Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Day Without A Library Catalog

The woman holding the biography of Harry Houdini asked us to conjure up another book.

With the U. S. release of the fifth Harry Potter movie days away, it seems a good time to ask some questions. Do librarians practice magic? If so, can they conjure without their wands? Can they borrow wands?

My library had no access to its catalog yesterday. It was down as the Metropolitan Library System replaced some of its computer equipment. Since we disposed of the card catalog on December 30, 1999, we had no tool giving the call numbers and statuses of our books, movies, and music.

We were not totally stranded, as our materials are included in the WorldCat database, which we access through FirstSearch. I have found that our new materials do not appear for months, but most older items are included and identified by our three letter code HAO. With this in mind, we set up for the day with Firstsearch on our screen at the Reference Desk and signs on our catalog monitors promising that the reference librarians could help find books. I also printed up Dewey cheat sheets

Business at the desk was definitely up and I thought I did quite well. (Please excuse the boasting.) In a three hour period, I found seven books that WorldCat indicated we owned. The only one that I did not find is being read by a book club, so I am sure it was checked out. I took numerous reserves for items that I found at other libraries.

I was particularly proud of a few of cases.

When Worldcat showed that we owned a book about a corrupt policeman, I tried going to true crime 364.1## on the Dewey shelves, and there it was with a three digit extension. The reader was pleased.

Sandy, our head of circulation and interlibrary loan, asked me whether we would really own a book on the operations of electrical power plants. She had gotten an ILL and thought it odd that our medium small public library would have a book otherwise owned by only two universities nationwide. I recognized the author as a local resident and we did indeed have his book on the 621 shelves. She was surprised.

Our reference staff and Aaron Schmidt will be proud to know that I do know where to find the birdhouse construction books. There are two places - in the 598 and 690.89 areas.

I suspect other reference librarians in MLS libraries did just as well yesterday. Our requests were pretty common. (I'd like to hear other stories.) We all know a lot of Dewey from years of handling books and answering questions.

Today I see that the catalog is up. I would not have minded another day without it. (Wash my mouth with soap!) I enjoyed getting an increase of people at the desk, meeting a few that I had never helped before yesterday. I enjoyed seeing the books get into their hands.

There have been several stories lately about libraries using bookstore models and going without Dewey. It is not really that shocking an idea, as Dewey is somewhat 19th century in its organization, and bookstores are not totally without organization. I suspect that the bookstore model will not of itself, however, really solve any problems. I have trouble finding books in bookstores.

Books often defy classification, as their texts often combine subjects with very separate Dewey numbers. Librarians often disagree where to put them. Booksellers are not any more agreeing. Will a book on baseball cards be with the sports books or in the collectibles department? It is the same problem, no matter how you arrange books.

The key to book-finding success is knowledgeable staff and a good catalog. I once witnessed in a Books-a-Million a clerk tell a shopper that he had never heard of Dr. Seuss and, being alone at the time, he did not have time to look the author up. I hope that would never happen in a library, where we have librarians trained in magic.

15 comments:

Laura said...

Rick, I can beat that--on Monday last week we had not only no catalog by no internet whatsoever for the whole day. I don't think I did so well in finding the books, but I haven't had as many years of Dewey as others.

Maggie said...

I'm very green right now! Oh, I miss interacting with patrons. It has been really hard for me to adjust to the college environment. Students have spent their first 18/19/20 years known by everyone and they revell in the anonymity of college, just when I'm trying to learn their names. :p

Maggie said...

Oh, and by green I mean jealous. I forgot it has a whole new meaning these past months. *blush*

Nonanon said...

Oh, Maggie, here's one for the "grass is always greener" category: are you in academic libraries? I so miss the students. Public libraries are nice but no patrons top college students, anonymity and all.

Shannon said...

Librarians make magic in so many ways....finding books is just one of them :-)

Helping people find books 1 on 1 is one of the best parts of my job. I also like it when I can say..."Hummmm, I have the perfect book for you" and not check the catalog. A working knowledge of the collection is one of the best tools of all, and sometimes even more powerful than a catalog because it is a personal exchange.

Granny Sue said...

Congratulations on being a Blog of Note! I miss patrons too. My position now is not in the public arena, but behind the scenes, supervising branch librarians and, oddly, the facilities/maintenance dept for the system. With a MLIS, but nowadays no book or patron interaction. I remember well the joy of helping patrons find the right book. You guys rock.

t said...

Great post. Reminds me of an essay by Nicholson Baker: "Discards," in The New Yorker, April 4, 1994, 64-70+. Also reprinted in "The Size of Thoughts."

La Bibliotecaria Laura said...

I would like to echo the notion of not being able to find stuff in bookstores. I always wish that they were more organized, like libraries!

S. Scott Craft said...

I personally miss the old cards on paper.

Karen said...

i'm a librarian myself and i truly find this blog very informative.

John the organist said...

Oh the thrill of finding something! The delightful person who says "I know you'll help me because you helped me so much last time"!

Barbara said...

I was a high school librarian for 28 years and a public branch manager for 4. I loved being able to pick a book off the shelf without looking in the catalog. The patron thought it was magic!

Val said...

I retired as a reference librarian in a university library a year ago. Although I am thoroughly enjoying my retirement, this post brought back memories of the occasional bit of magic at the reference desk. It is no mean feat to be able to think in Dewey. It sounds like you earned your magic wand. Thanks for the post.

Angela said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
tinylittlelibrarian said...

Our library is currently looking into all types of "marketing" ideas based on another library system in our area that has all but become a bookstore. That type of thing scares me, because bookstores certainly aren't perfect, but I wouldn't mind an in-between, modern alternative to Dewey that would make things easier for patrons. I sometimes think Dewey is a big barrier for patrons because it doesn't mean anything to them. They're much more used to asking for the "self-help section." Although, speaking of hard to classify! I actually hate that question, since there are so many sections it could be in, depending on which part of yourself you want to help. :)