me and Melvil, kickin’ people in the knees

I don’t remember who originally linked to this screed opining that librarians should gird themselves for obsolescence (oh, Tab Candy, your ability to add metadata to tab groups cannot come soon enough), but this quote:

It is time to end the epidemic of Munchausen by Proxy in our public service librarians, and instead acknowledge that if the patrons we patronize can’t walk without assistance, it is only because we continually kick them in the kneecaps.

…aside from making me giggle ruefully, reminded me that I had a post brewing.

So. My nonfiction at home is organized by Dewey.[*] (Well, the nonfiction not accounted for by undergrad technical textbooks, LIS textbooks, or my classics degree, which are separate…and for which we don’t actually have enough shelves…) I undertook this for two reasons:

  1. I was starting library school, and it seemed like the sort of nerdy thing I ought to do.
  2. I hoped that a subject ordering might illuminate heretofore unrealized trends in our interests, and let our bookshelf suggest coherent ways of exploring topics our collection is strong in.

And it totally worked for those. I was nerdily gratified, and I discovered surprising things. (Who would have guessed that the single most common number in our collection was 796.357? And did I have any idea that my computer-nerd, philosophy-minor husband was that into social science? And yet the 300s stomp all over our shelves. Barely a smidgen of 400s and 200s — though the latter will change a bit when I get around to cataloging all the scriptures; that’s just philosophically intimidating — fewer 100s and 900s than I would have expected, many fewer 500s and 600s (though I suppose that’s an effect of shelving those textbooks separately). But man, if you want to learn about the Cold War or political philosophies — or baseball — come on over to our house.)

That said, I now no longer know where any of my books are.

I mean, I have the general idea, because I sorta remember what all the Dewey categories stand for. And because I’ve cataloged almost the whole collection, so I’ve seen what we own. And, fundamentally, a few hundred books is few enough that you can browse for a known item and find it. But in the old regime, if I wanted to find, say, King Solomon’s Ring, I know it’s by Konrad Lorenz, and my brain has the “alphabetical” system pretty well internalized[**], so there was nothing further to consult and I could just go there. But now I would need to look it up in the catalog, which means finding some piece of technology (and I don’t own a smartphone) and digging up my LibraryThing page, or at least I need to think through “it’s about biology and uhhhhhhhh that should put it somewhere in the 500s?” and then scan the shelves for that. I need my outboard brains to navigate a system that used to be intuitive.

In other words, I’m alienated from my own collection.

And if Deweyized shelves do that to me — me! a nerd with an MLS who had an excellent intro cataloging professor — well. The whole anti-traditional-classification movement makes more sense.

(Now if only I knew what this suggested at scale; the tensions between serendipitous browsing and known-item searching (a kind I quite like!) are easier to ignore over a few hundred books than they are over thousands.)

[*] Because Library of Congress classification isn’t fun to apply, and Dewey is. So there.
[**] Pretty well. But not as well as I used to. Learning Greek, with its analogous-but-slightly-differently-ordered alphabet, messed me up with dictionaries for life.

6 thoughts on “me and Melvil, kickin’ people in the knees

  1. I am reminded of the too-brief description of the library in Lev Grossman’s (brilliant!) The Magicians. It describes a library in which an attempt to implement catalogue browsing by magic (describe your book, reach into the air, and there it is!) has resulted in chaos with books flocking, fleeing, and crushing in every direction.

    I thought of this in the context of my work at Endeca, and in particular the sprawling bizarreness of data folding, spindling, and mutilating required to implement even the simplest discovery layer features, and imagining it as shelves dancing, exchanging books, piling up on one another in literal stacks of stacks. As software, the result is intuitive; in physical reality it is weird.

    I will stick with my old position: Software implements locality of similar items better than physical, one-dimensional indexing. As more people realize this and use software to browse, the proportion of human/shelf transactions that are known-item searches will increase. Simple schemes like alpha-by-author will dominate in this equilibrium.

    The alternatives involve magic and teaching shelves to dance. And really that is much easier in software.


  2. Our household has generally organized nonfiction on bookshelves rather fuzzily by topic. As a non-librarian, I naively assume that it’s not entirely different from what an actual Dewey arrangement would look like (apart from the arbitrary ordering of topics within each level of the hierarchy, of course). I don’t think I’d ever considered organizing non-fiction by author.

    But then, we don’t sort our fiction strictly by author, either. At the very least, we tend to keep the sci-fi/fantasy distinct from the rest. I think we had separate sections for “classics” and “contemporary lit” at one point, though we may have decided that was pointlessly vague.

