Cataloguing trauma [content warning: self-harm]

Content warning: This post discusses self-harm, mental illness and institutional indifference to trauma.

That the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) are a biased, offensive and wholly outdated set of controlled terms is not a new concept in cataloguing. Plenty has been written on the innumerable ways LCSH describes people, places and concepts in ways that do not belong in a modern library catalogue. I hope plenty has also been written on the trauma this can cause library users (though I confess at the moment I can’t find much). But today I need to talk about a couple of terms in particular, terms that hit a little too close to home, and which I never want to see in a catalogue ever again. I need to talk about the trauma this causes me, a cataloguer. I need to talk. LCSH needs to listen.

Today on my cataloguing pile, there appeared a book on dealing with depression and mental illness. I won’t identify the book or its author, but it was a wonderfully helpful book that encouraged its reader to write in it and make it their own. This being a library copy, our readers naturally can’t do that, but I guess they could photocopy parts of the book if they needed. The author clearly had lived experience of these issues and sought to write a book that might help someone who is struggling, as they had once done.

One section of the book discusses what to do if the reader feels a need to self-harm. It includes things like ‘glue your fingers together and pick at that instead’, ‘count from 100 backwards and start again if you lose track’ and ‘make a list of people you can talk to, and don’t feel bad about talking to them’. To another cataloguer, it might have seemed like a minor portion of a book that is substantially about other things. To me, this topic is so important, and the advice so genuinely helpful, that I decided it needed surfacing in the catalogue record. In particular, I decided it merited its own subject heading.

Looking up ‘Self-harm’ in LCSH brought me to these terms:

Self-harm, Deliberate
USE Parasuicide

Self-harm, Non-fatal
USE Parasuicide

Self-harm (Self-mutilation)
USE Self-mutilation

The entry for ‘Parasuicide’ reads:

Parasuicide  (May Subd Geog)
Here are entered works on deliberate acts of selfharm in which there is no intent to die. Works on attempted suicide are entered under Suicidal behavior.
UF Deliberate self-harm
Harm, Deliberate self
Non-fatal self-harm
Parasuicidal behavior
Self-harm, Deliberate
Self-harm, Non-fatal
BT Self-destructive behavior
RT Suicidal behavior

The entry for ‘Self-mutilation’ reads:

Self-mutilation  (May Subd Geog)
Here are entered works on behaviors by which individuals intentionally cause damage to their bodies. Works on stereotyped behaviors by which individuals unintentionally cause damage to their bodies are entered under Self-injurious behavior. Works on nonstereotyped behaviors and cognitions by which individuals directly or indirectly cause harm to themselves are entered under Self-destructive behavior.
UF Automutilation
Self-harm (Self-mutilation)
Self-injurious behavior (Self-mutilation)
Self-injury (Self-mutilation)
BT Malingering
Mutilation
Self-destructive behavior
NT Cutting (Self-mutilation)
Self-torture

I hit the roof.

I read these and said, out loud, to an empty office: ‘You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.’ I skipped right past the dubious non-preferred terms (UFs), the distant and unfeeling scope notes, the questionable broader terms (‘Malingering’? Really?!). I zeroed in on the terms that someone, somewhere, in another place and another time, had decided were the right words to use to describe someone harming themselves.

Describing these acts as ‘Parasuicide’ is not helpful. I say this both as a cataloguer and as someone with lived experience of the acts in question. This is not good enough. This term needs to go.

People searching for works on this topic almost certainly be using the keyword ‘Self-harm’ or a close variation. If they’re using keyword search instead of subject search (and they will be, because nobody uses subject search anymore except librarians), these works will not appear in search results. They would have to know the particular term used by LCSH, thereby negating the point of having non-preferred terms in the first place, and be willing to overlook the inappropriateness of this term. I doubt anyone with an information need on this topic would be willing to overlook this. Certainly I’m not.

The scope notes for ‘Parasuicide’ are almost exclusively drawn from medical reference sources, suggesting the term is used in a medical context. Yet the term does not appear in the Medical Subject Headings (MeSH), used by most medical and health libraries. MeSH instead groups the concepts expressed by the LCSH terms ‘Parasuicide’ and ‘Self-mutilation’ together under ‘Self-injurious behavior‘, with a much more cogent hierarchy and set of non-preferred terms. MeSH restricts the term ‘Self-mutilation‘ to ‘the act of injuring one’s own body to the extent of cutting off or permanently destroying a limb or other essential part of a body’, with the implication that this is deliberate.

