card catalogue drawers

Being a Cataloguer

Have you ever lost a book in your house? And, while looking for it, been surprised to find one you don’t remember buying (or borrowing)?

Imagine how hard it is to keep track of thousands of books distributed among multiple buildings and available to be borrowed by thousands of people. That’s the situation in libraries, especially large public libraries and those that are part of colleges and universities.

In past centuries, when books were owned by the privileged few, it was possible to keep track by means of handwritten lists and users’ knowledge of their collections. But with the proliferation of printed books, increased literacy, and the growth of universities, something flexible and expandable was needed.

Card-based book inventories emerged at the end of the 18th century. Rumour has it that in France, playing cards, whose backs were blank at the time, were pressed into service to keep track of book collections. A book’s particulars were written on the blank side of a card, and the cards filed in order. But the real development and standardization of the card catalogue happened in the United States. By the end of the 19th century, wooden cabinets with hundreds of cute little drawers full of 3 x 5-inch cards (familiar to most people of a certain age) were seen in just about all libraries, big and small.

Someone had to create, file, and organize those cards. Enter the cataloguer.

During the Golden Age of Cataloguing (defined by me to be more or less 1900 to 1980), just about all libraries of any size had cataloguing departments, employing anywhere from one person who did it all to dozens, working behind the scenes, largely unseen by and unknown to library users. Every book passed through that department, emerging with a spine label that was in effect its address in the library. And into those drawers went 3 x 5-inch cards bearing a distillation of each book’s essence: author, title, edition, publisher, place and date of publication. Number of pages and height. Series. Presence of bibliography and/or index. Subjects. Co-authors, editors, and illustrators. The ISBN and other identifying numbers.

Elaborate rules were devised for recording and presenting all this information in a systematic way. Devised, revised, and occasionally re-devised. In North America, half a dozen cataloguing codes were created during that century. I entered the profession when one of them, the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, second edition (AACR2) was adopted. Coincidentally, it was replaced by a new code not long before I retired.

In the 1960s, computers entered the picture and the whole thing was automated, by means of something called MAchine Readable Cataloging, aka “MARC Format.” Complex computer systems were created to use the data, first to print catalogue cards, and later for the online public catalogues still in use today. A whole new jargon and set of acronyms resulted. Real cataloguers “spoke MARC,” as in, “That goes in the 490, not the 245 p. The indicator is 1, so you need an 800, with the name from the 100 in ‘a’ and the title in ‘t.'” Translation: “That’s a series statement, not part of the title. It’s indexed, so add an author-title entry for it.” (Yeah, I know, that’s jargon too.) MARC Format was like a secret handshake among members of an occult society.

This was the milieu in which I spent my entire career as a librarian (1980 to 2016), at first in an environment cluttered with electric erasers, coding sheets, and coloured markers flagging new cards whose filing had to be checked. There was a never-seen-by-the-public master card catalogue called the “shelflist.” Books were adorned with an array of labels, stickers, coloured dots and spots. Passionate discussions, even arguments, occurred among cataloguers, about rule interpretations and minutiae of data. In the 1980s, the high discipline of Authority Control emerged–in effect, cataloguing the names of persons, things, and subjects, and creating a system of links among them.

Cataloguing was the perfect calling for a detail-oriented introvert with a fixation on order and organization.

Our mission was to apply and interpret the rules to create a map of our library’s collection, to help users find exactly what they needed, whether they were writing a thesis or looking for a good read. To create a catalogue record for a published work, the cataloguer must grasp the author’s intent, the information provided by the publisher, the needs of library users, and the rules and conventions of cataloguing. And sometimes the thing being catalogued is in a language of which the cataloguer has only the sketchiest knowledge.

Unfortunately, all this wasn’t always valued by managers and administrators. In fact, it often seemed they were our worst enemies, even our librarian colleagues. A whole department of behind-the-scenes specialists who spoke in arcane jargon and held books hostage until they had been subjected to obscure rituals? Bean-counting administrators focussed beady eyes on us as an unaffordable “cost centre.” We cataloguers became defensive, and resented having to justify our existence to people who refused to appreciate the value of our art. (And some of us secretly dreaded the prospect of being plucked from our cozy enclaves and thrust into contact with The Public.)

As the 20th century sputtered out, so did card catalogues. All those wooden cabinets were sold to people who thought they looked cool and retro, and were perfect for storing small collectibles. Library catalogues moved online, and there were calls for the death of the MARC Format, which was, after all, nearly 50 years old, like so many of the cataloguers who knew and loved it.

The Golden Age is over, but cataloguing hasn’t disappeared. Books and other intellectual creations still need to be organized, searched for, and cited. A giant entity called WorldCat has swallowed almost all the individual catalogues. Many libraries have disbanded their cataloguing departments and outsourced the work. Now we have something called “metadata,” a term familiar to self-published authors. Some (rather odd) people catalogue their personal book collections on Library Thing. As “search” enters a new era, many of those minutiae-worshipping, MARC-talking cataloguers have retired. Some of them are writing and publishing novels.

The narrator of my novel, The Friendship of Mortals, a guy named Charles Milburn, is a cataloguer at Miskatonic University in Arkham, at the beginning of the 20th century. The demands of the plot limit his opportunities to hold forth about his profession, but for those who are curious about it, there is a pretty good article in Wikipedia. Look under “Cataloging.” There’s also an interesting blog post about card catalogues from the US National Library of Medicine: Card Tricks: The Decline & Fall of a Bibliographic Tool.

