Beyond information seeking: ways the library meets some other needs.

In earlier posts to this blog, and other places around the Internet, I have written about how to ask reference librarians questions, how to use a library catalog, and some of the differences between libraries and other ways of finding information. All of these articles have assumed some kind of information-seeking, or at least literature seeking. That is, if you want something in particular, I have given pointers for how to find it. Today, I will look at a random sample of a few other good reasons to visit the library.

1. Libraries are cool in the summer (in case your air-conditioning is not working), a warm place in the winter, a dry place in the rain, a quiet place away from the noise of traffic or the hustle and bustle of working or shopping. There are lots of things you can do in this peaceful and comfortable refuge.

2. Libraries are a great place to browse. They subscribe to more newspapers and magazines than you’ll find anywhere else–and not just current or recent issues, either. Only libraries offer the relaxing pleasure of leafing through fifty-year-old issues of Life or some other magazine. Think of the library as a vast StumbleUpon, where you can choose exactly what you want to browse.

3. With a library card, you can see an unlimited number of movies with no rental fee–and very likely find things that the video store, or the Red Box, or Netflix doesn’t have. (Plus, if you still have a VCR and no DVD player, the library probably still has cassettes!)

4. Even though libraries offer peace and quiet, the days of, “Shhhhh” are long over. The library is a good place to meet with friends. More and more libraries (academic libraries, at least) hold game nights from time to time. Just think, you can socialize without having to make arrangements for anyone else.

5. Libraries offer other public programming, too: concerts, lectures, public discussions, rooms for meetings, all kinds of things. And while the web is no particular place–basically the same sites are available to users anywhere in the world–the library caters to its own community. Programs reflect the interests of local people. You’re local in your own home town, aren’t you?

How library classification systems work

books online

Some people find libraries confusing places. They bigger they are, the more intimidating. I have written about asking reference questions and using the catalog, but once you identify something to read, you must decipher KFI1376.L5 V47 2002 or 346.043096761 M891p. These strings of characters are derived from two different library classification systems. Library classification has two functions. It puts every item in the library close to related items, and it tells patrons exactly where to find what they have found in the catalog.

Libraries are not organized like book stores. Book stores use ordinary language, such as Religion, History, Reference, etc. to categorize books. The system works well enough for people who want to browse a broad subject or who want a particular title and can easily identify the category. It works less well for people who want a narrower topic or who want something that crosses categories.

Whatever you find in a library catalog, someone wrote the description, analyzed the subject, and classified it according to strict rules. Most American libraries use one of two classification systems. Academic libraries usually use the Library of Congress Classification (LCC), for example KFI1376.L5 V47 2002. Public libraries usually use the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC), for example 346.043096761 M891p.

Both of these systems attempt, in different ways, to classify all of knowledge so that any book (or other material) can be kept with others on the same topic. Library classification systems enable catalogers to define very narrow topics.

A bookstore may have a section for law. So does the library, but within that subject, it has a special place for intellectual property law, and within that, for copyright, trademarks, and  patents. At any level of detail, the classification can differentiate between a dictionary, a treatise, or a work intended for non-lawyers. It can also separate United States copyright law from, say, Japanese copyright law.

Library patrons do not need to know the exact meaning of every element of the classification number in order to find what they need. In LCC, the first letter represents the broadest subject, and other letters (if any) narrow it. The following numbers narrow it further. In DCC, the numbers before the decimal point work the same way, proceeding from broadest (the first digit) to narrowest (after the decimal point).

Once the classification number has been assigned, the cataloger adds more information to put all of the books with that classification in alphabetical order by author. (V47 in the LCC example, M891 in the DDC). The LCC number in the first paragraph also adds the year of publication.

Items in a library that use DDC are filed in strict numerical order. Anyone who understands decimal numbers in general should have no trouble finding a particular Dewey number.

