From the catalogs of babes

I often get asked, both in blog comments and in real life, how I got started in library science and cataloging. Also, the Library Routes Project has been making the rounds in the blogosphere, and so I figured it was about time I posted something about how I got to where I am today (even though I might not always be sure where that is…)

Once upon a time, there was a girl who had a job making trophies. (As with most of my parables, the girl is, of course, me.) I was working for a promotional products company, doing graphic design for all sorts of tchotckes and etching crystal paperweights with company logos. In the spring of 2005, I was let go from my job there. I started applying for teaching positions (both of my parents had been teachers and I had some related experience) but the schooling required to acquire a teaching credential did not appeal to me. At all. In fact, many people suggested that I go back to school, and I was having none of it: I hated sitting in classrooms, I hated the inherent bureaucracy of higher education, I hated the time investment to acquire a piece of paper that I wasn’t really interested in acquiring in the first place, only because it was mandatory for the job. I’d spent some time in my undergraduate days working my way up the chain of retail bookstores, and while I enjoyed it greatly, I knew that retail was not a lucrative career path, especially one I would enjoy.

One of my friends who was pressing me to return to school suggested library science. I explained, all the reasons above and more, why I in no way, shape or form, wanted to go to grad school. He then sent me a link to a list of course descriptions from the University of Denver’s MLIS program. The page is different now, but I can still picture what it looked like when I read it for that first time. One of the first descriptions I read was for a class called “Online Searching.” I read that description and thought, “Hey, I Google-stalk people all the time, and I like it and I’m pretty good at it. You’re telling me there’s a class where I can learn to do this kind of thing even better?!?” I remember thinking how amazing that class sounded, that I didn’t even care about a degree or any sort of higher accomplishment–I wanted to take that class not only because it sounded interesting, but because it sounded fun.

I wanted to start so badly that I applied to the two local(-ish) programs that would let me start the earliest, that coming spring (Denver and San Jose State University, just for the record). The other feasible schools only accepted students to start in the fall of the following year, and I didn’t want to wait that long. I figured if I didn’t get accepted at the first two, then I would have time to improve and reapply for the later-starting ones.

In the meantime, I applied for a circulation assistant position at a fashion design school. Unfortunately, I didn’t get that job, but the head librarian at the time asked me if I might be interested in a temporary position for a few months while one of the circulation staff was out on maternity leave. I knew that a temp job could easily be a foot in the door, and even if it wasn’t, temporary work was better than none, so I took it. My very first project was organizing a collection of vintage sewing patterns. I thought it was a perfect task for me at the time simply because I was familiar with the major pattern companies and brands, as well as 20th century fashion and styles. It was easy for me to sort the patterns into women’s, men’s and children’s wear, then groups by decade and then alphabetically by name of pattern company and numerically by design number. Looking back, it’s clear to me that it wasn’t just the fashion familiarity at work–it was also the innate tendency to sort, classify, and organize those materials, to group like things together, and to base the method of organization on the inherent characteristics of the materials of that specific collection.

Thankfully, I was accepted at both of the schools to which I applied.  I ended up choosing SJSU’s distance program because I had just been offered a permanent full-time position at the library, mainly copy-cataloging books from the vintage collection and building preservational boxes for them. By this time, upon suggestion of the head librarian, I had just read Cataloging and Classification for Library Technicians. I still think it’s one of the best introductory texts available.

I don’t remember when I learned about MARC, or Dublin Core, or AACR2r, or LCSH, or any of those things. To me, it’s like learning how to read–I don’t remember a time before, I don’t remember the actual learning, it’s just something that I’ve always been able to do, something that I’ve always been aware of. I do remember starting the MLIS program in the spring making sure to take the prerequisite course for cataloging, since I would need to take beginning cataloging over the summer if I wanted to take advanced cataloging in the fall (the only semester it was offered). So even before I started my first semester, I already knew that cataloging was the area I wanted to study. I remember taking the introductory library science course, which included assignments like an annotated webliography and a summary of job trends in a particular area of library science. I think these assignments were designed to help students explore different areas of focus in libraries and information science. While other people wrote about law libraries for one assignment and reference for another, I wrote every single one of my assignments focused on cataloging.

I took a lot of classes in information organization and architecture, but I also took quite a few courses in archives. It wasn’t just that I was interested in crazy old stuff and personal papers (although that was certainly part of it), but I was also interested in the organization of these unique, one-of-a-kind collections. Like the vintage pattern collection that was my very first library project, archival collections come with their own organization issues, and it’s always been more interesting to me to puzzle out the best ways to organize things, rather than simply following a strict set of inflexible rules–especially when they can’t apply.

