Friday, 17 April 2015

Last post

This is the last post for this blog.

I maintained this blog as an adjunct to my professional life and discussed only professional matters within it; and I had a second blog for all the other stuff. Now that I am retired, my life no longer falls into two halves; it is a merry mash-up of thoughts about libraries (because I still think about them from time to time) and thoughts about all sorts of other things.

And so I am going to close this blog. It has been fun, but it’s over. I hope that some of you will follow me into my new world, and carry on reading at Now and then, as and when. See you there!

Thursday, 23 January 2014


In my local library last week, I found myself within a whisker of saying rather peevishly, “Well, it says on the catalogue that it’s available!” I caught myself in time, remembering that there are very many reasons why something which says that it is “available” may well not be.

It may have been stolen, recently or many years ago, depending on when the last stock check was done (and heaven knows, most libraries don’t have the resources to do stock checks at all nowadays).

It may never have been in stock at all, appearing on the catalogue only because of a mis-match between item and ISBN, whether that happened during so-called (forgive my cynicism) “shelf-ready supply” or during a retrospective conversion exercise decades ago.

Or it may have been withdrawn, but no record made to update the catalogue.

It may have been mis-shelved accidentally - or deliberately, by someone who wanted to be sure that they were the only person who could find it again. Libraries without time to do shelf-checks often don't have time to do shelf-tidying either.
It may have had its spine label changed by someone unaware or uncaring of any connection between the spine-label and the shelfmark given on the catalogue. Don’t tell me this doesn’t happen because I know it does.

Or it may be in a pile in a workroom, waiting to be re-shelved, or re-processed, or for any one of a multitude of reasons.

Or, and this is my pet hate, it may have been taken for display or to be put on quick-choice shelves, making it impossible for anyone to find who is actually looking for it. 

So, all that we mean when we say on the catalogue that something is available, is that we don’t know for sure that it is unavailable – and this isn’t the same thing at all. "Available" actually translates as, "It may or may not be in stock and even if it is in stock neither you nor we may be able to find it".

Why do we go on using the word “available”? Perhaps we should put pressure on our OPAC suppliers to come up with something better. If we feel we have to say anything at all, it would be more accurate to say, “maybe”. Or, does anyone know if there is an emoticon for a Gallic shrug? That is pretty much what library staff do when someone says, “But it says on the catalogue that it’s available!”

Saturday, 18 January 2014

It's big and blue

When I was a cataloguer, it would never have surprised me if the reader services staff had said not to bother with the physical description part of the record. It always seemed a bit of a faff, counting pages and wielding the ruler. It was the sort of pedantic fiddle-faddling that gave cataloguers a bad name. Now that I have jumped over the fence and turned from gamekeeper to poacher, I realise just how useful that physical description is. 

I doubt that there are any libraries where everything is exactly where it should be, with every book in its place, but even if there are, I am not working in one. And when you are looking for something that isn’t in its right place, it is very useful to know what sort of a thing it is that you’re looking for, especially when you have got someone waiting who very much wants to read that book and to read it right now, and is getting quite impatient that you can’t find it. 

The date is a bit of a clue – a book published in 1937, or 1957, isn’t going to look like a book published in 2013. But what is really useful is knowing how thick it is likely to be, roughly how many pages it has – am I looking for a great fat tome or a flimsy pamphlet?  And if you notice that it is 38cm high, well then, it just might be worth looking on that shelf where the tall books go to lie down. 

Wouldn’t it be great if instead of a cover image, we included an image of the spine? After all, that’s what we are looking at, most of the time. The ultimate help would be for the bib record to tell me what colour the book is, but I guess not even RDA is going to do that. In the meantime, all you cataloguers out there, please remember those of us who are looking for needles in haystacks and keep on including the 300 field.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Drowning or waving

It has been a long time since I last posted but there is a reason for this, which is, that I have been busy retiring.

It is a funny old business, retirement. You walk out of work at 5 o’clock on a Friday evening and that’s it. It is a bit like being one of those cartoon characters who run off the edge of a cliff, and their legs keep going for a while before they suddenly realise that they are in mid-air and then they drop like a stone. 
Of course, you realise just how quickly you become entirely irrelevant to the place where you used to work. This is something that happens whenever you leave a job, whether it is because of retirement or because you are moving on to a new post. An old friend told me long ago, “When you get out of the swimming pool, you don’t leave a hole,” and she was absolutely right.  Depending on how you feel at the time, this can be a consolation or a regret.

When you leave your job to move on to a new one, you take your belongings, and your knowledge and your skills, with you, and you hope to be going to a place where they will continue to be useful and where you will learn new and interesting things. It isn’t quite the same when you retire. You still bundle up all your belongings (amongst them, in my case, all eight pairs of shoes that had been living under my desk, three mugs, and the umbrella which might have come in useful because although it had holes they were only small ones) and take them home. And then you wonder what to do with them. Are you actually going to need them as a stay-at-home retiree? How many pairs of black shoes, with heels, will you need when all you do is potter to the supermarket or in and out of the garden?

And it is the same with your skills and knowledge.  You have brought them home as well, and now you wonder if they are ever going to be used again.  Do they follow the shoes into a corner where they slowly get covered with dust and start to crumble until finally they are thrown away? Is it worth keeping and polishing skills, or shoes, that neither you nor anyone else may want again? Now I have a really really good excuse not to, just how much do I want to engage with RDA and BIBFRAME?

It is interesting to discover how hard it is to lose the habit of work. It feels very odd to have no pressure, no targets. It is shocking to discover how little I actually get done without a deadline. After all, there’s always tomorrow. But all the time it feels as if I ought to be doing something but have forgotten what it is, or that I have put something down and can’t remember where I put it, and that is vaguely and persistently worrying. 

