Flatland and the limits of fiction

The original cover of Flatland (image courtesy ArchDaily.com)

The other day I decided I’d better get started on the books in my enormous to-read pile, preferably before I have to return half of them to the library I work at. The topmost book just happened to be Flatland: a romance of many dimensions (1884) by Edwin Abbott Abbott (1838-1926). A colleague had recommended it to me as part of a potential display on ‘flat’ books. (We share a building with a public library branch, and I was thinking of doing a book display which, for once, had nothing to do with local history. I seem to recall being in a flat mood at the time.)

I hadn’t even opened the cover when I was distracted by the book’s call number. This happens to me a lot.


Flatland, as far as I can ascertain, is a work of fiction, and has been since 1884. Why was it classed in non-fiction? Is this a common view? Who made this decision, and why did they make it?

Firstly, let’s examine this number. DDC 530.11 is the home of general relativity, among such physics luminaries as Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Knauss and Brian Cox (whose works on the subject are definitely not fiction). Einstein popularised (and drew on others’ efforts in consolidating) the theory of general relativity in 1915.1 That is, over thirty years after Flatland was published. How can this be?

Is it because Flatland is primarily about science, and the term ‘science fiction’ didn’t exist when the book was published? Did the cataloguer of this particular item even know it was a work of fiction? I flipped the book over and read the synopsis. “Flatland (1884) is an influentual mathematical fantasy […] A classic of early science fiction.” Hmm. Looks fairly clearcut to me. Maybe they weren’t in a synopsis-reading mood.

I then looked at the book’s CiP details. Which call numbers did they provide?

PR4000              823.
.A22                8

‘Aha!’ I exclaimed, to nobody in particular. So even the CiP cataloguer knew it was fiction, and classified it as such! The LCC call number PR4000 is English literature > 19th century, 1770/1800-1890/1900 > Individual authors (with A22 F53 presumably being the cutter for Abbott, Edwin. Flatland), while DDC 823.8 is Victorian-era English literature. I’m beginning to get a bit cross at our cataloguer by this point, who seemingly hasn’t read either the synopsis or the CiP data.

I’ve now spent over an hour investigating this book. I haven’t even started reading it yet.

Interestingly, the CiP for this work was done by Library and Archives Canada, as the editor of this particular version is Canadian. Hmm. Did Library of Congress treat this book differently? (No offence, Canada)

I had a peek at the Libraries Australia record for this edition. This record is an LC copycat job, using the original Canadian data, but making a few slight changes…

QA699              530.
.A13               11

Bingo!! So that’s why the cataloguer of my copy of Flatland thought it was non-fiction—because Library of Congress did too! … Or did they?

While DDC 520.11 is for relativity, as discussed above, LCC QA699 includes a fascinating—and critical—scope note: Geometry > Hyperspace > Popular works. Fiction (Including Flatland, fourth dimension)

According to LC, it is so crucial that Flatland be classed with non-fiction works on hyperspace that it’s literally namechecked in the scope note! This is amazing! But why did they do that? And why was this logic reproduced in DDC?

I then decided to browse LC’s collections at QA699 to see what else was there. The most recent work appeared to date from 1971, with the bulk of works (excluding revised and edited editions, of which the book in my hand is one) dating from the late 19th and early 20th century.

A quick scan of works in QA699 suggested almost all of them were indexed with the LCSH $a Fourth dimension. The scope note for this heading reads: Here are entered philosophical and imaginative works.
Mathematical works are entered under Hyperspace.

LC holds 100 items with this heading, but it also holds 5 items indexed $a Fourth dimension $v Fiction, which are not classed in QA699. These items include a book about Flatland: the movie edition (2008) and four novels published in the 21st century.

So what is this telling me? Flatland, according to LC, is a ‘philosophical’ or ‘imaginative work’, which suggests they think it’s too intellectual to be considered merely a work of fiction. But this seems like a load of crap to me. Isn’t all fiction inherently ‘imaginative work’? Is Flatland accorded this kind of respect because it’s old, was written by a white man, and has increased in intellectual stature over time? Did the cataloguer at LC who originally wrote the QA699 scope note (however many years ago that was, and may or may not have been the same cataloguer who processed Flatland) decide that this work was not mere literature, fit for the P class, but a higher-order piece of writing that ought to reside near the subjects it fictionalised?

Hmph. This reeks of classism to me.

But it also explains why the book in my hand has the entirely inappropriate DDC call number 530.11: the cataloguer at LC probably looked up the closest thing to ‘Hyperspace’ in DDC (that being ‘Relativity’), either didn’t notice or didn’t care about the ‘Fiction’ aspect of QA699, classed the book where DDC said to and moved on with their life, with dozens of subsequent copy cataloguers not knowing, not caring, or not being paid enough to reconsider this choice. I’ve stopped being cross at our cataloguer, who clearly saw no reason not to defy the ANBD record. I can understand where they were coming from.

For me, the question now becomes: will I change it locally? Technically I have this ability, but because it’s not a local history book I’m supposed to refer it to our collections team. They have way more important things to do than change the call number of a perfectly findable item, especially because nobody’s yet complained about it.

I’ll think about what to do next. For now, though, after several hours of investigation and writing, I might actually get started on the book.

I think it’s the least I could do.