Because my library catalogues for a general audience, using LCSH and not MeSH, I would argue it is inappropriate to base a term on medical sources. We should instead be using general ones, using terms ordinary people would use. In an LCSH library, who is most likely to need information on this topic? How do they need it described? I would think the likeliest people are those experiencing ideations of self-harm, or people who know someone in this situation. Why does LCSH draw a distinction between ‘self-harm caused by mental illness’ and ‘self-harm caused for other reasons, including supposedly for attention’, and, from an information retrieval perspective, does this distinction matter? Would works intended for a general audience be more likely to use one term over another? What harm might this cause?

This book is primarily about helping sufferers help themselves. I would like to index it $a Self-harm $x Prevention $v Popular works (leaving aside for now the issues of having a specific form heading for ‘books for ordinary people’). Instead I will almost certainly have to use the heading $a Parasuicide $x Prevention $v Popular works, or perhaps I’ll go one step higher and use the broader term to both these headings, $a Self-destructive behavior. Even though that doesn’t really cover it, and doesn’t bring out the specific issue that I wanted the heading to address.

When I tweeted the other day that ‘Cataloguing is power’, this is what I meant! We have the power to guide users to the materials they’re looking for, via the words and phrases we use. Cataloguers have a responsibility to use terms that are meaningful to their users, especially when their userbase is the general public, and to take a stand against terms in their controlled vocabulary that are no longer appropriate.

I have a greater ability than most people to advocate for change in subject headings. I would like to see the heading ‘Parasuicide’ changed to one of its non-preferred terms that includes the phrase ‘Self-harm’. Ideally this term and ‘Self-mutilation’ would be combined, akin to the MeSH term ‘Self-injurious behavior’, with the accompanying taxonomy. But this won’t happen overnight. It certainly won’t happen in time for me to finish cataloguing this book. My workplace is very strict on adherence to standards and my options for deviation are limited. I might include some key phrases in a summary field, so that a keyword search would pick them up and bring this book to the people who need it most.

This post is a direct result of my emotional response to these headings. It is informed by my own lived experience of mental illness. It is the trauma of cataloguing, just as it is cataloguing that trauma. It is a traumatic response. I had this response at 5.30pm when the office was virtually empty, so everyone I might have talked to had already left for the day. Perhaps that was for the best. Instead I’ve been able to direct my energy into researching these headings and formulating options for change. I also bought myself some chocolate, which definitely helped.

I needed to talk. You, the reader, have generously listened. Now LCSH needs to listen, and reflect, and change.

How to catalogue a podcast

The other day I decided to catalogue a podcast, mostly because Hugh gave me the idea. I cast about for a suitable work and I figured—why not catalogue cardiCast? I’m not a huge podcast listener, but I’ve really grown to enjoy the mix of live cardiParty recordings and interviews with selected guests.

Resources for cataloguing podcasts are thin on the ground, so I thought I’d share my take. This is not an officially-sanctioned, PCC-compliant guide or anything, just the views of a simple cataloguer who does this for fun.

Be careful what you wish for, etc.

Fixed fields

This is gonna get technical. Let’s look at the Leader fields, first:

LDR/07 = (i), non-musical sound recording
LDR/08 = (s), serial

There’s not a lot of records on the ANBD with that particular combination. The closest I found to a podcast record was ‘Surgical news extra’, an audio accompaniment to an existing textual serial. (The cataloguer at SLV who created this is clearly a talented individual, they did a really good job!)

As far as the cataloguer is concerned, there are three aspects to a podcast: its audio content (spoken word, non-musical sound recording); its computer content (digital file, stored and accessed online); and its seriality (continuing resource, issued in discrete episodes as part of a broader whole).

Capturing these three aspects requires a lot of fixed field data, most of which (sadly) an ILS will never use. We will need the following:

Generally speaking, “the 008 and 006 are regarded as containing “bibliographic” information about a work, while the 007 is regarded as carrying information about the “physical” characteristics of the item”. I could go into exhaustive detail about each byte, but if you really want to know you’ll have clicked on the above hyperlinks already, so why reinvent the wheel?

