From the catalogs of babes

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.

{May 12, 2009}   blink for just a second…

So last week I moved into a new place. What does this have to do with a blog about cataloging? Nothing. But I did find it interesting that in the few days I was jonesing for my internet crack fix, several very interesting things popped up:

It never fails that all the good, juicy stuff happens while I’m gone. I haven’t had much time yet to investigate details on any of these, but I’m pretty sure I’ll have some strong opinions once I do…

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.)

{December 22, 2008} shut down

I just read that the Library of Congress requested pull the plug. I’m pretty much in shock, as I just recently discovered and it has saved my butt quite a few times in the few months that i knew about its existence.

See, my library has a subscription to ClassWeb, which is a paid service from the LOC providing searchable subject headings and classification. Ours expires every year in October. Every year, In October, we send them 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 that it always happens that one day I go to log in and BAM!: access denied.

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 ahold of a live person at the LOC (and that’s a generous estimate–I won’t tell you how long it took us to purchase the Subject Cataloging Manual–no wonder libraries lack standards and are all over the map; if LOC really wanted to support standardization and use of their heading and classification products, you’d think they’d make them easier to get and use), after waiting for weeks to talk to someone, 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 weeks to reinstate.)

Over the course of the past several months, I’ve been using to do my work. We don’t have hard print copies of LCSH anymore (who does? and why would they use them even if they did?). I could use the LOC Authorities, which I sometimes do, but I find their search function cumbersome, with high recall yet low precision retrieval. While I do like that LOC recently added subject heading strings to its authorities search, it does also open up the possibility of retuning unauthorized entries, with which I have had problems in the past, especially since unauthorized headings have been one of the biggest problems in our local catalog and something i have been working very hard to correct. In contrast, was clean, with an easy-to-use search function and a nice retrieval display in order of relevance. To me it wasn’t even about the experimental techniques, though I grant I was interested in those as well, though I never had much time to explore them before the December 18 shut down. It was a simple case of access and availability– made subject headings available to my library and allowed me to accomplish my job when a paid service from LOC could not.

I have never understood LOC’s tight grasp on LCSH. I do understand and respect that LCSH wasn’t originally designed for such widespread use–it was designed to catalog the LOC collection, not for every American library everywhere. While I often rail againt the terminology and diction of LCSH, its outdated (and sometimes offensive and prejudicial) terms, and its demonstrated user-unfriendliness, I do respect that it was never intended to butt up against sue situations where that would be a problem. LCSH is user-unfriendly because the people who currently use it never should have become its users. But somehow or another we are it’s users–librarians and patrons a like–and if you want us to keep using your system, we have to have a motivating reason. For years it’s been nothing but inertia: we use it because we always have used it and we’ve gotten so many materials and so deeply entrenched in it that it’s easier to keep rolling along with it than to change it. But someone needs to stop this rolling rock, because we passed the library turnpike a long way back. LCSH has never served my library’s users well. It certainly handles fashion poorly, and I’ve been looking for a specialized vocabulary to use instead and not found anything yet.* While we are a special case, I argue that public and academic libraries as well need to leave LCSH behind. Everyone knows the “Cookery” example by now–how many ridiculous, outdated subject headings do we need to see before we decide it’s time for a change? how many patrons need to walk away confused, or have their catalog searches yield zero results because they didn’t know to search for “Caffeine habit” rather than “Caffeine addiction” (note the lack of UF).

I have long held that if you want someone to use your product, whatever that product may be, it should be easy to use and easy to access, as well as easy on your wallet to purchase. I hate craft shows that charge an entrance fee–it find it makes purchasing goods more difficult when I have to pay to get in the door. I hate buying from websites where I can’t figure out how to use the shopping cart–and sometimes I end up being physically unable to purchase, if I can’t make the damn thing work. If I buy a toaster and can’t understand the instructions, it’s not going to get used. These things all go for LCSH or any cataloging standards (MARC, AACR, etc.), in my opinion: if you want people to use your system in their libraries, it should be freely accessible and easy to use. The only thing  big organizations like OCLC and LOC have going for them right now is inertia. And while that will carry you far, eventually it will run out.**


*I had planned on writing my thesis on this, but ended up doing an electronic portfolio instead. I’m still interested in the project and refuse to let it go.

**Unless you’re in a vacuum, which I think we’ve already established they are not.

et cetera