  1. For a longer explanation of why I didn’t just say ‘invented’ like everyone else, see this piece on ‘Who invented relativity?’ http://www.mathpages.com/rr/s8-08/8-08.htm 

Cataloguing tabletop games: an introduction

A closeup of the Settlers of Catan board. (Picture courtesy CatanShop.com)

In my apparent capacity as Oz library twitter’s Resident Cataloguing Boffin™, I was recently asked if I had any thoughts on cataloguing tabletop games. My first thought was ‘A tabletop game about cataloguing? That’s the nerdiest thing I’ve ever heard (and I’ve played the Wikipedia card game1)! Also, sign me the hell up!’ My second thought was ‘Oh, right, metadata about tabletop games. Actually, you know what, I know nothing about this.’ Naturally, my third thought was ‘But I will find out!’

This post is not a professional guide to best-practice tabletop game cataloguing, rather a collection of stray thoughts with a couple of sample records at the end. I’m trying to get out of the habit of needing to write absolutely perfect blog posts—often a work in progress is good enough!

NB: I’m assuming that if you’re interested in this post, you probably have at least a basic understanding of how MARC works, such as fields for authors, titles and publishers. Therefore I’m focussing on aspects of tabletop game cataloguing that differ from your standard books / serials / online resources dealio.

As it turns out, most of the literature on games cataloguing relates to video games. OLAC has produced an excellent guide to video game cataloguing, which I highly recommend if you’re in need of guidance. For tabletop games specifically, however, the pickings are a lot thinner. Slouski et al. say as much in their EBLIP article.2

Descriptive cataloguing

The most important field in a tabletop game record is the 300 field. Here is where the physical components of the game are recorded in detail: boards, pieces, dice, cards, everything.

Ideally there would be defined MARC fields for game duration and number of players, but there aren’t, so they get thrown in a 500 field. (This is the sort of thing where a dedicated schema for games would be really handy. I know there’s a schema for video games3, but again, not much for physical games. If anyone’s got plans to invent one, I’m super interested!)

If the game publisher has a specific internal catalogue number for the game, record it in 028, along with a designator: 028 50 $a 3061 $b Mayfair Games

In a bygone age, I might fret about assigning a 100/110 (main author) field at all, considering games are almost always better known by their title than the name of their creator. Fortunately we live in a more enlightened age where the dictionary catalogue is dead, long live keyword search, so I’m not worrying about a game’s authorised access point potentially being a little obscure.

Content, media, carrier types

McGrath suggests using 336 ## $a tactile three-dimensional form solely for objects intended exclusively to be perceived through touch, and items with some visual content.4 This would be used in conjunction with 337 ## $a unmediated and 338 ## $a object. In addition to these fields, I’ve seen 380 ## $a Board game5 suggested in accordance with RDA 6.3. I can see the point for items of realia without appropriate genre/form terms, but considering a 380 in many instances would duplicate a 655 I’m not sure I’d bother, to be honest. Your mileage may vary.

Subject indexing

LCSH doesn’t make this easy for cataloguers, either. Would you believe there is no accepted form subdivision for board or tabletop games? There’s one for computer games: sensibly enough, it’s $v Computer games. I’ve seen $x Games used a bit, but this isn’t a valid heading for tabletop games (for one thing, that’s a topical subdivision, not a form one).

In the meantime, in accordance with my penchant for pragmatic cataloguing, I’m going to go ahead and invent my own subdivision! If your library is a stickler for LC rules, perhaps don’t try this at home, but maybe someone will suggest this subdivision to LC. (Also, if you’re contributing records to OCLC, Libraries Australia or other union catalogue, definitely don’t try this at home, or the software will convert it to the above-mentioned $x Games invalid subdivision.)6 I’ll be using $v Games, in conjunction with the existing genre/form terms 655 #7 $a Board games and 655 #7 $a Puzzles and games.7 If the difference between these two genre terms is not meaningful to your users, feel free to choose one or the other for local use.

Personally, I’m not wild about the topic/genre crossover in LCSH; that is, I would personally prefer a heading like 650 #0 $a Logic puzzles to feature items about logic puzzles, rather than items that are logic puzzles. But maybe that’s what users want. I could be totally off base with this. Let me know!

Sample record 1: Settlers of Catan

The below example is adapted from Libraries Australia record 59644071, itself likely imported from another union catalogue and created by an unknown library. I was going to catalogue this from scratch but discovered someone else had done the hard yards for me 🙂 The copy record is surprisingly good, I’ve only needed to make a few adjustments.

000 01765crm a2200397 i 4500
005 20170306145003.0
008 121024s2012    ilu||| g          gneng d
020 ## $a 1569052018
020 ## $a 9781569052013
028 50 $a 3061 $b Mayfair Games
040 ## $a ABCD $b eng $e RDA
082 04 $a 794 $2 23
100 1# $a Teuber, Klaus, $d 1952-, $e designer.
245 14 $a The settlers of Catan / $c Klaus Teuber.
246 30 $a Catan.
264 #1 $a Skokie, IL : $b Mayfair Games, $c [2012]
300 ## $a 1 game (19 terrain hexes, 6 sea frame pieces, 9 harbor pieces, 18 circular
    number tokens, 95 resource cards, 25 development cards, 4 building cost cards,
    2 special cards, 16 cities, 20 settlements, 60 roads, 2 dice, 1 robber),
    1 game rules and almanac booklet : $b cardboard, wood ; $c box 24 x 30 x 8 cm.
336 ## $a three-dimensional form $b tdf $2 rdacontent
337 ## $a unmediated $b n $2 rdamedia
338 ## $a object $b nr $2 rdacarrier
500 ## $a For 3-4 players.
500 ## $a Duration of play: 60 minutes.
500 ## $a Detailed description of contents on box.
520 ## $a Summary: "In The Settlers of Catan you control a group of settlers trying to
    tame the wilds on the remote but rich island of Catan. Start by revealing 
    Catan's many harbors and regions: plains, meadows, mountains, hills, forests
    & desert. The random mix creates a different board for virtually every 
521 ## $a Ages 10 and up.
650 #0 $a Competition $v Games.
650 #0 $a Natural resources $v Games.
650 #0 $a Colonists $v Games.
655 #7 $a Board games. $2 lcgft
710 2# $a Mayfair Games Inc. $e publisher.