After a year of copy-cataloging for the vintage collection, I started copy-cataloging for the general collection at large, and then eventually handling the cataloging (copy and original) of all the library’s materials, as well as attempting to formalize policies and procedures for cataloging across the library’s four campus branches and starting a campaign to migrate to a new ILS.

In my final semester of graduate school, I applied for an additional job keywording images for a graphic design company. Image cataloging was an area that interested me, but also seemed to be one of those areas where you need the experience to get the jobs, but you can’t get the experience without previous jobs. A representative of the company spoke to my vocabulary design class and I was intrigued by the company’s controlled vocabulary, especially the use of natural language and user search terminology. I kept my eyes on their employment page and submitted my application the minute a position opened up. I mention this job specifically because I distinctly remember the posting describing the types of people wanted for such a position:

“Successful Keyworders are highly organized. Many have backgrounds in library science. Some even claim to enjoy alphabetizing their CD collections.”

Yes, I saved the posting. (Remember, I did study archives.) The thing that caught my attention was the bit about alphabetizing CD collections. Because that was me. Literally. Not only did I like to alphabetize my CDs, I liked to pull them all off the shelf and re-alphabetize them, or put them into genre categories, or by artist, just for fun. Yes, this was a hobby of mine. I’m not ashamed to disclose my lack of popularity or party girl status.

It’s a pretty roundabout story of how I came to be a cataloger, and while I can put my finger on the moment I knew I wanted to study library science, the exact moment when I decided that cataloging and information organization would be my focal point isn’t exactly clear. Looking back, I sometimes can’t believe I didn’t figure it out sooner. But I list all these bits of experiences here because they are not only what made me a cataloger, but what made me the cataloger I am, with my background and perspectives and opinions, where they come from, and why.



That’s right. I found the mystery Tony Duquette book.

See, what I had failed to mention in the earlier parable was that while I found the book in the OPAC after the patron left, I couldn’t find it on the shelf, despite its checked-in status. I’m generally pretty diligent, and I’m no stranger to these sorts of situations. I looked for it not just on the shelf where it belongs, but the shelf above, the shelf below, the shelf to the right and to the left. I looked on the book carts, in the book drop, and in the workroom, and I never found it. I even requested that the colletions librarian order another copy.

Until today. Until I was randomly covering the reference desk, letting my eyes graze the room, and lo and behold, I just happened to glace upon a book with huge letters on the spine reading “TONY DUQUETTE.” Of course, I snatched it up right away and sent a note to the instructor who had been interested in it, apologising for the delay but informing her that we did in fact have a copy.

So, where was it? It was safely tucked between 749.092 D716 and 749.092 Ea62. The problem?

(For those that can’t read the blurry impromptu photo, that call number is 747.092…)

This book was essentially missing for 2 months, would have been longer if I hadn’t happened upon it. A patron wanted this book and was denied fulfillment of her information needs because it was simply in the incorrect location.

The moral of the story? Shelving properly is important. Shelfreading is important. Understanding the order of the DDC numbers is important. You know how librarians always whine that “if a book isn’t in the right place, it’s as good as lost”? Yeah, that.

Once upon a time, late one night in the library, an instructor came in asking for “that book by Tony Duquette.”

Being the diligent reference desk staffer that I am, I dutifully type “Duquette, Tony,” into the author search field of our online catalog. The search returns one result, and so I answer affrimatively that indeed we do have a book by Tony Duquette, and write down the call number.

We walk to the section together and I pull the book for her. “No,” she says, “that’s not it. It’s a bigger book, and it’s sort of reddish, and it’s all about his life and work. It’s new. He just died, you know.”

Well, no, I didn’t know. Nor did I have any idea who Tony Duquette was, only that she asked me for a book by Tony Duquette. Since she had said it was a new book, I told her that we would of course look into ordering it and aquiring it as soon as possible.

Back at the desk, I look up Tony Duquette on Amazon. After reading the description of the first result, I learn that a) Tony Duquette died in 1999; and b) this retrospective was published in 2007; and c) despite those facts, it looks and sounds like the book the instructor was after.

The other interesting thing I learn is that the book is not in fact by Tony Duquette (not surprising, since he’s been dead for 10 years), but rather by a Wendy Goodman. It suddenly clicks, and I type “Tony Duquette” into the title search field of our OPAC, and lo and behold, there it is, it comes right up. Unfortunately, the instructor had already left the building.

