library.” Librarianship, as a service profession, should of course consider the users whom it serves. People are talking and writing about implementing new, user-friendly technologies, formulating instructional services to target user learning strategies, and designing web pages to to better help users navigate. These are all great things, and I support them all.

But if libraries are to truly respond to and serve the needs of their users, they must do so in all library areas and services. This includes cataloging.

In all this hype about user-centered library services, where is the talk about user-centered cataloging? I have yet to see it. I’ve heard dribs and drabs about making the “OPAC” (a user-unfriendly and non-user-centric term) more appealing and more “Web 2.0.” But this is only the facet of design, which, while I agree is important, is only one small part of cataloging and really not where our attention should rest.

I believe that cataloging is by far the least user-centric aspect of librarianship today.  I think we need to go back to the very beginning–what is the purpose of the library catalog, and cataloging? I think we can all pretty much agree that at its most basic an fundamental level, a library catalog provides a list of materials the library has and some way of finding those materials. Cutter, in his 1876 Rules for a Dictionary Catalog, suggested that the library catalog should provide access to materials by title, author and subject, and this tradition has carried through to the modern day. But are the needs of library users of 1876 the same as the needs of library users of 2008? While the need to find materials by title, author or subject may still be applicable, there are many other needs that have arisen in the past 130 years. Reference service strategies have changed. Childrens and young adult librarianship has changed. Library management has changed. Why hasn’t cataloging? Why are we still cataloging according to rules from 130 years ago?

MARC was revolutionary 60 years ago. I have nothing but the utmost respect for MARC and it’s influence not only in libraries but the computer science world at large. but that world has moved on, while libraries stubbornly stick to MARC. LCSH, though continually updated, was first published between 1910 and 1914, and has drawn much criticism for out-of-date, discriminatory and just plain difficult-to-use headings–possibly becuase it was designed for a particular group of users and not originally intended for widespead use by all patron bases. I still agree with the idea of standardization such as AACR provides, but even the attempts to bring it into the future such as RDA are more of a band-aid than a real hard look at the situation and a legitimate address of user needs.

I suggest we start at the very beginning. Where do other library services start their user-centered projects? With a user needs assesment, of course. For far too long we’ve been convinced that our way is the best way, and in the mean time, our world and our users changed around us. We need to look at how our catalogs and cataloging work (or not) for our users. And each library’s users will be different–the one-size-fits-all cataloging model may not serve the needs of the more specialized library user, either in subject focus, community needs, or demographics. We need to sit down and take a good hard look at the information-seeking behavior of our patrons: who are patrons are, what they are looking for, and how they are looking for it.

I wouldn’t drive a car that was 130 years old. I don’t follow societal rules from 130 years ago. My money is worth more than 130 years ago, I can vote now (when I couldn’t 130 years ago), clothes that are 130 years old are fragile and fall apart and cannot be worn. Management strategies from 130 years ago would not work well on the employees of today. Children are rasied diferently than 130 years ago, we eat different foods, we watch televsion and surf the internet. The world is not the same today as it was 130 years ago. It’s about time our library catalogs reflected that. I find it so hard to believe that with all the current focus on the user-centered library that there is so little focus on the “user-centered catalog.”

et cetera