Sample record 2: Tantrix

The below example is adapted from Libraries Australia record 41011711, which looks to have been imported from OCLC. The original was an AACR2 record and in worse shape, so I’ve upgraded it to RDA. (Apropos of nothing, this is a great game.)

000 01592crm a2200349 a 4500
005 20160113135201.0
008 060612m19912003nz |||            gneng d
040 ## $a ABCS $b eng $e RDA
082 04 $a 794 $2 23
100 1# $a McManaway, Mike. $e designer
245 10 $a Tantrix / $c created by Mike McManaway.
250 ## $a 8th edition.
264 #1 $a New Zealand : $b Tantrix Games International, $c c1991-2003.
300 ## $a 1 game (56 bakelite tiles) ; $c in plastic hexagonal travel bag, approx 
    16 x 16 x 4 cm + $e Instruction booklet, (48 pages : illustrations ; 13 cm)
336 ## $a three-dimensional form $b tdf $2 rdacontent
337 ## $a unmediated $b n $2 rdamedia
338 ## $a object $b nr $2 rdacarrier
500 ## $a "Tantrix was invented [in 1987] by Mike McManaway...This 8th edition 
    now includes contributions from all over the world." -- booklet, page 4.
500 ## $a For 2-4 players.
520 ## $a The game consists of 56 Bakelite tiles with painted links of red, green, 
    blue, and yellow. Each tile is unique, and with all the tiles you can play 
    both the solitaire puzzles and the multiplayer game. The Tantrix game 
    includes 25 Tantrix puzzles and a strategy game.
650 #0 $a Mathematical recreations $v Games.
650 #0 $a Logic, Symbolic and mathematical $v Games.
650 #0 $a Logic puzzles.
650 #0 $a Educational games $x Study and teaching (primary).
655 #7 $a Puzzles and games. $2 lcgft
710 2# $a Tantrix Games Australia. $e publisher

Final comments

I hope someone out there finds this post helpful 🙂 With libraries diversifying their collections to appeal to a broader cross-section of their userbase, non-traditional items like board games may become more integral to a library service. It’s all well and good to acquire cool things like these, but if your users can’t find them, they may as well be hidden entirely. I’m also very interested in any comments or suggestions you may have: drop me a line on Twitter @lissertations or by email (hello AT lissertations DOT net).

Thanks for reading, and happy cataloguing!

  1. I’d just like to point out how stupendously difficult this thing is to google. I don’t often wish the internet had a left-aligned browse search, but today I did. 
  2. Slobuski, T., Robson, D., & Bentley, P. (2017). Arranging the Pieces: A Survey of Library Practices Related to a Tabletop Game Collection. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, 12(1), 2. http://dx.doi.org/10.18438/b84c96 
  3. Lee, J.H., Perti, A., & Clarke, R.I. (2014). UW/SIMM Video Game Metadata Schema
    Version 2.0.
    Retrieved from http://gamer.ischool.uw.edu/official_release/ 
  4. McGrath, K. (2012). Cataloging Three Dimensional Objects and Kits with RDA. Slides accompanying a talk delivered March 28, 2012. Retrieved from http://downloads.alcts.ala.org/ce/03282012_RDA_3D_Kits_Slides.pdf 
  5. McGrath, op. cit., slide 63 
  6. Many thanks to Netanel Ganin for making this excellent point on Twitter. 
  7. It’s worth noting that 655 #7 $a Board games was only added to LCGFT in June this year (at Netanel’s suggestion, cheers!), and isn’t yet listed on the Free LCGFT on LC’s website. It was seemingly extensively used as a genre/form term for years before that, though. 

Applied Pragmatic Cataloguing: a reading list

I’ve long been an advocate of what I call ‘pragmatic cataloguing’. You may know the phrase ‘user-centred cataloguing’, which is similar, but narrower in scope.

Being a pragmatic cataloguer involves taking a good hard look at:

  • what you record
  • where you record it
  • how many times you record it
  • what purpose you record it for
  • what terminology you use to record it and
  • whether a patron can fully access and use what you have recorded.

To give but two examples: a cataloguer may decide that the most appropriate LCSH for a work would be exclusionary and/or misleading to a patron, and so use another controlled vocabulary or some free text keywords instead. Longer-term, they might consider petitioning LC for a change of heading, but in order to best serve their patrons right now, they choose alternative headings from different sources, and inform the library employee in charge of cataloguing standards what they chose and why.