So what’s the moral of this story? If our OPAC search fields were not limited to indexing specific fields like title, author, etc.–if the user didn’t know the difference between a book by Tony Duquette and about Tony Duquette (as was definitely the case here and certainly not limited to this example)–if the user could simply type in “Tony Duquette” and find books both by and about the artist–then maybe this debacle of unfulfillment wouldn’t have happened, and the instructor could have left with the book she wanted, instead of empty-handed.

{February 14, 2009}   parable #13

Once upon a time, there was a girl (who you may have already surmised is me) who needed to buy a new cell phone. I was nearing the end of my two-year ball-and-chain contract and my phone had ceased to be useful months earlier.

However, I was on a family share phone plan. This meant that not only would I need a new phone, but my parents, with whom I shared the plan, would need new phones as well.

So the three of us went down to the local phone store, where my mother proceeded to sample every phone in a 5 mile radius and then some. (It’s not polite to tell a lady’s age, but let’s just say that my mom is the sort of person that grew up with technology.) Her main criteria for the new phone included not having any buttons on the sides (so as not to push them by mistake when grabbing it from her purse) as well as large, easy-to-read buttons. So you can imagine how blown away I was when my mother picked up an iPhone on her own and immediately logged in and navigated to Google.

I’ve had my new iPhone for about 24 hours now and I’m still amazed at how easy and intutive it is to use.* It made me wonder: why aren’t library catalogs more like iPhones?

Actually, my first thought was about  the possibility of building iPhone applications for library catalogs. Which was immediately followed by the thought that such a possibility would likely be impossible, at least for our library’s catalog, just due to constraints of the software that we use. Maybe other software systems could support the building of a catalog iPhone app, I don’t know. WorldCat has an iPhone app, but I haven’t tried it yet, and I confess I’m slightly skeptical, since  itself doesn’t seem all that functional and user-friendly to me (and I’m a librarian–I can’t imagine what the everyday patron user thinks of it).

But I can’t help but think: wouldn’t it be cool if I could use my library’s catalog the same way I use my iPhone? Not an application on my phone, but the actual library catalog, designed to function the way the iPhone does. Not just the customization and those bells and whistles, but the sheer, simple, user-friendly, intuitive interface that allows someone like my mom to pick it up and instantly be able to use it, without training or instruction or a thick reference book or user’s manual. Without needing to know any specialized vocabulary–you push “email” to get to your email, and “phone” to use your phone. Without any special search training, bibliographic instruction, Boolean operators, MARC indicators… heaven forbid if that usability extended to the back-end for catalogers!

I did my research and testing and I consider my purchase to not only buy me a new phone, but also voting with my dollar in favor of good, user-friendly design. I would do the same for my library in a heartbeat if I knew of a product out there along these lines worth supporting.

What do you think it would take to convince Apple to start designing library software…?


*author’s note: this post is in no way meant to advertise iPhones or any other products, despite how much the author thoroughly enjoys playing with her new toy.

{January 7, 2009}   parable #4

Once upon a time (i.e., yesterday), I went to the Pollack Library at California State University Fullerton. I needed to do research for a book chapter proposal. Before making the trip, I checked the library’s catalog to make sure they had Cataloging and Classification Quarterly and Art Documentation, the two journals I needed.

CSUF classifies their collection using Library of Congress Classification. Knowing that library and information science is classed under “Z,” I headed toward that section of the periodical stacks. I found Cataloging and Classification Quarterly nearly immediately, but did not see Art Documentation after a cursory browse. I decided to check the call number in the catalog, in case it was perhaps classed in a more arts-related section. The call number was Z5937 .A19. Thinking I must have simply overlooked it, I returned to the “Z” section and stared at the empty shelves between Z119 and Z671. What was I missing?

After consulting with the very nice reference librarian on duty, I learned exactly what the problem was: 5937 is a bigger number than 119 and 671, and therefore comes later in the shelf order. Art Documentation was exactly where it was supposed to be, between Z5704 and Z6151. Seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it?

But at our library, with both DDC and our Cutter system, numbers are shelved from the first digit forward, which means that 5704 would indeed fall between 119 and 671, Just as 1190 and 1191 would follow 119 and 67 would precede 671.

What’s the moral of this parable? Despite classification system standards, knowledge of library classification at one library does not translate to knowledge at another. The fact that I’m a trained cataloger only makes this more evident–while I’m not as familiar with LCC since I don’t use it on a daily basis like I do DDC, if a catalog librarian can’t figure it out, how can we expect the library patrons?

et cetera