Two aspects of fixed field entry stood out as being particularly tricky:

  • 008/24-29, ‘Accompanying matter’ [to sound recordings]: this is really intended for physical accompaniments, not digital ones. ‘Show notes on iTunes’ doesn’t really fit any of the given options, so despite having six bytes to play with I settled for only one, ‘f’ (Biography of performer or history of ensemble), as the show notes (either in iTunes as embedded metadata or on the newCardigan website) usually have a brief explainer about who’s talking and what the topic is.
  • 008/30-31, ‘Literary text for sound recordings’: I have two bytes to fill. Here I have to think quite deeply about the nature of cardiCast. I have a reasonably good list of options, but ‘cardiParties’ isn’t one of them. Nor can I record anything specific about the live nature of many podcast recordings. I eventually settled on ‘l’ (lectures, speeches) and ‘t’ (interviews).

Title and access points

Pleasingly, the title (as spoken by Justine at the beginning of each episode) actually fits really neatly into the ISBD syntax, as transcribed in the 245 field:

[Title] $a cardiCast :
[Subtitle] $b a GLAM podcast /
[Statement of responsibility] $c brought to you by newCardigan.

I really wanted to know whether I could keep newCardigan’s distinctive camelCase in the title and access points, or whether I had to refer to the work as ‘Cardicast’ and the producer as ‘Newcardigan’. Fortunately the RDA toolkit saw my dilemma coming, and handily permits the retention of unusual capitalisation if it is the most commonly-known form.

Names of Agents and Places
A.2.1
[…]
For names with unusual capitalization, follow the capitalization of the commonly known form.
eg. eBay (Firm)

Titles of Manifestations
A.4.1
[…]
Unusual capitalization. For titles with unusual capitalization, follow the capitalization of the title as found on the source of information.
eg. eBay bargain shopping for dummies; SympoTIC ’06

I ran the catalogue record past the cardiCore before writing this post, to make sure I’d gotten the metadata itself correct. They agreed that Justine (as host) and Clare (as the sound editor) deserved added entries of their own. MARC accommodates this quite readily, simply by giving them each a 700 and a $e relator term from the exhaustive list. Naturally, newCardigan is accommodated in a 710 field.

Descriptive elements

Because nobody is actually going to read those fixed fields I just spent two hours painstakingly creating, I’m now going to fill in my 3XX and 5XX fields with all sorts of descriptive data about the podcast: how often it comes out (field 310), whether it’s streamable or downloadable (or both, in this instance), when it began (field 362), and what kind of content I can expect from the podcast (field 520).

Field 508 (Creation/Production Credits Note) enables me to credit the podcast as a newCardigan production and expand on Justine and Clare’s roles, while field 511 (Participant or Performer Note) notes that each episode has a different guest. I’ve also noted in field 588 where my descriptions have come from. This isn’t mandatory, but for a resource with no defined title page or home page it can be useful to know where the metadata came from.

The RDA content/media/carrier types are surprisingly simple: ‘spoken word’ content, ‘audio’ and ‘computer’ medium (so 2 fields) and ‘online resource’ carrier.

Subject headings

This podcast was difficult to index, chiefly because at first I wound up with too many overly-specific headings. I would have preferred an overarching $a GLAM industry $v Periodicals and $a GLAM workers $v Interviews but LCSH doesn’t have anything like that, so I had to split up the GLAM into its constituent sectors. I’m also not sure how I feel about $v Periodicals for continuing resources of this type. I think it’s the lack of print, textual content that bothers me a little. But it works, it has precedent elsewhere and I don’t have any better ideas. Perhaps in future $v Podcasts will become a form subdivision, just as it is already a genre/form term. Or we’ll abolish form subdivisions altogether. That’d be good.

In LCSH, ‘Galleries’ is a UF for ‘Art museums’, in case you were wondering.

Example record

NB: I originally wrote this in MarcEdit and painstakingly inserted all the spaces between subfields (don’t tell me, there’s a regex for that). The slash characters represent a blank space.

