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.


marketing libraries, desire lines, metaphors like water

On Twitter, Andrea Snyder (great lunch companion, btw) pointed me to a post on marketing libraries, from which the following struck me:

A major point he made on signage was that, if you have to put up a sign to say what something isn’t, that indicates a problem elsewhere.

(Side note: second time I’ve seen serious ruminations about the talk referenced in this post. Now I wish I’d been at it. Oh well.)

Anyway, this quote reminded me of a story that Lisa Hinchliffe told in her keynote at the ACRL/NEC spring conference this year, about her experiences as head of the UIUC Undergraduate Library. (A great talk, lots of things to drool about even beyond the obligatory nerdcrush on UIUC.) Students kept coming up to the reference desk and asking if they had any graphing calculators people could borrow, and the desk kept saying “no”. And she heard about that and said, uh, how much do they cost? ($100, ish.) So — why not? A few graphing calculators: a few hundred dollars; the ability to say “yes” to patrons: priceless.

It also reminds me of my experience as a commuter cyclist. The roads, duh, are basically designed for cars, as anyone who’s ever navigated them by bike or foot can tell you, which means you will occasionally — at some intersections constantly — encounter even generally law-abiding cyclists doing all sorts of crazy stuff because there is simply no reasonable way to get from point A to point B. (I’m looking at you, intersection of Mass Ave and the bike path in North Cambridge.) Sometimes you will encounter signage telling bicyclists where not to be (don’t ride on the sidewalk, don’t lock your bike to this rack, etc.), and it is always a dead giveaway that bicyclists are doing their damndest to use the infrastructure (which they have a legal and, I contend, moral right to) but have no safe or convenient way to do so.

(And look, I’m that rare and priggish sort who really will follow the traffic laws. I’ll stop at the red lights when no one’s coming. Cross my heart. But there are no provisions made for cyclists crossing that intersection, even with a bike path on both sides. Seriously, people. Work with me here. I’m trying.)

And as long as I’m riffing on the free-association here, it also reminds me of desire lines. You know that quad you’ve all seen, surrounded by useful and probably monumental buildings, laid out with some sort of landscape-architect’s-dream pathways that no one ever uses because they bear no relation to the directions people go? And so there are worn-brown trails through the otherwise-green grass, breaking the landscape architect’s heart, because, really, you need to have a direct route from the building with all the library science classes to the building with the library? (Looking at you, Simmons.) Those are desire lines. They’re the evidence of where people go, what they really do, where they need to be, etched out for you. They are not eyesores. They are free evidence, telling you what to do.

And you can ignore them and rage against them and criticize people for refusing to follow the paths you’ve laid out for them, or you can move with it (isn’t there some kind of Zen metaphor about water that applies here?) and create a world that moves in harmony with the world.

all the news that’s fit to print (but not find)

Man, speaking of techie patrons not liking an interface

Someone in a web community I frequent linked to a newspaper article, noting that you could only read the first bit for free and the rest was paywalled. I thought, hey, I *totally* bet you could read that for free online through the library site. So I looked it up, and I started to type something like:

First you go to the library home page, then you click on the “Research & Information” tab, then you log in, then you can click in the sidebar where it has the ejournals finder to search for which database has this newspaper, then…

And at this point I was bored of typing these instructions and realized that, honestly, no one on the internet would care. (And I hadn’t even gotten to the part where the information she provided wasn’t exactly the same as the title cite so if you used them keyword-style as search terms you would find nothing!)

Maybe there was a permalink that would’ve made this easy, but I just assumed not. Having been trained that way by experience with interfaces like this.


OK, new rule: people can complain that other people are having idea/research/information conversations that cut the library out of the loop, or they can adopt interfaces like this one. But they may not do both.

Guest post: Notes from a techie patron, part 1

One of the recurring themes of my library science education has been that I see conversations about information all the time — some at school from a library perspective, and some at home from a computer science perspective; as a dot-com-era engineering school graduate married to same, I have a social circle dominated by software engineers. I often find radically different assumptions about the uses, roles, and limitations of technology in these spheres — the sort of differences that derail conversations for half an hour as you hash out why it is you can’t talk to each other, and the derailment ends up more rewarding than the initial conversation. Many of these conversations, of course, are with my software engineer husband, Grant Gould, who has written a guest post for this blog. It’s long, so it’s in two parts; part 1 below.