And then there is the difficulty of work life and home life having become intertwined. Although I have walked out of the door for the last time, and with no looking back, what about social media, where the boundaries of private and professional life are blurred, with people tweeting about both their knitting and recondite RDA rules almost simultaneously?  A lot of my contacts – a majority of them – come from work life and to cut them all out would lead to almost complete social isolation. With noone to follow on Twitter, and almost no emails, I would enter a strangely silent world. It would be like not having Radio 4 in the kitchen.

I was lucky in that I had already been asked to undertake some consultancy work, albeit short-term and part-time, and I am also volunteering one day a week. Both of these have acted as parachutes to break my fall into retirement. What will follow, I have no idea but it will be interesting to find out. This year didn’t turn out at all as I expected. Here’s to 2014 – and not drowning but waving!

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Living in the moment

New Year being the time to look forward, I find myself doing the equivalent of hiding behind the sofa, peeping through my fingers in mingled fear and fascination at what horrors might be coming my way in 2013. However, Janus being two-faced looks backwards as well as forwards, and I look back on 2012 with all the ghoulish interest of a spectator at a train wreck. It wasn't a good year.

That doesn't mean that I didn't work hard and achieve successes, some almost by accident along the way and some wrested from the snarling jaws of defeat. But, like most people other than politicians, what I remember best of 2012 were the failures. It was the year I pretty much gave up on being a chief cataloguer, not out of choice but simply as the result of Not Enough Time and Too Much Other Stuff To Do. So I didn't do any cataloguing, any classification or any authority control. I didn't think very much about RDA. Heck, I didn't even do very much checking of other people's cataloguing. I didn't count stuff or keep proper records, so I am way behind with statistics, which makes the end of every quarter a nightmare of catch-up and invention. I didn't have time to bother my colleagues with wondering whether we could do things better if we did them differently or even with asking for a reminder as to why we do things the way we do. (It is fair to say that my colleagues were grateful for this, as saving their time as well as mine). When I can't remember something I have no chance of finding it in the morass of disorganised emails. I didn't read enough and I didn't blog enough and I didn't think enough. In Olympic year I didn't succeed in going the extra mile or even the extra 100 metres.

Instead I lived hand-to-mouth, throwing far too many cans of worms onto the back burner and leaving far too many dogs to slumber undisturbed. I barely responded to emails unless they were in block red capitals with URGENT in the subject line. If you didn't shout loudly and persistently, I ignored you. Sorry for that.

I wore myself to a frazzle in 2012 doing whatever I could find time to do but I also spent far too much time worrying about the rest. Which is why I am going to try to adopt the new fashion for "mindfulness" in 2013. Whatever I do, I am going to try to concentrate on it, and not be distracted or bothered by everything else. I will take one careful step at a time, not try to balance on several greasy stools and end up falling between them in an undignified and irritable heap. I shall enjoy doing one thing properly, rather than get frustrated by doing half a dozen things badly. I shall embrace the "slow" movement and live in the moment. And I shall ignore you even when you shout. Sorry for that.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Why can't a library be more like a bookshop?

One of the things I have found most difficult to get my head around – and certainly difficult to explain to other people – is the difference between classification and shelfmark. 

Classification is a representation of the subject (or subjects) of an item.
The shelfmark is the item’s address within the library – and tells you where to find it. 

Very often, because we usually shelve in classified order, the shelfmark is a classification number or has a classification number as one of its elements (along with a filing suffix, for example), which is where the confusion starts to creep in.  It isn’t helped by a tendency to refer to “main” and “added” classification, with the classification which is included in the shelfmark being the “main” number and anything else being “added” (and often therefore regarded as an unnecessary extra). Gradually people start to think that the shelfmark IS the classification; so that when colleagues working in reader services return a book to bib services and ask for it to be “reclassified”, what they usually mean is that they want the shelfmark changed.

What I am beginning to wonder is, whether it should be any part of a cataloguer’s job to allocate the shelfmark – whether this couldn’t be done locally by staff in each library. I take it as an article of faith that classification certainly is the cataloguer’s job – the analysis of the subject of an item and its correct representation in the classification scheme, together with the creation of subject headings and/or subject index entries, should be done rigorously and consistently by staff trained in the theory and practice of classification. But is it up to us to decide where in the library that item is kept?

Why do we think it matters that all copies of a book should have the same shelfmark? Why, if a book is returned to us with the request that it be “reclassified” (i.e. that its shelfmark be changed) so that the users may find it more easily, do we change the shelfmarks of all copies of that book? All copies should be classified the same way, because it is the book that we are classifying, not each individual copy; but each copy can have its own shelfmark without affecting anything at all.

Bookshops do this all the time, of course.  The biography of a footballer may have copies put in both the sport and the biography sections;  a detective novel set in ancient Rome may be found in both the Historical and the Crime sections. In libraries we have always been a bit sniffy about this and prided ourselves upon always being consistent– all our copies will be either in one place or another, not scattered between them.  It's as if we think that consistency of shelfmarks makes a library in some way intellectually superior to a bookshop. But wouldn’t it be better if libraries were more like bookshops and put the books where we thought the users would find them, even if that meant they were shelved in different places in different libraries (or even in different places within the same library)? The casual user browsing along the shelves would be more likely to find what they were looking for and anyone using the catalogue would still be able to find all the copies each with their own shelfmark. 

I suspect what happens now, is that library staff often put their books in places other than at the shelfmark given on the catalogue, because they know better than the staff in bib services where that book will be looked for; but, because we have made library staff think that shelfmarks shouldn’t be altered, can’t be altered, this is done surreptitiously, without the shelfmark on the catalogue being changed – which means that no one using the catalogue will be able to find the book, because they’ll be looking in the wrong place. Isn’t it time that we separated shelfmarks and classmarks and used them each for their proper purpose?