LDR  01880cis a2200433 i 4500
006  m\\\\\o\\h\\\\\\\\
006  ser\\\o\\\\\\\\\a2
007  cr\nua\\\auuuu
007  sr\zunnnnnzneu
008  180614c20169999vrannn\fo\\\\\\lt\\\eng\d
040  \\ $a ABCD $b eng $e RDA $d ABCD
042  \\ $a anuc
043  \\ $a u-at---
245  00 $a cardiCast : $b a GLAM podcast / $c brought to you by newCardigan.
246  3\ $a Cardi Cast
264  \1 $a Melbourne, Vic.: $b newCardigan, $c 2016-
300  \\ $a 1 online resource (audio files).
310  \\ $a Fortnightly
336  \\ $a spoken word $b spw $2 rdacontent
337  \\ $a audio $b s $2 rdamedia
337  \\ $a computer $b c $2 rdamedia
338  \\ $a online resource $b cr $2 rdacarrier
347  \\ $a audio file $b MP3 $2 rda
362  1\ $a Began in 2016.
500  \\ $a Available as streaming audio or as downloadable MP3 files.
500  \\ $a Resource website includes episode listing and links to individual downloads.
508  \\ $a Hosted by Justine Hanna ; sound editing by Clare Presser. A corporate 
           production of the newCardigan GLAM collective. 
511  \\ $a Each episode features a different speaker or interviewee.
520  \\ $a "cardiCast is a GLAM podcast published every fortnight. Hear a recording of 
           a previous cardiParty, or interviews with interesting GLAM people from 
           around Australia and the world."--newCardigan website.
588  \\ $a Description based on episode 32 and information from the newCardigan 
           website. Title from spoken introduction of episode 32 (accessed 
           June 14, 2018).
610  20 $a newCardigan $v Periodicals
650  \0 $a Art museums $v Periodicals
650  \0 $a Libraries $v Periodicals
650  \0 $a Archives $v Periodicals
650  \0 $a Museums $v Periodicals
655  \7 $a Podcasts $2 lcgft
700  1\ $a Hanna, Justine $e host
700  1\ $a Presser, Clare $e recording engineer
710  2\ $a newCardigan $e producer
856  40 $z Website with links to episodes and accompanying text 
        $u https://newcardigan.org/category/cardicast/

Indigenous names in authority records: the case of Jandamarra

UPDATE (20 June 2018): This has now been addressed! I noticed a couple of days ago that the NLA have updated this authority record, such that it now follows the AIATSIS example, “Jandamarra, approximately 1870-1897.” (The Libraries Australia heading and Trove duplicate issue both remain, but I understand they are managed by different areas within NLA.) While I was not directly informed of the NLA’s decision to update Jandamarra’s authority record, I am thrilled that they have done so. Thank you, NLA cataloguers, for making this necessary change.

A selection of books about Jandamarra. (Picture courtesy AIATSIS)

It’s all well and good for librarians to talk about decolonisation, but we need to put our money where our mouths are. Cataloguers are no exception—we decide how resources are described and accessed. We dictate the effectiveness of a search strategy. We alone have the power to name.1

Being the sort of person who browses library catalogues for fun, I wound up on a NLA record for a play about Jandamarra, the Bunuba resistance fighter. Except the subject headings in this record didn’t name him at all. Instead they named some bloke called ‘Pigeon’.

100 0# $a Pigeon, $d -1897
400 #0 $a Jandamarra

Pigeon?!

Apparently ‘Pigeon’ was a name given to Jandamarra by a white pastoralist.2 The 15 books held by the NLA with this subject heading overwhelmingly refer to a man named Jandamarra. His entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography is under this name. The Canberra street named in his honour uses this name. Why doesn’t the NLA use this name?

The whole thing couldn’t be more colonial if it tried.3 A colonial institution (the library) referring to an Indigenous man by a colonial name (‘Pigeon’) and qualifying it with his year of death in a colonial calendar (1897). Jandamarra’s authority record represents his name and life as it was known to white people. How would the Bunuba describe him? Would they use the name ‘Jandamarra’ at all? What could a more culturally appropriate authority record look like? How might we disambiguate people without reference to colonial names, occupations or calendars?4

100 0# $a Jandamarra $c (Bunuba man)
400 #0 $a Pigeon, $d -1897

As a white cataloguer I firmly believe a change needs to be made. Such a change would have greater impact if it were also made in Libraries Australia, the national union catalogue (on which more later). The name ‘Pigeon’ is also used there, identically to its use in the NLA’s catalogue.

