"85 reasons to be thankful for librarians," and counting

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I found a fun page I’d like to pass along. It’s a semi-serious list of reasons not only to be thankful for librarians, but to use the library. It also lists reasons to be grateful for all the print materials in the library, as well as the wealth of electronic information it offers.

I say semi-serious because of the tongue-in-cheek writing style and because while most of the reasons relate to the real services librarians offer, some don’t. No. 7, for example, is “‘Sexy Librarian’ is still a popular costume at Halloween.”

The list appears on a site devoted to college information, but most of the more serious points apply just as well to school libraries, public libraries, and probably at least some special libraries. As I write this post, the article has attracted 340 tweets and 32 comments. Some of the comments add more reasons, continuing the original numbering up to 101.

Perhaps one of the best things about the list is that whoever compiled it is clearly not a librarian. Some librarians expressed regret over entries mentioning spinsters or learning the Dewey Decimal system, but I think a vast majority of librarians appreciate the love more than they wince at some of the comments.

All in all, it’s great to see evidence that someone who is not a librarian loves libraries and librarians enough to take the effort to compile a list like this.

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Manchester Library

How to find titles in an online library catalog

Some online library catalogs, trying to imitate Google, show only a single search box, which works as a general keyword search. If you want to look up a title, you need to switch to “advanced search,” which is actually less frustrating to use.

Google is a search engine, and the online library catalog is a database with multiple indexes. You need a screen that will let you choose which index to search. The better-designed catalogs offer a choice between “title” and “title keyword” search boxes.

For “title,” type the beginning of the title, omitting the initial article if any. In English, articles are “the,” “a,” and “an.” If any of these are the first word, leave it out. Omit initial articles from all other languages, too.

If the item you want has a long title, you do not need to type it all so long as you put in enough to get to distinctive words. For example, if you want to locate The trumpet & trombone in graphic arts, 1500-1800, you need go no farther than the “gr” in “graphic.” Simply searching “trumpet and trombone” will turn up more titles, but the one about graphic arts will still probably be on the first screen of results.

Don’t worry about whether the title has “and” or “&.” You can safely type “and” (or the equivalent in another language); a cataloger has (or should have) put the title in the record both ways. And don’t bother with capitalization. Nothing but the first word, proper names, or German nouns will be capitalized in the catalog. Search boxes, whether in Google or in an online library catalog, are not case sensitive.

“Title keyword” comes in handy for long titles where all the distinctive words are at the end or for when you don’t remember the title exactly but remember several important words. Enter only keywords from the title and separate them with “and.” For the title in the last paragraph, the search “trumpet and graphic” should suffice to get the record you want.

In my previous posts about finding names and subjects, I have had to explain the concept of controlled vocabulary. Generally speaking, titles are not controlled. If, for example, a book has one title on the title page, a different one on the cover, and something else again on the spine, the cataloger simply enters all of them in the record. Type in whatever you know, and if the library has the item, your search will turn it up.

But what if you want something that is available in more than one language? For example, English translations of Dostoyevsky’s novels may be available with different English titles. In that case, librarians regard the original language as the preferred title, subject to vocabulary control so everyone always uses the same one . You will recognize a preferred title in a cataloging record because it is a hot link.

Suppose for example, you find his A raw youth. The record also shows the preferred title Podrostok. English. It has been translated into English at least three times; the other titles are The adolescent and An accidental family. If your library owns all three titles, you can choose which you want to read. If someone else has its only copy of A raw youth and you have no need of a particular translation, you know that the other titles translate the same book.

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.

Photo credit: Attribution
Some rights reserved by CCAC North Library

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.