LCC numbers may look more complicated, but they are not. First, look for the letter prefix in its ordinary alphabetical sequence, then look for the number. The part after the decimal point, even though it begins with a letter, is a decimal number. That is, .L49 comes before .L5.

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On writing quickly and well

As an academic writer, I have the luxury of time to develop ideas, do research, draft an article or book chapter, and polish the prose before submitting my work to an editor. As a blogger and writer for online article sites, I must write and publish multiple articles every day.

Part of the business of online writing includes reading and commenting on other people’s blogs and articles, and I have seen a lot of clumsy writing and poor spelling. It’s hard to understand the poor spelling, since now even the most rudimentary word processors have spelling checkers. I hope I can offer some help in improving the writing with these two things I try to keep in mind as I write my first drafts:

Make sure “this” or “that” do not stand alone as the subject of a sentence

“This” and “that” are adjectives. Ask yourself “this what?” or “that what?” The answer to that question is probably the word you want for your subject (or object, for that matter). The strongest, clearest writing comes from the choice of strong nouns and verbs. At best, choosing a vague adjective instead of a noun makes the sentence dull and uninteresting. It can also add unwanted ambiguity.

Try to avoid forms of “to be”

Verbs convey action, most of them, anyway. “To be” means only some kind of existence. It also forms the passive voice. No one can avoid “to be” or passive voice entirely in either speech or writing, but many writers overuse them. Any other verb is stronger than “to be” and active voice is stronger than passive voice.

For writers who want to evade personal responsibility or cloud their meaning, nothing works better than passive voice. Bureaucrats and diplomats excel at using passive verbs to create ambiguity. Bloggers, writers for article sites, or for that matter, term papers or almost anything else, have no need to crawl under the desk like that, but too often and too easily fall into the trap of overusing passive voice.

I try to pay attention as I write, so that every time I start to type any form of “to be,” I ask myself if I can find some better verb; usually I can. (For example, I almost wrote,  I ask myself if there is a better verb; usually there is. See how flabby that makes the sentence? And in a paragraph devoted to rooting out “to be!”)

Even with the speed of writing and publication that online writing demands, I try to set everything aside till the next day, or at least for an hour or two, to see if I can improve the draft. Looking out for these two common traps and choosing good nouns and verbs the first time through makes revision easier. If for some reason I can’t take time to revise, thinking of these concepts from the beginning makes scanning the published article less embarrassing.

The family that sings together clings together

One family of my acquaintance never took vacations. They never did much of anything else together. The children never became involved in after-school activities. They did not develop common interests at home. Now that they’re grown, holidays are times of tension. It’s as if they gather together because families always gather together on holidays, but no one really seems to enjoy each other’s company and no one really seems to know what to talk about or  how to fill the time.

I know another family with two grown brothers living in the same suburb. Both were musicians, and one played in the same community orchestra I did. I didn’t see the other very often, but it was no use asking the one about the other. They could go for months at a time without seeing each other or calling each other on the  phone, although they said they got along just fine.

In an earlier post I mentioned that the tradition of candy making has helped make my family close. It’s our oldest shared tradition, but probably not the most important for family building.

When I was in high school, my father got a visiting professorship for one year across the country from where we lived. My parents decided that rather than staying in motels as we drove there, they’d buy a trailer, and we could camp out and do some good sightseeing. During the year we were there, we took the trailer out on alternate weekends, usually visiting national parks or other beautiful  places. Dad later said he though the shared experiences did more than anything else to mold our family into a unit.

I would like to focus on one aspect of  our shared experiences, which probably started some time before our cross-country trip. We sang. Our repertoire consisted largely of Broadway show tunes, and we particularly enjoyed some songs by Irving Berlin and others that ended up with two songs being sung together. Being an unusually musical family, we sang a lot in three or four part harmony–not easy considering there wasn’t a soprano among us.

