Monday, September 28, 2015

Problems in Organizing Library Collections (nonfiction book) by Doralyn J. Hickey

Problems in Organizing Library Collections is nonfiction. I got it via interlibrary loan.

There are no read-alikes because this isn't fiction, although I have to admit that I read it more for pleasure than for professional development.


Not long ago, a couple people in one of the cataloging Facebook groups I'm part of were reading this, and I thought it sounded like fun. The series it's part of deals with many areas of librarianship, but this particular volume looks at the problems faced by those making decisions about the cataloging, processing, and organization of libraries. It includes 30 case studies featuring real-life problems and fictional libraries and people. It ends with written analyses of two of those case studies.

Unfortunately, this book was originally published in 1972 and is more than a little dated. Although my library science courses covered some historical information, they were understandably focused on current and future practice. I've seen the National Union Catalog books, but I don't have a clue what went into putting it together, and I was never required to use them. I've seen and used a card catalog in the past decade or so, and my cataloging classes briefly covered some of the ways that the current cataloging rules were meant more for printed catalog cards than for a computerized environment. However, I've never had to catalog on actual cards. And that's not even getting into the terminology I flat out couldn't understand.

Some chapters had so little to do with current librarianship that I skimmed them. However, I was surprised at how many chapters I was still able to relate to. And also a little depressed, because it drove home that some of the things I currently deal with have roots that are more than 40 years old.

For example, a few years ago I argued that it wasn't necessary for our Acquisitions department to write the date received, person who requested or approved the ordering of the book, department code, vendor, and price in all newly received books. When I had first been hired, I had been required to enter this information into each and every bibliographic record as well, but I had convinced the other librarians to allow me to abandon this practice – after all, most of this information was available in the Acquisitions module and the item records. If all I needed for the item records was the price, and no one but me ever looked at what was written in the books, was it really necessary for the Acquisitions department to be writing so much? A few people argued that, yes, it was, for various reasons that didn't really satisfy me, but I was relatively new and had at least managed to streamline my cataloging procedures so I didn't push. And so Acquisitions procedures continued unchanged.

Imagine my dismay when I read a chapter in this book dealing with an almost identical issue. Was it really necessary for the price, vendor, etc. to be written on the shelflist cards? Couldn't that practice be abandoned to save time and money? I could see the pros and cons more clearly in the case study...because there wasn't a computerized (and probably more accurate) record of all that hand-written information. I realized with horror that, back when my library had a card catalog, all the information Acquisitions was writing in our books had probably been written on shelflist cards. When the library was automated, someone had likely decided the practice of keeping a hand-written record should be continued “just in case.” And so the practice of writing it in the books themselves began.

The rest of Problems in Organizing Library Collections wasn't quite so revelatory, but I did see many more things that reminded me of modern day librarianship. It turns out that freshmen in 1972 were just as exhausted and inattentive during their library orientation activities as they are today. And librarians both then and now have similar things to consider when choosing whether to outsource their cataloging and processing, although today, at least, it's possible for librarians to ask each other for advice via listservs rather than snail mail. The chapter in which a school librarian researched outsourcing her library's cataloging and processing reminded me of my own library's efforts to choose a vendor for outsourcing our authority control.

While it was nice when I was able to relate to what was going on in a particular chapter, my favorite chapters were those with lots of dialogue. “The Lost Catalog Tray” was particularly good. Beverly, one of the people in the scenario, had a good sense of humor and a gift for impersonating people. Jack, her coworker, was so bothered by the missing catalog tray that he planned to spend his Christmas break recreating it, even though the heating was going to be off and he'd have to keep warm with a thick sweater and electric heaters. When asked what his wife thought about this, he answered that she planned to help him so she “won't have to listen to me bitch about it anymore” (48). I could easily picture the people in this book. I could see myself in some of them, and I've worked with people like them.

While this was a surprisingly enjoyable read, and some chapters are still applicable today (“The Best Books Take Longer to Get Cataloged” was a perfect example of why I hate it when library staff take uncataloged books home to read – just ask me to “rush” catalog them for you, please), library technical services have changed a lot in the past 40 years. I would love it if an updated version of this book existed. It'd make wonderful discussion fodder in library science classes – my own library science classes did a good job of covering theory and the way certain processes should go, but the “human element” wasn't given quite as much attention. I also think a book like this could lead to some interesting discussions in technical services departments.

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