In another scenario, an audiovisual specialist cataloguer may have a large backlog and be pressed for time, yet must catalogue items from scratch. Their OPAC does not index, display or otherwise harness the detailed metadata for AV items (or indeed for any items) in the fixed fields of a MARC record. Knowing this, they may decide to skip the fixed field data entry and instead focus on fields that their OPAC can process and display to a user, even if this means creating an ‘incomplete’ record.

Normally I would sit down and write a long (and slightly inaccessible) essay about this topic, but why listen to my waffle when you can read the sources for yourself? I was inspired to collate a reading list by this delightful Twitter conversation. This list is surely incomplete, so I would welcome any suggestions for additional content. I hope you enjoy reading these articles and resources as much as I enjoyed finding them.

Where possible I’ve tried to use OA / freely available resources, because that’s chiefly what I have available to me at the moment, but some of these are paywalled and/or physical.

Hoffman, Gretchen L. (2009a). Applying the User-Centered Paradigm to Cataloging Standards in Theory and Practice: Problems and Prospects. 2009, Vol 2:27-34. [Open access]

Gretchen Hoffman has written quite a lot in this space. This well-referenced, accessible article begins by pointing out that the term ‘user-centred cataloguing’ invariably runs into difficulty because cataloguers often do not know who their users are, and in today’s world a library’s users could be literally anybody. Standards have heretofore required cataloguers only to think about their users, not actually have a user-centred approach; cataloguers have in turn believed that adhering to standards will best serve users, eve when this is patently not the case. Hoffman suggests a rethink of the widespread practice of taking ‘master’ records (eg. OCLC, but also Libraries Australia) and adapting them for local use—such adaptations could be merged into national practice, or different ‘master’ records for, say, academic and school libraries could be considered.

Hoffman, Gretchen L. (2009b). Meeting Users’ Needs in Cataloging: What is the Right Thing to Do?, Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 47(7), pp. 631-641 [Not open access]

Hoffman’s CCQ article is a revised, expanded and slightly more biting version of the OA article reviewed above. Here she delves further into the topic of cataloguing ethics, concluding that cataloguers are behaving as if they have none, and broadens the suggestion of ‘domains’ of cataloguing based on the intended user (eg. academic and school libraries).

Barbara Tillett’s response to this (also in CCQ) is illuminating: having taken the article very much to heart (and understandably so), she hits out at Hoffman’s characterisation of cataloguers as ‘unethical’ and wishes the article were more ‘upbeat’. My personal thoughts on this could easily occupy another blog post; suffice it to say I’m less sympathetic to Tillett than most other cataloguers would be.

Baia, Wendy (2008). ‘User-centred serials cataloging’. In Roberto, K.R. (ed.) Radical cataloging: essays at the front. Jefferson, N.C. : McFarland &​ Co. [Not open access]

The Google Books preview of this chapter is incomplete, and so must my annotation be also. Baia clearly shares my enthusiasm for flexible cataloguing practices and disdain for those who can’t see past the rulebook. Her chief bugbear is successive entry serials cataloguing, whereby a new record must be created whenever a main entry changes (author / title / uniform title). Users hate this because it means various ‘bits’ of a serial are strewn throughout the catalogue, yet cataloguers persist in doing it anyway. The end of the chapter includes a very helpful bullet point list of characteristics a user-centred serials cataloguer ought to possess, which largely boil down to pragmatism, open-mindedness and a user-focussed approach.

Baia, Wendy & Randall, Kevin M. & Leathern, Cecilia (1998) Creativity in Serials Cataloging, The Serials Librarian, 34(3-4), 313-321 [Open access]

An earlier article from Baia expands on her notion of ‘creative cataloguing’, outlining what a serial record catalogued according to latest entry rules might look like. This article is old, and the example of course is an AACR2 record, but the theory holds true.

Drabenstott, Karen, Simcox. Schelle and Fenton, Eileen (1999). End-User Understanding of Subject Headings in Library Catalogs. Library Resources and Technical Services, 43(3), pp. 140-160. [Open access]

This article outlines a study of adults’ and children’s understanding of Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) and the assignment thereof. Participants were issued questionnaires at selected public libraries in the U.S with a set of headings, and were asked to interpret what they meant. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people weren’t very successful at this; less than half of the LCSH corpus were interpreted ‘correctly’ (i.e. in accordance with the opinion of an expert subject cataloguer). Prime reasons for this included the difficulty of vocabulary and the obtuse structure of LCSH subdivisions. Is LCSH an appropriate controlled vocabulary, if users don’t understand what headings mean?
While the structure of LCSH has remained more or less the same since this study was carried out, the introduction of faceted (i.e. not subdivided) vocabs like FAST may improve comprehension of headings by end users.

Hufford, Jon R. (2007). The Pragmatic Basis of Catalog Codes: Has the User Been Ignored?. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University. [Open access]

The gist of this article is basically ‘People who invented cataloguing codes did so without doing any UX research whatsoever’. Serving as a general history of the topic, Hufford illustrates how professional librarians (read: white, male, educated, nominally Christian librarians) in the 19th and early 20th centuries devised lengthy, arcane rules for establishing name and title headings, while failing to consider the needs of users. Whether this failure was conscious or subconscious is not explored, but considering a library’s userbase at the time probably roughly mirrored the librarians who ran it, staff may well have considered themselves ideally placed to decide what would suit users best.