    You know what would be awesome, by the way? If browsing library shelves (and catalogs) were like a good index, where a book could be filed in multiple places if it fit into multiple categories. Hard to do without wastefully many copies, of course, but maybe something could be arranged with some sort of placeholder cards to point you to where it’s actually shelved.

    (Why in the world, for example, are some of Robin McKinley’s novels on the non-fiction shelves in my local library? I don’t care that they’re based on folktales: that’s a ridiculous place for them.)


    1. You know what would be awesome, by the way? If browsing library shelves (and catalogs) were like a good index, where a book could be filed in multiple places if it fit into multiple categories

      This is not a new idea 😉 — it’s what underlies the whole next-generation catalog idea. You can see an example at your public library, actually — if that was a permalink, down the right nav you should see a faceted-browsing scheme that lets you narrow your search by, e.g., author, and along the left you should see a more graphical, exploration-y system that lets you look into related concepts. I’m not familiar offhand with a system that implements, say, multiple classification schemes (Dewey, LC, etc.) within the catalog view (possibly because that would be daft), or an enterprise-level library-world system that displays it like a shelf browse (although there are more personal products, in the GoodReads-ish universe, that let you view virtual shelves like that, and no reason they couldn’t organize those shelves flexibly). I think arranging it that way in the real world would be prohibitively difficult (a pain to generate all the cards, to shelve them, to ensure they *stayed* shelved, and anyway patrons doing a serendipitous-browse thing won’t, I think, notice cards, just physical books).

      Robin McKinley, you’d have to ask your library. I bet they do not often get cataloging-nerd questions :).

      As for my personal shelf-ordering, I think (pre-Dewey) that I generally declared a Section when there were a lot of books in it and/or it was clearly distinct from everything else in genre/form (hence: fiction, nonfiction, classics, undergrad technical, comics, poetry, drama, and later LIS), and then within that was alpha by author (except when it wasn’t: it’s not clear how best to organize comics as author, illustrator, and series/setting issues cross-cut; I never properly organized classics; I left Grant’s undergrad stuff to him; and mine was organized by department and, within that, by course number). So there was a very gross-scale topic sort imposed on the nonfiction, but originally it was alpha within that.

      (It’s interesting, of course, to see where things have been put under Dewey — of course the catalogers sometimes make assignments I would not have, though of course they have the rules in front of them and I don’t, and I came across a book the other day that one person had put under a social science number and another under history — and, really, either makes sense, depending on your perspective (in discipline but also in time and, perhaps, geography).)


  3. I’ve been struggling to figure out the Dewey system myself recently. Some of the ways it categorizes stuff are counter-intuitive to me, and I sometimes end up having to look in multiple places to find all the books my library has that cover what I would consider to be one topic. I’m not coming up with an example off the top of my head right now, though.


  4. My books are in LC. I bought myself a label maker and spent a few weeks applying tags. I could only do so many at a time because peeling the labels off the backing becomes infuriating. (I know there are easy peel ones, but those didn’t come with my label maker, and I was in grad school and didn’t want to spend more money than I had to).

    I feel so much better about my collection now that it’s in LC. I can find stuff so easily. Before I was searching the shelves trying to remember the cover color, but now I know where everything is. Partly because I have a decent knowledge of LC, and partly because I touched every book, looked up its number, and physically applied the label.

    The one thing I *don’t* like is the fiction. I find the LC fiction classification to be very strange and not intuitive. Although, most of my collection is NF so it’s not a huge deal. Plus, those Harry Potter hardbacks really stand out on the shelves, and that’s all you need really.

    I nerded out one step further and made a tag cloud of the LC letters associated with all my books. HQs and PNs ruled.

    Next step: card pockets.


    1. *Card pockets*? Planning to run a lending library? wow :). (Although — why card pockets and not some sort of software solution? Even just via special tags on LibraryThing or whatever?)

      My fiction is alpha by author…author is really my happiest organizing principle for fiction. (Of course, THEN you get into the issue that, iirc, two authors are represented in both our fiction and nonfiction collections, and that’s just annoying…in one case the works represent a coherent oeuvre and we’ve shelved them together even though that’s kinda inaccurate; in the other they’re unrelated and we’ve put the fiction and nonfiction ones in their respective sections…sigh. Really it is what Steuard is saying above about single-axis sorting being inadequate as a classification system even if it’s necessary for shelving.)

      Agreed on the HP hardbacks standing out ;). #1 sticks out even more in context: that’s the one we have in paperback because that was before we Had To Read Them All Within 24 Hours Which Meant Stealing The Book From Each Other Constantly.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s