We’ve since learned some new favorites and still set aside time for singing whenever we’re together. Since we’re scattered to four different states from coast to coast, that is not more than a couple of times a year. One of my nieces can actually sing soprano.

The point is not how well we sing, although it’s fun bragging about it. I remember driving for some miles on a winding two-lane highway behind a pickup truck with several children in the back, singing at the top of their lungs. They didn’t sound very good; several of us commented on it. I have no idea if they were all one family, but they were sure enjoying themselves together.

That’s the whole point.

Finding subjects in an online library catalog

There are two difficulties with subject headings in a library catalog. For one thing, you must know what the subject heading is before you can search on it. For another, not all libraries use the same subject list. At first, it seems worse than the old complaint that you can’t look up how to spell a word in the dictionary unless you know how to spell it.

In the days of card catalogs, patrons had little choice but to make their best guess and hope to find something. College and university libraries, which overwhelmingly use Library of Congress Subject Headings, used to keep the whole list–all four or five volumes of the so-called “Red Books”–out where patrons could use them.

I used them from time to time and never had to stand in line. In fact, most patrons probably did not use them or even know what they were for. The nice thing was that I could make my guess, look in the “Red Books,” and if I was wrong, would very likely find a cross-reference. Unfortunately, the abbreviations for the various kinds of cross-references were devised by librarians for other librarians. They were hard for non-librarians to understand  or interpret.

Subject searching is actually better in an online library catalog. All those confusing cross-references in the “Red Books” work  invisibly under the hood. When a patron needs them, they appear written in intelligible English. But there is a better way to approach subject searching than just guessing at what a real heading might be.

First, though, some background is necessary. Most academic libraries use Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH). Most public libraries use Sears List of Subject Headings. Most medical libraries use Medical Subject Headings (MeSH). The Library of Congress issues a separate list of headings for children.

All of these classification systems operate on the same basic principles: For every subject, there is one and only one term used to describe it in the catalog (controlled vocabulary). Terms exist in some kind of hierarchy from the most general to the most specific; the cataloging record for each title will have only the most specific headings. The cross references to a given subject heading may show broader or narrower terms, but there is no way to trace an entire hierarchy.

Although they operate on the same principles, the different systems do not use the same terms. What is the preferred term in one will be invalid in another. For example, “cancer” is a subject heading in both Sears and LCSH, but not in MeSH; the valid heading there is “neoplasms.” If, for example, a university includes a medical school, and if the medical library and other libraries share a single catalog, that catalog must have separate indexes for searching LSCH and MeSH to avoid confusion.

The easiest way to find subject headings is to start with a keyword search, using the most specific terms you can think of. Under the influence of search engines, many online library catalogs display only a single search box. That works much less well for a catalog or other database than for a search engine, but it’s a place to start.

If you see a link to “advanced search,” use it. In almost any database, the advanced search is more useful and actually easier to use than the simple search. For subject searching, it may have separate search boxes for subject headings, subject keywords, and general keywords. Enter your terms in subject keywords if available; otherwise choose general keywords.

Your search will return a list of records that contain that term (or, if you have chosen a non-preferred term, records that contain the subject heading). Choose any title that looks promising and click on it to open the record. There, under subjects, you will find the subject heading associated with the keyword you searched, along with any other subject headings in that record. Click on a subject heading and you will get a list of everything in the library with that heading.

In a well designed catalog, a complex subject heading, that is a string of more than one term like “Dogs–United States–Biography–Humor,” will present each term as a separate link. Click on “Dogs” and you should get back a list of subject headings that begin with “Dogs,” followed by screen after screen of all of the subheadings. Click on “United States” and you should get a list of headings that begin with “Dogs–United States,” etc. The farther to the right you click on one of those strings, the more specific search results will return. Unfortunately, not all online library catalogs are well designed.

If you are planning to look up a lot of resources about your subject, write down every useful subject heading you find. You will be able to enter it directly in the search box for subject headings when you return to the catalog and skip the guessing stage.