Morris, Ruth (1994). Towards a User-Centred Information Service. Journal of the American Society for Information Science 45(1), pp. 20-30. [Open access]

It’s not often I read articles saying LIS needs more theory, but Morris’ 1994 piece argues quite strongly for a better theoretical and conceptual understanding of what a ‘user-centred service’ might mean, so that librarians might begin to provide one. Yes, begin. (sigh) Beginning with an intro to the constructivist theory of LIS research and discussing the theories of four prominent researchers, Morris then deconstructs each aspect of librarians’ interactions with the public.
The section on cataloguing talks about getting users to stop ‘constantly constructing and reconstructing reality’ when considering search terms, and encouraging them to think outside the box. It also discusses the user unfriendliness of internal cataloguing notes on the whereabouts of an item.

Olson, Hope A. and Schlegl, Rose (2001). Standardization, Objectivity, and User Focus: A Meta-Analysis of Subject Access Critiques. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 32(2),
pp. 61-80 [Not open access]

Olson and Schlegl explore the difficulty of locating various critiques of indexing and classification that have taken place over the years (with respect to gender, race, ethnicity, religion, disability etc.) because the databases that index this information adhere to the same biases and paucity of headings that the critiques themselves discuss. The reference list to this article encompasses some of these articles, which are good reads in their own right. (Alarmingly, their research database has vanished from the Web, and is not available in the Wayback Machine.)
Apropos of nothing, I love their phrase ‘exploited serendipity’ (p. 64). I think I might borrow it for a future post!

Deodato, Joseph (2007) Deconstructing the Library with Jacques Derrida: Creating Space for the Other in Bibliographic Description and Classification. In Leckie, Gloria J., Given, Lisa M., and Buschman, John (eds.) Critical Theory for Library and Information Science: Exploring the Social from Across the Disciplines. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited, pp. 75-87. [Chapter is open access]

Finally, because who can resist a little existential philosophy with their cataloguing (I know I can’t), Deodato takes us through an exploration of deconstructivist French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) and his theories as they might apply to librarianship. It is, by definition, not an easy read, as Derrida’s work seeks to illustrate the plurality and ambiguity of meaning. This represents a challenge to LIS notions of a fixed relationship between meaning and text, as expressed in subject headings and classification schemes. The article also dissects inherent bias in LCSH and the resultant ethical responsiblity of cataloguers to recognise and address these biases. It’s an excellent, if slightly heavy, article.

The cataloguer’s dungeon

These things keep me up at night. I would usually feel guilty for not worrying about climate change and the impending extinction of humanity, but I did that last month. So I’m letting it slide.

Like any normal twenty-something alone on a Saturday night, I found myself idly browsing my workplace’s catalogue for something to read. My literary diet has long had a nihilistic flavour—the top two books in a tottering pile to my immediate left are The Shock of the Anthropocene and The World Without Us (the latter recommended by Hugh), both sobering warnings on the fate of our planet. I thought I might try something fictional and/or optimistic for a change, but instead wound up on the entry for the film adaptation of Joe Cinque’s Consolation, a true story of a murder at a dinner party. How uplifting.

Being a cataloguer and therefore not a normal person, I noticed a lack of added entries for this record. In English, this refers to additional people, entities or works associated with a work (but which are not subjects of the record). A record can only have one main entry, but it can have as many added entries as you want (this is a limitation of the MARC data format). Usually this means additional authors, translators, actors, directors, issuing bodies and so on. An added entry can also be a work which has been adapted by another work. For the film Joe Cinque’s Consolation, I was expecting to see an entry for the book of the same name, written by Helen Garner.

I flipped to the MARC view, which (to me) often makes more sense than the public view. Lo and behold, there was the added entry:

700 1# $i Motion picture adaptation of (work). $a Garner, Helen, $d 1942-. $t Joe Cinque's consolation.

I checked another DVD record with fewer subject headings, in case space was causing a display issue. Nothing. I checked a few books. Still nothing. How had I never noticed this? I tried to console myself by reasoning that I never use the OPAC for work purposes, always the staff backend, which does display 7XX fields in the bibliographic record. Nobody told me these entries don’t appear to the public! Our ILS is 14 years old and slated for replacement, but it should have been able to cope with added entries right out of the box. It copes with RDA… ish… but doesn’t do anything particularly useful with the new information RDA provides.

By now wondering if this was a common problem, I looked at a couple of other libraries that held this DVD. Some displayed the full added entry, some omitted the ‘Motion picture adaptation’ part, and others used only the author’s name without the book title (which is less useful if you have no idea who Helen Garner is, and there’s no relationship designator to tell you). One library, clearly a SirsiDynix Symphony setup, displayed almost nothing unless I clicked on ‘Catalogue Record’, the contents of which will mean almost nothing to a casual user.

I returned to our catalogue, flipped back to non-MARC view and tried a general keyword search with another added entry (an actor’s name). This brought up the record for the DVD, but gave me no clue whatsoever as to why that record had appeared. How… unintuitive.

At this point, I began to feel greatly deceived. Why am I being paid to create metadata that the public can’t even see?

I looked at the MARC record again. How many other useful fields weren’t being displayed? How much information in fixed fields could actually be used in a query? For this particular DVD record, non-displayed useful fields included:

  • creator/producer note (508)
  • performers note (511) and
  • added entries for the actors and directors, as well as the original book (700 and 710).