Let’s fix that

The issue then becomes: how might I make this change? More importantly, how might the community suggest a change? There is a way to suggest changes to name headings on the ANBD, but it’s very difficult to find—the Libraries Australia reftracker includes two options for ‘Propose a LCSH change’ and ‘Propose a new LCSH’ (where ‘LCSH’, apparently, includes all headings, name and subject alike). The form states that the info you provide goes straight to LC (that is, it’s not evaluated locally). It also immediately starts demanding my name, my NUC code, tells me to choose my 1XX heading, include 670 source citations, LC pattern or SCM memo, use for, broader term, related term??

I am a fluent MARC speaker and I know a 680 when I see one, but I have never dared fill out that form. I can’t see how an ordinary person would ever be able to suggest a formal change for Australian usage. Crowdsourcing initiatives like Violet Fox’s Cataloging Lab (which, for the record, I love), are necessarily US-centric and wouldn’t immediately address a local problem. Besides, the guidelines for establishing name authorities in the ANBD expressly state that Australian entities are exempt from the ‘let LC decide’ policy.

Besides, even if we were able to navigate the form and suggest a change, what would the change be? For guidance, I looked to AIATSIS’ catalogue. Sensibly, and in delightful accordance with RDA, they have opted to use 100 0# $a Jandamarra, $d approximately 1870-1897 as the preferred form. I figure if it’s good enough for AIATSIS, it’s good enough for me.

Wondering what other libraries used, I then looked at the Library of Congress’ NAF (Name Authority File) record. To my surprise, they used a different spelling:

100 0# $a Sandamarra, $d -1897
400 #0 $a Jandamarra, $d -1897
400 #0 $a Pigeon, $d -1897
400 #0 $a Tjandamara, $d -1897

This record was created in 1989 and revised in 2013. A search of both LC’s catalogue and WorldCat (via the Libraries Australia Z39.50 interface, in case that makes a difference) brought up no results with this spelling, so I couldn’t determine if a particular work was used as its basis. Usually these works would be recorded in a 670 field, but these had nothing.

It would not be beyond LC to update its heading to the more commonly-used spelling. Pleasingly, they have form in this area: in 2003, LC changed several dozen subject headings relating to $a Aboriginal Australians (or $a Australian aborigines, as they were then described) in consultation with the NLA.

What’s in Trove?

I then found myself browsing the Trove People and organisations zone, where authority records are given a new life as sources of biographical data. Like other parts of Trove, the P&O zone aggregates and incorporates data from a variety of sources. I was therefore surprised to find Jandamarra listed under this name, using data from AIATSIS and the Australian Dictionary of Biography; as established above, both sources used the most commonly-known spelling. Notably, this did not include data from Libraries Australia:

Record for Jandamarra within Trove’s People and organisations zone.

The great thing about Trove identity records is that they display the ‘Also known as’ data (or UFs, or non-preferred terms, or 4XX fields, or whatever). It’s really hard to get an ILS to display this info, especially in an easy-to-read format like Trove has done. I’m really pleased to see this data out in the open and not hidden down the back of the authority file sofa.

Now, what happens if I search the P&O zone for ‘Pigeon’?

Jandamarra appears twice, with a slightly different spelling

We see that Jandamarra (-1897) is the first result, but the fifth is for Jundumurra, Pigeon (?!), which features data from AIATSIS and Libraries Australia. (This particular LA record pulls its data from AIATSIS anyway, so strictly speaking this isn’t the NLA’s fault, but it’s still a dupe that LA and/or Trove would have to merge.)

Interestingly, the original authority record from the NLA (‘Pigeon’, remember him?) doesn’t appear to be represented in the P&I zone at all. I wonder if that was a conscious or unconscious decision?

For completeness, here’s the real AIATSIS name authority, which in my view is also the best one:

100 0# $a Jandamarra, $d approximately 1870-1897
400 #0 $a Jundamurra, $d approximately 1870-1897
400 #0 $a Sandamara, $d approximately 1870-1897
400 #0 $a Sandawara, $d approximately 1870-1897
400 #0 $a Tjandamara, $d approximately 1870-1897
400 #0 $a Tjangamarra, $d approximately 1870-1897
400 #0 $a Jandamura, $d approximately 1870-1897
400 #0 $a Pigeon, $d approximately 1870-1897
400 #0 $a Wonimarra, $d approximately 1870-1897

It turns out that Jandamarra has three (!) name authority records in Libraries Australia, one from the NLA and two from AIATSIS. Ordinarily I would consider this a major data integrity issue, and 100 10 $a Jundumurra, Pigeon is a bit of a problem, but for the moment I’m actually okay with the other two full-level records, because they help illustrate the differing approaches and mindsets from the two institutions. In time, I’d like to narrow that down, though.

