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What is a library catalogue for?

The other day I read a review of a book by Alberto Manguel, entitled The Meaning of the Library (Princeton, 2015). It's a fascinating question - what is the meaning of a library? And what is the catalogue for? Quite by chance on the same day as reading the Manguel’s review, I had an invitation to join a course on using Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH, for short).  Idly, I googled the term and found a set of presentation slides on how to apply these subject headings – a slide collection of no fewer than 210 slides.  Clearly, adding catalogue information is a long and complicated business – and that’s without bringing MARC into the equation.

Having a library implies having a catalogue. If you can’t find the content, there is no point in keeping the books (or the digital content). But catalogues are bewilderingly complicated. Anyone who has tried to organise the books on their shelf realises immediately any ordering, and hence implied classification, is imperfect.  Public libraries distinguish “fiction” from “literature”, but how a book is classified in one or the other is complicated indeed. In fact, the same book may appear in a public library both in literature (an annotated student edition) and in fiction (the text alone, for reading). 

Herning Public Library - ground floor

Perhaps the greatest paradox of a book catalogue is that it makes the books disappear. I recently visited Herning Public Library in Denmark, completed 2014, with interiors designed by Camilla Larsen. It was a series of wonderful spaces, full of fascinating vistas that led the eye on, and containing lots of people simply reading. Not reading for study but reading for pleasure. The paradox, of course, was that the books correctly shelved in rows were not where the people were. Instead, the users were sitting next to books displayed face out, inviting browsing. Perhaps the best organisation for a public library is not to have any organisation at all – just place the books at random so they catch your eye. In fact, explains the designer, 90% of the books are held in the basement, which is called “The Deep”. I don’t imagine there are many users there.

Herning Public Library - basement

There is a difference between cataloguing a book and placing it on the shelves so that it is found rather than lost. Some years ago, Daunt Books, at that time comprising just a single bookshop with no branches, based in Marylebone High Street in London, and specialising in travel. Fascinatingly, all the books about a country were placed under that country. That included travel books, of course, but also language and phrase guides, memoirs, literature by writers from that country, and so on. It was a simple organisation of content by user journey, if you wish – the bookshop user travelling to Germany may well be interested not only in a guidebook but also a guide to German history, a recent German novel, and a phrase book to get by in German.  That arrangement of books became suddenly wonderfully inspiring. If you were about to visit a country, you could find grouped together guides, biographies, literature, history, all on the same country or area.

Inevitably, to produce a catalogue creates rules for cataloguers. Those rules become more and more complicated, and the whole activity becomes restricted to specialists. For example, LCSH is very fussy about the order of terms. In a guide to using it, there is a clear distinction for trainee cataloguers between:

London Lighting

which is the non-preferred way of putting it. Instead, the correct way of cataloguing this title is:

Street Lighting England London

The same guide charmingly prints on blank pages “This page intentionally left blank”.  You only see that on exam papers! It suggests a rather stern view of the world. I’m not against catalogues; but perhaps, to be heretical, for discoverability and browsing, give me Herning Public Library any day.