By looking at this record, a user would have no way of knowing the director and main actors in the film, despite this information being encoded twice in the MARC record (once in a note and once as an added entry). It’s the kind of information I would be looking for if I were an OPAC user. Other libraries were, however, much better at displaying this data.

For the last several months I’ve been happily typing away in my little cataloguer’s dungeon, oblivious to the utter uselessness of many of the records I create. Well, actually, that’s not strictly fair—the records themselves are fine, but the system that manages them is not. Yes, we’ve been promised a new ILS sometime soon. But this added-entry problem has been around for 14 years. Either nobody noticed, or nobody cared, or nobody had the skill to do anything, or nobody was game to take on our vendor and ask for a solution, or nobody even saw it as a problem that needed fixing.

There are several problems here. Cataloguers (me included) should have an understanding of how their records will appear to an end-user. Systems librarians and administrators should be aware of what sort of data a) their cataloguers are producing and b) their users are looking for, and ensure that the OPAC’s offering meets all needs. Users should be empowered to give feedback about their discovery experience and know that their feedback will be taken seriously. Vendors should perhaps be selling less terrible products. Management should perhaps be buying less terrible products.

In the immediate term, it means I have to re-evaluate my use of added entries vis-à-vis general note (500) fields to ensure maximum usefulness for the end user. It bothers me greatly that I have to do this. MARC has an abundance of clearly defined fields for a reason. It should be up to the system to display them appropriately, not up to me to compensate for the system’s failings.

I looked again at the record for Joe Cinque’s Consolation, by now a source of great frustration when all I wanted was something fun to read. Buried in the Notes section, in tiny font, were the words: ‘Based on the book by Helen Garner’. Thankyou record, you came through after all. But why was this info in the Notes field at all? We can do so much better than this…

(To be continued)

Sick of hearing about linked data? You’re not alone

‘This looks a little bit complicated’ … you don’t say… #lodlam #lasum2016 @lissertations 8 Dec 2016

I’m not attending ALIA Information Online this year, largely because the program was broadly similar to NDFNZ (which I attended last year) and I couldn’t justify the time off work. Instead I’m trying to tune into #online17 on Twitter, in between dealing with mountains of work and various personal crises.

As usual, there’s a lot of talk about linked data. Pithy pronouncements on linked data. Snazzy slides on linked data. Trumpeting tweets about linked data.

You know what?

I’m sick of hearing about linked data. I’m sick of talking about linked data. I’m fed up to the back teeth with linked data plans, proposals, theories, suggestions, exhortations, the lot. I’ve had it. I’ve had enough.

What will it take to make linked data actually happen?

Well, for one thing, ‘linked data’ could mean all sorts of things. Bibframe, that much-vaunted replacement for everyone’s favourite 1960s data structure MARC, is surely years away. RDF and its query language SPARQL are here right now, but the learning curve is steep and its interoperability with legacy library data and systems is difficult. Whatever OCLC is working on has the potential to monopolise and commercialise the entire project. If people use ‘linked data’ to mean ‘indexed by Google’, well, there’s already a term for that. It’s called SEO, or ‘search engine optimisation’, and marketing types are quite good at it. (I have written on this topic before, for those interested.)

Furthermore, linked data is impossible to implement on an individual level. Making linked data happen in a given library service, including—

  • modifying one’s ILS to play nicely with linked data
  • training your cataloguing and metadata staff (should you have any) on writing linked data
  • ensuring your vendors are willing to provide linked data
  • teaching your floor staff about interpreting linked data
  • convincing your bureaucracy to pay for linked data and
  • educating the public on what the hell linked data is

—requires the involvement of dozens of people and is far above my pay grade. Most of those people can be relied upon to care very little, or not at all, about metadata of any kind. Without rigorous description and metadata standards, not to mention work on vocabularies and authority control, our linked data won’t be worth a square inch of screen real estate. The renewed focus on library customer service relies on staff knowing what materials and services their library offers. This is impossible without good metadata, which in turn is impossible without good staff. I can’t do it alone, and I shouldn’t have to.

Here, the library data ecosystem is so tightly wrapped around the MARC structure that I don’t know if any one entity will ever break free. Libraries demand MARC records because their software requires it. Their software requires MARC records because vendors wrote it that way. Vendors wrote the software that way because libraries demand it. It’s a vicious cycle, and one that vendors currently have little incentive to break.

I was overjoyed to hear recently of the Oslo Public Library’s decision a few years ago to ditch MARC completely and catalogue in RDF using the Koha open-source ILS. They decided there was no virtue in waiting for a standard that may never come, and decided to Make Linked Data Happen on their own. The level of resultant original cataloguing is quite high, but tools like MARC2RDF might ameliorate that to an extent. Somehow, I can’t see my workplace making a similar decision. It’d be awesome if we did, though.

I don’t yet know what will make linked data happen for the rest of us. I feel like we’ve spent years convincing traditionally-minded librarians of the virtues of linked data with precious little to show for it. We’re having the same conversations over and over. Making the same pronouncements. The same slides. The same tweets. All for something that our users will hopefully never notice. Because if we do our jobs right and somehow pull off the biggest advancement in library description since the invention of MARC, our users will have no reason to notice—discovery of library resources will be intuitive at last.

Now that would be something worth talking about.

Linked data: the saviour of libraries in the internet age?

Another day, another depressing article about the future of libraries in the UK. I felt myself becoming predictably frustrated by the usual ‘libraries are glorified waiting rooms for the unemployed’ and ‘everything’s on the internet anyway’ comments.