Recommendations

In short, here’s what I would like to see happen so that Jandamarra is referred to by his rightful name in the ANBD, and in catalogues that use ANBD records:

1) Libraries Australia to modify their name authority record and establish the preferred form as $a Jandamarra, $d approximately 1870-1897, in accordance with that used by AIATSIS, and add non-preferred forms as appropriate. This change could then ripple across to the NLA’s catalogue, and other libraries that use Libraries Australia authorities would eventually follow suit. Maybe a little publicity around the change—after all, it’s being done for the right reasons.

2) Trove to merge the two identity records such that Jandamarra appears only once, that ‘Pigeon’ appears under the ‘Also known as’ list (so those who know him by that name are redirected accordingly), and that the sources of data encompass AIATSIS, Libraries Australia and the National Dictionary of Biography.

Such moves may seem small, but they would represent a sincere and concerted effort to decolonise the authority file. Cataloguers can, and should, restore the power to name to Indigenous communities, especially where colonial names have been used to describe Indigenous people and concepts. A name is not the cataloguer’s to take—it is the community’s to give.


  1. Olson, Hope A. (2001). The Power to Name: Representation in Library Catalogs. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 26(3), 639-668. doi: 10.1086/495624 
  2. Pedersen, Howard (1990). Jandamarra (1870–1897), Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/jandamarra-8822/text15475 Accessed 20 May 2018. 
  3. For more on the cultural sensitivities around Indigenous subject headings, see Kam, D. V. (2007). Subject Headings for Aboriginals: The Power of Naming. Art Documentation: Bulletin of the Art Libraries Society Of North America, 26(2), 18-22. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/adx.26.2.27949465 
  4. See also Frank Exner, Little Bear’s excellent treatise on Native American names in the world’s authority files: Exner, Frank, Little Bear (2008). North American Indian Personal Names in National Bibliographies. In Radical Cataloging: Essays from the Front. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co. 

Five things I learned at #coGLAM18… and a bit extra

I am the future. It’s me. #coGLAM18

Last Sunday I went on an expedition to Sydney for Rob Thomson’s annual NSW library technicians’ unconference extravaganza. This year was an inclusive affair, with the title of CoGLAMeration attracting participants from across the industries. I learned SO much and had a great time, even if I needed the Monday off to recover from all that networking. I may also have volunteered to catalogue a capsule hotel! I know I learned way more than five things, so here are a few selections. (They are metadata-heavy, because that’s how I roll.)

We are already doing the thing! Upon announcing the first curated session, Rob also invited attendees, if they so chose, to a breakout session either on ‘cataloguing’ or ‘critical librarianship’. These are basically my favourite things in the world to talk about, so I asked if we could combine them, to which Rob responded (I paraphrase) ‘of course you can! it’s an unconference! do what you want!’ I therefore became the unexpected and slightly unwilling leader of a combined breakout session, which about 10 people attended. Fortunately everyone was enthused and ready to chat, starting with ‘so what is critical librarianship exactly?’

I reckon just about everyone in that session was already a critical librarianship practitioner—they just mightn’t have known it had a name. It was gratifying, and a little humbling, to realise that my fellow attendees didn’t need me to teach them how to ask ‘why?’. They were already asking the right questions, coming up with ways to improve their catalogue (most of which they couldn’t implement due to policy, budget or skillset, on which more later) and striving to provide the best library experience possible. Of course they were. They were seasoned library experts. I was the ring-in fresh out of library school, who still had so much to learn. They were all very nice to me, though. (Special thanks to Bonnie who helped steer conversations and provided great insights!)

Good metadata is another facet of the class war. The #critlib/#critcat 2x combo breakout session was populated mostly by school librarians, who expressed some frustration with the limited resources at their disposal. Never having worked in a school library, their stories were a huge learning experience for me. They spoke of the divide between top private schools, who can afford to subscribe directly to Libraries Australia or WorldCat, or to otherwise pay for top-quality metadata; and all the other schools, which generally use SCIS and can’t always afford a skilled library tech to improve their catalogue. (NB: I have never used SCIS and so cannot pass judgement on it.)