I am not a typical library patron. Taking my views and preferences into account is neither helpful nor in all likelihood appropriate for professional library-types. This is only one data point, and an outlying one.

What is and isn't my library

What isn't my library

Before I complain about my library, I should establish what is not my library, because there are a lot of red herrings.

This is not my library: it is closed. In fact if you don't get home from work before 6, there's not much there at all.

This is not my library: it has fewer than 10% of the books I look for.

Is this my library? I like the sound of "virtual"…

This is not my library: I am unauthorized.

(Note that if you log in as "guest" you can get a real treat… some great best-of-the-mid-90's web design, "not currently compatible with IE7"…)

My library is my library. It has most books that I look for, is always open, and I appear to be authorized to use it.

Library professionals may argue that this is not really a library at all — it is a consortium of some sort. I disagree with this analysis: It is for my purposes more of a library than any of the various other not-my-libraries on offer. It is hard to see how it is less a library than the West Somerville. More broadly, it does a better job of meeting (this) patron's information wants; it has the library nature.

Why my library annoys me

If you make much use of my library (, you will discover a number of things. First of all, it wants me to pick up my books somewhere — and not somewhere convenient, either. I don't understand why they need more than a kiosk at a coffeehouse somewhere, but my books go to the big not-my-library that is closed weekends and most evenings.

Anothing thing that you will notice is that the user interface is terrible. In fact it is weirdly terrible. Consider this screen, and ask yourself what you would do if this were a book you would like to read later:
(Ed. note: The image is too wide for my blog theme; you can see the whole at, though this gets the point across.)

  • You cannot bookmark this link, because it will just send you to the library's login page instead. (Ed. note: I pointed out the permalink you can sort of see here, which helps, but can’t be directly bookmarked in the way a URL can.)

  • In fact if you linger on this page for more than ten minutes, you will be redirected back there! This is an intentional feature — viewing source shows:

    <meta http-equiv="Refresh" content="600;URL=/search/" />

    Way to vandalize my browsing session there, guys! (I hypothesize that this was a "security" feature for viewing this page from a public terminal. No, really, stop laughing!)

  • "Save to My List," "View My List," and "Clear My List" all refer to a "wish list" feature, which sounds awesome — but the wish list is cleared at the end of your session or any time you open a new tab. Hope you didn't put anything hard-to-find there!

  • You can also — actually persistently! — save a search. Unfortunately "save search" is no longer available when, as in this screenshot, you have narrowed down your search to a single item.

  • The actual way to save it is to request the book and then click a "freeze request" buttom. But — requests cannot be frozen if the book was available. If the book was available, you have just requested it, exactly what you did not intend.

By the way — anyone recognize this visual style? Those beautiful bevels? If you were doing web design in 1998, you do!

Stay tuned for part 2!

“did you mean…?”, ILL, and next steps

I finally figured out why my overall ILL experience has left an unpleasant taste in my mouth.

So, a large fraction of the ILL requests I issue get shot down for reasons I find incomprehensible. (A reason is always given — it’s just clearly couched in a culture or policy I have no exposure to, so it feels totally arbitrary to me.)

But what is not given is a next step. OK, so you won’t give me this book because it’s too new and for some reason that’s a problem — so ask me, “Would you like to reissue this request in 3 months?” And give me a one-click way to do that. I interact with ILL solely by computer, and computers are awesome at keeping track of that in a way I am not.[*]

Even a link to more explanation, context that makes the explanation comprehensible, would be nice. But really…it’s like spellcheck. It’s like what we kept talking about in my library software class last term — user requests should not fail. If they searched for something with no hits, you should look for spelling mistakes and ask “did you mean…?”, or give them some kind of suggestion for the closest match you can find — some way of continuing the search, of feeling like you tried to help, something other than a blank wall of electrons. Some next step.

ILL rejections don’t give me next steps. (Or they do, and apparently not prominently enough for me to remember.) And that’s just frustrating.

[*] Actually, these days, a lot of the magic of the library experience for me is getting unexpected presents from past-me. Past-me sees some book she wants to read, say, Checklist Manifesto (after seeing Atul Gawande speak at ALA Midwinter), or Girl with a Dragon Tattoo (after seeing Bohyun Kim and pretty much the entire internet rave about it), and drops a request. There are a million holds on the first returned copy, so I forget, but the computer doesn’t, and a month or two later I get an email saying that this book I have totally forgotten I wanted to read, this present from past-me and the library, has arrived! It makes me feel all warm and happy.