I also found myself trying to come up with ways to do something about it. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good whinge as much as the next man, but whinging only sustains me for so long. Where possible I like to find practical solutions to life’s problems. The issue of mass library closures in the UK might seem too much for one librarian to solve—especially a student librarian on the other side of the world with absolutely no influence in UK politics. But I won’t let that put me off.

Consider the following: Google is our first port of call in any modern information search, right? When we want to know something, we google it. That’s fine. Who determines what appears in search results? Google’s super-secret Algorithm, harnessing an army of spiders to index most corners of the Web. How do web admins try and get their sites to appear higher in search results? Either the dark art of search engine optimisation (SEO), which is essentially a game of cat-and-mouse with the Algorithm, or the fine art of boutique metadata, which is embedded in a Web page’s <meta> tags and used to lure spiders.

Despite falling patronage and the ubiquity of online information retrieval, libraries are absolutely rubbish at SEO. When people google book or magazine titles (to give but one example), libraries’ OPACs aren’t appearing in search results. People looking for recreational reading material are libraries’ target audience, and yet we’re essentially invisible to them.

Even if I accept the premise that ‘everything’s on the internet’ (hint: no), how do people think content ends up on the internet in the first place? People put things online. Librarians could put things online if their systems supported them. Librarians could quite easily feed the internet and reclaim their long-lost status as information providers in a literal sense.

The ancient ILS used by my workplace is an aggravating example of this lack of support. If our ILS were a person it would be a thirteen-year-old high schooler, skulking around the YA section and hoping nobody notices it’s not doing much work. Our OPAC, for reasons I really don’t understand, has a robots.txt warding off Google and other web crawlers. The Web doesn’t notice it and patrons don’t either. It doesn’t help that MARC is an inherently web-unfriendly metadata standard; Google doesn’t know or care what a 650 field is, and it’s not about to start learning.

(Screenshot below obscures the name of my workplace in the interests of self-preservation)


Down with this sort of thing.

Perhaps in recognition of this problem, vendor products such as SirsiDynix’s Bluecloud Visibility promise to convert MARC records to linked data in Bibframe and make a library’s OPAC more appealing to web crawlers. I have no idea if this actually works or not (though I’m dying to find out). For time-poor librarians and cash-strapped consortia, an off-the-shelf solution would have numerous benefits.

But even the included Google screenshot in the article, featuring a suitably enhanced OPAC, has its problems. Firstly, the big eye-catching infobox to the right makes no mention of the library, but includes links to Scribd and Kobo, who have paid for such prominence. Secondly, while the OPAC appears at the top of the search results, the blurb in grey text includes boring bibliographical information instead of an eye-catching abstract, or even something like ‘Borrow “Great Expectations” at your local library today!’. Surely I’m not the only one who notices things like this…?

I’m keen to do a lot more research in this area to determine whether the promise of linked data will make library collections discoverable for today’s users and bring people back to libraries. I know I can’t fix the ILS. I can’t re-catalogue every item we have. I can’t even make a script do this for me. For now, research is the most practical thing I can do to help solve this problem. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to do more.

Further reading

Fujikawa, G. (2015). The ILS and Linked Data: a White Paper. Emeryville, CA: Innovative Interfaces. Retrieved from https://www.iii.com/sites/default/files/Linked-Data-White-Paper-August-2015.pdf

Papadakis, I. et al. (2015). Linked Data URIs and Libraries: The Story So Far. D-Lib 21(5-6), May-June 2015. Retrieved from http://dlib.org/dlib/may15/papadakis/05papadakis.html

Schilling, V. (2012). Transforming Library Metadata into Linked Library Data: Introduction and Review of Linked Data for the Library Community, 2003–2011. ALCTS Research Topics in Cataloguing and Classification. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/alcts/resources/org/cat/research/linked-data

Acquisitions Battle: Library v. Archives

I get a real kick out of spending other people’s money. Acquisitions take up a lot of my time at work these days; I’m responsible for, among many other things, acquiring works by local authors and material about the history and culture of our city. Naturally, our budget is minuscule. Every dollar has to be spent wisely, and if we can acquire something for free, we go for it. 

The other day I was surprised to receive a couple of short films produced by one of the local community service organisations, featuring a few locals talking about their lives. I had no real reason to be surprised; after all, I’d asked them to send me a copy. What did surprise me was that the two films were on USB flash drives, one for each film. Somehow I’d been expecting a DVD. Another community service org had graciously sent me a DVD of one of their recent film projects, and I suppose I hadn’t considered the fact that not all organisations distributed their AV material the same way.

Our immediate problem was deciding whether or not the USB flash drives constituted library or archive material. While we make a point of collecting both, the line is somewhat blurry; some material accepted as part of a manuscript deposit occasionally duplicates library closed stack holdings and vice versa. Generally speaking, if an item has been formally published it goes into the library collection and is catalogued in the usual way. If it hasn’t been published it is treated as archive material and is subject to appraisal, copyright clearance etc. and has a finding aid created for it. 

Is a USB flash drive considered ‘published’ material? One drive had the (newer) film’s title printed on the side, clearly indicating an intent to distribute. The other drive was a generic one and held the older film. Neither had an ISBN or other barcode, and could only be obtained by directly contacting the community organisation that produced them. The films themselves had been uploaded to YouTube by the community organisation, also suggesting that the participants had consented to their recordings being widely disseminated.