While I’m used to cataloguing with limited resources (I’ve never used WebDewey or ClassWeb and have grown used to using FreeLCSH), I’ve always had the luxury of a) access to Libraries Australia b) the time and space to create good metadata and c) the policy and technical abilities to modify others’ data so it meets my library’s needs. The idea that metadata is not created equal was a bombshell. Every library should have access to the right metadata—and be able to make it the right metadata for them. Seize the means of metadata production! Cataloguers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your sanity!

Next year!

Cataloguers need to sell themselves. Not necessarily monetarily, unless they’re into that kind of thing, but there’s a definite need for metadata workers to take a more active role in the promotion of our work. Look, I’ll be the first to admit I don’t love having to do this. I am an introvert. I find people really hard. I like being able to work quietly and efficiently without too much interaction with other people. I also recently took a job as a reference librarian for exactly these reasons—because I know I need to get better at this stuff, but also because reference and cataloguing are two sides of the same coin. Getting first-hande experience of patrons’ reference and information needs will help me build a better catalogue. It will also help me extol the virtues of good metadata to the people in charge, because I’ll be able to better vocalise where it’s needed.

I appear to have become something of a cataloguing and metadata evangelist, and it’s certainly not something I ever thought I’d be doing. Honestly, though, it comes down to spotting a need. We’re not selling metadata as much as we need to. Our skills are decreasingly valued, decreasingly taught and decreasingly visible. Good metadata is not valued for its own sake. It’s up to us cataloguers to prove our worth. Just… give us a cuppa first.

I specialise in the art of good fortune, and also metadata. The breakout session touched on the issue of generalisation versus specialisation within LIS, as many participants were solo librarians and needed to be able to do everything. I was held up as an example of a specialist, and to the extent I know anything about metadata I suppose I am, but it got me thinking later on about how that came to be. What factors enabled me to specialise? Why am I afforded this luxury, while others are not?

I am, of course, a product of demographic fortune. Young, white, well-educated women have an easier road in this sector. But two things stood out. Firstly, that I was born and raised in a city with a comparative abundance of libraries. LIS punches well above its weight here, with the public, private and higher education sectors all still employing librarians. It’s meant I’ve had a plethora of library jobs to choose from, and I could afford to do what I love. Secondly, I have a single-minded focus on my career goals. I wanted to be a librarian. I now am! I wanted to catalogue for a living. I now am (and soon will be doing so full-time)! I wanted to work at a particular institution. I now am!!! These things happened because I worked hard, but also because other people took a chance on me, and because I got very, very lucky.

My tweetstream brings all the threads to the yard. Speaking of wheels of fortune, Bonnie’s fabulous talk ‘Critical making: rethinking access and engagement in GLAM’, prompted a delightful exchange on my twitter feed. At one point, Bonnie spoke of using the online screenprinting company Spoonflower to produce the fabrics used in her amazing #redactionart and #digitisethedawn dresses, the latter of which she wore to the event. (Love a dress that comes with its own hashtag!) This prompted American metadata magician Scotty Carlson to muse:

Scotty designed the ‘No Metadata No Future’ t-shirt I was wearing to #coGLAM18 (if you want one, he has a teepublic shop!). His tweet tied in beautifully with earlier conversations around cataloguing outreach, the subversive nature of textiles and the power of statement dressing. Also pockets. Such wondrous fabric might even convince me to learn to sew.

Enjoy all your successes, no matter how small. This is a sneaky sixth thing because it was a lesson I really needed to hear. I was thrilled to finally meet Bonnie in person and say ‘you’re awesome!’, and in return she bestowed upon me a large quantity of wisdom. One of these things was a reminder that success comes in all sizes: some earth-shattering, some minuscule. Not everything has to be a sector-changing event for it to be considered a success. Even getting people to think critically about Dewey, or wonder about critlib, for the first time, for even a second—these are all successes! These are all wins.

I have long expressed my frustration about the glacial pace of progress in LIS. I dislike the fact I can’t achieve three revolutions before breakfast. But Bonnie graciously reminded me that success doesn’t have to be big. It’s okay to take the long view, but don’t lose sight of the small victories.