It’s possible to catalogue anything. A former colleague told me he had catalogued a dustball, with smaller dustballs as supplements. When I retired, my staff made a spoof catalogue record for me. Here it is, in glorious MARC Format. That’s what all those numbers and lowercase letters are. Cataloguers know what they mean; others don’t need to. (Apologies for the reflections from the laminated paper.)

Fake catalogue record for Audrey Driscoll in MARC Format
Click on the image and zoom it up to read!

Featured image from Pexels

Retirement: Week 1

April Fool’s Day. Is this a good day on which to begin something new, I wonder. Retirement, maybe? Quite possibly, since it’s viewed as a transition from Productive Person to Old Fool Fogey.

For the first month or so, I have no definite plan. The idea is to do whatever I feel like, with plenty of little rests between bursts of activity.

Day 1: the Spouse, the Dog and I went on a small ramble in East Sooke Park, one of the more scenic spots in a region that abounds in such spots. The Dog met a puppy that wanted to play and obliged politely, much to the puppy’s owner’s delight. Other highlights of the walk were a small beach of coarse sand and small pebbles, sightings of Erythroniums and Fairy Slipper Orchids in bloom, and the distinctive foliage of Rattlesnake Plantains (not in bloom). On the way back to the parking lot, the Dog was in her element, bouncing through a rather muddy field. A surprising amount of soil came home with us, leading to muttering about “spending my retirement cleaning up after that Dog.”

Erythronium in East Sooke Regional Park

Erythronium in East Sooke Regional Park

Day 2: in the garden, edging, mowing and raking the remains of the two small sections of lawn that are frequented by the Dog. I’m hoping the grass that remains is a specially tough variety that will persist. Otherwise, replacement with some sort of gravel and/or pavement will be necessary. Even in its ravaged state, it looks much better after the attention received.

Day 3: in the garden again, yanking out snowberry suckers from one of the perennial beds and wondering why I ever planted snowberry. Yes, it’s a native plant and drought-tolerant, but it sends roots and suckers all over the place. They come up in the middle of perennials such as asters, necessitating surgical probing and removal which is probably temporary. Note to self (and others): if ever creating a garden from scratch, avoid suckering plants. Snowberry isn’t the only one here with that sneaky and annoying tendency. There are also Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), common lilac and the Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), also known locally as the Tree from Hell. It forms weird brain-like structures underground at considerable distance from the parent tree, from which grow clumps of suckers.

Gardening in progress! (Note the fork).

Gardening in progress! (Note the fork).

Day 4: grocery stores and banks. Tedious but necessary, and it’s a novelty to do this stuff on a Monday. Nice long nap in the afternoon.

Day 5: a cool showery day, perfect for distributing compost to various perennial beds. It’s verging on too late for this job, because plants have sprouted and leafed out to the point that one can’t just fling the compost around without worrying about crushing delicate new growth. So I deposit it unevenly and tell myself that as it’s absorbed into the soil, the benefits will trickle down, like wealth from rich to poor. (We’ll see about that).

Day 6: a morning walk with Spouse and Dog along the southward-facing bluffs by Dallas Road. Glorious day, cool enough that the sun feels good; not too windy. Dog wet and happy after romping in the waves; several walkers not happy about wet dog nose. Then back to the garden: potted up a couple of refugee plants, did some spontaneous weeding here and there, and removed a large foxglove plant that was impinging on a clump of asters and some feeble lilies. Foxgloves are another near-weed that does well here (and almost everywhere). This one was the standard magenta type, so no great asset. Away with it! Later: made some Root Beer Barbecue Sauce.

Day 7: another glorious summer-like day (will have to start watering soon, if this keeps up). Went downtown and acquired three books (A Song for Nettie Johnson by Gloria Sawai, The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill, and — with reservations — The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt), and some tea (Murchie’s Raspberry and Ceylon Uva), courtesy of generous colleagues and coworkers. At home, stashed away items brought home from the office a week ago — photographs, pen-holders, three rocks (used to weigh down the pages of books being catalogued, or as paperweights) and scraps of paper with helpful or inspiring quotations.

Rocks & Quotes

The quotations: “Faith is the ability to live hopefully without answers.” (Mary Fisher, I’ll Not Go Quietly)

“You don’t want to sharpen the axe for your own execution,” and, “Uncommonness is a reason to prompt reflection and inquiry, not necessarily to exclude.” These two from cataloguer librarians, in posts to the Authorities and Cataloging (Autocat) email discussion list, which as a cataloguer I found to be an invaluable resource.

“Perhaps the greatest folly possible for a culture is to try to pass itself on by using principles of efficiency. When a culture is rich enough and inherently complex enough to afford redundancy of nurturers, but eliminates them as an extravagance or loses their cultural services through heedlessness of what is being lost, the consequence is self-inflicted cultural genocide.” (Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead).

And finally, “The world is full of possibilities. Things irretrievably lost may not be lost. Believe in yourself. Trust your intuition. Stick to what you know to be true. True stature comes from within. Turn grief into music.” (Linda Zuckerman, quoted in the Library of Congress Information Bulletin, volume 54, number 1 (January 9, 1995).

Forget-me-nots and Gentian

Forget-me-nots and Gentian