Because the DVD we received had been (almost automatically) treated as library material and given to our long-suffering cataloguer, I began to wonder whether the USB drives should be treated the same way. After all, if we had received DVDs instead of flash media, I wouldn’t have thought twice about adding them to the library stack. 

However, I ultimately decided, in consultation with my superior, to add the USB flash drives to our archival collections. The lack of ISBN or any kind of commercial packaging was a factor, but the decider was the realisation that write-protecting flash drives is close to impossible. Even if we were to add the drives to our library stack and only permit users to use them in the building, we would have no way of knowing whether someone was tampering with the drive while they used it. A professionally-produced DVD is a read-only medium, which I think we would feel better about having in the library collection.

The major downside to classifying the drives as archive material is that it means a lot more work for us. Naturally, I hadn’t thought to request a deed of gift or copyright clearances from the community organisation, so we’ll have to chase that up. If they in turn didn’t ask the participants to sign anything (which is unlikely but possible), that will also create some difficulties. And of course, at some point I’ll have to copy the contents of the drives to our rudimentary digital preservation setup. I’ve wound up being responsible for that too, but that’s a story for another time. 

Tuesday: how it could revolutionise the Dewey Decimal System

I keep meaning to write this post when it’s not Tuesday. I also keep meaning to revolutionise library classification, but it’s slipped down my to-do list a few notches. Between looking for a new job, organising an overseas trip, writing a conference proposal and studying my last three MIS subjects, I’ve had a fair bit on. Happily, however, I’ve managed to find a spare hour for this most important discussion. Never mind the fact library cataloguers and researchers have spent entire careers on this topic, I’m an Enthusiastic New Professional™ and I can accomplish anything! [citation needed]

The inspiration for this post came from Hugh Rundle’s hilarious @lib_papers Twitter bot. It spits out nonsensical fake conference paper titles which, if you squint hard enough, could almost be real. Fortunately, however, I have the self-awareness to never style myself as an ‘entreprevational full-stack cybrarian’.

Now, to business. Plenty of authors before me have written on how terrible DDC is. It’s an antiquated, anglocentric, angst-inducing mess of a classification system. It assigns whole numbers to arcane topics and relegates vast areas of inquiry to lengthy strings (e.g. the etymology of classical Greek is awarded 482, but climate change, arguably one of the gravest issues of our time, is assigned 363.7387). It demands books on similar subjects be located far away from each other for reasons known only to a nineteenth-century white American man with a misogynist streak and a penchant for spelling reform.

DDC is so awful that growing numbers of libraries (mostly public) are choosing to do away with Dewey altogether. By ‘genrefying’ their collections, librarians and technical services staff are reclaiming their shelf order and reasserting their right to shelve a book where they see fit, not where ~Dewey~ sees fit. I’ve read many a report on the outcomes of genrefication, particularly in fiction collections and in schools, and so far I’ve been very impressed.

My first exposure to genrefication came with a visit to the (then temporary) City of Perth Library as part of a CSU study trip. (I don’t live in Perth, in case you were wondering how I had never visited the city library there.) Like any good mid-degree LIS student angling for a career in technical services, I was suitably horrified by the library’s decision to sort their print collections by genre. On reflection, however, I think the idea outraged me only because it was completely foreign. I was so thoroughly immersed in the Dewey-centric narrative promulgated by library schools everywhere that I had never considered the idea that classification could be done differently.

Certain stripes of librarians take classification really seriously. Perhaps too seriously. And I say this as someone who genuinely enjoys cataloguing. As long as a patron has a reasonable chance of finding a given book on a shelf, armed either with OPAC search results or an ability to read directional signs, and that such a book is located adjacent to other books on similar topics and/or in a reasonably intuitive place, who gives a shit what call number it’s got?

This is not to say that I support eradicating call numbers entirely. I don’t. I believe that we as librarians owe it to the public to come up with a system that doesn’t completely suck.

There is absolutely no need for library users to have to learn such a convoluted and inconsistent system. In Dewey’s day, libraries were typically closed-stack affairs anyway — the only people who had any need to learn the classification system were the library staff, for whom the idea of ‘browsability’ was not an issue. In an age where bookshops are organised by genre and video rental shops (R.I.P.) were similarly classified, why is it anathema for libraries, especially public and school libraries, to arrange their wares in a similar manner?

Dewey is easier for librarians, not for patrons. Dewey means technical services staff don’t have to classify every item from scratch if they don’t want to or can’t. Ostensibly, Dewey also means that any book on a given topic will have roughly the same call number anywhere Dewey is used. Yet I’ve come across numerous examples in the course of my work, in a library which uses Dewey for its modest physical collection, where the same item was given wildly different call numbers depending on the cataloguer. I found one edition of The Best Australian Science Writing, a monograph in annual series, in 500 and another in 800. Learning the implementation of Dewey in one library does not guarantee it will be the same elsewhere.

Alarmingly, I’ve reached almost 800 words and have yet to present any kind of workable alternative to Dewey. I know there’s one out there, though. In the coming weeks and months I intend to devote some of my spare brainpower to the idea, once I’ve finished all the other things I noted above. But the @lib_papers bot has, amusingly, almost come full circle. I look forward to one day genuinely presenting a paper on how Tuesday will help revolutionise DDC. Further thoughts on that will, alas, have to wait for another Tuesday.