🙂

Associate, collocate, disambiguate, infuriate

Regular followers of my twitter account will know that I regularly complain about uniform titles. I know that’s not an RDA-approved term, but I don’t currently have the luxury of a wholly RDA-approved catalogue, and time passes particularly slowly in the tech services department. It’s also the term currently used for the 130 and 240 MARC fields, a format to which we remain shackled, and in which someone will probably write my eulogy.

In my view, uniform titles are some of the most misunderstood and misused fields in cataloguing. I say this not to look down on those who remain baffled (for I was myself baffled right up until last week) but because they don’t really serve the purpose for which they were intended. I’ve seen so many records with uniform titles they didn’t need, inserted by cataloguers who were no doubt simply following someone’s rules.

According to the 2005 revision of AACR2, a uniform title had the following functions:

Uniform title. 1. The particular title by which a work is to be identified for cataloguing purposes. 2. The particular title used to distinguish the heading for a work from the heading for a different work. 3. A conventional collective title used to collocate publications of an author, composer, or corporate body containing several works or extracts, etc., from several works (e.g., complete works, several works in a particular literary or musical form).1

In other words: a cataloguer might choose, create, or otherwise determine a particular title to associate with a given work; to disambiguate from other works of the same name; and to collocate works with different names within a title index. It’s a form of authority control; titles and author/title combinations are often given authority records of their own. (Hence the tie-in to this month’s GLAM Blog Club theme, ‘control’.)

Association, disambiguation, collocation: that’s a lot to ask of one field, and I can grudgingly accept that most of it made sense within a book or card catalogue. Remember, this refers not to collocation of books on a shelf (that’s what classification schemes are for) but for collocation of entries within a catalogue. Until quite recently, a catalogue was simply a collection of indexes: title, author, subject. Librarians wanted these entries arranged in a particular order, and created filing rules to ensure this order was adhered to.

During the development of MARC in the 1960s (led by the incredible Henriette Avram), a format originally designed to automate the production of catalogue cards, the layout of a MARC record mirrored the layout of an AACR-compliant catalogue card.2 The first paragraph, mapped to the 1XX set of tags, included the main entry—an author, corporate body or meeting, but also uniform titles where the work in question had no author, but another, different, title proper. The second paragraph featured the title proper and edition statements, and were recorded in the 2XX set of tags. Because a uniform title could conceivably end up in multiple places on a catalogue card, depending on whether there was an author attached, the developers opted to create two fields.

(In the first example, it’s considered advantageous to have all the Bibles entered directly under title, collocated in the title index, then disambiguated by language, version, year [in that order]. In the second example, we already have an author, but the item in hand has a different title to that by which it is more commonly known.)

130 1# $a Bible. $l English. $s New Revised Standard. $f 2003 
245 14 The new interpreter's study Bible : $b New Revised Standard version 
       with the Apocrypha. 

-------------------

100 1# $a Xenophon $e author.
240 10 $a Hellenica. $l English.
245 12 $a A history of my times / $c Xenophon ; translated by Rex Warner.

Apropos of nothing, this also explains how the title statement, arguably the best-known MARC tag, was assigned the odd number 245:

To represent the second paragraph of the catalog card (title and edition), the MARC developers logically chose the 200 range of tag numbers. Because they had reached 130 in the first paragraph, and were trying to proceed by tens, the first choice for the title tag was 240. Continuing by tens, the 250 for edition and 260 for publication information were also defined. Law librarians, however, asked where the uniform filing title, which they used for filing, should be placed. Since uniform title preceded title proper on catalog cards, it seemed logical to maintain this arrangement in the MARC record, so the 240 was reassigned for uniform title, and the 245 tag (halfway between the filing title and the edition) was created for the title proper.3

Law librarians: warping MARC logic since 1965.

Anyway, back to titles. When I was learning to catalogue, I struggled with the reasoning behind uniform titles, as I had no concept of a title index to base them on. Never having used a card catalogue in my life, I saw no reason why anyone would use a browse function instead of a keyword search. (I stand by this view.) Even the idea of collocation doesn’t work in a keyword-based OPAC setting, because I can dive straight to the record I want, with no reason (or, indeed, ability) to view records on either side in any index. Viewing a list of records in browse mode is so… old-fashioned. (Besides, if there is no reason to do this, there is also no reason to create uniquely identifying main entry headings… (taps noggin))

The main cause of my frequent twitter complaints about uniform titles are the preponderance of unnecessary titles in our catalogue, specifically those relating to online resources. Because MARC-based catalogues entail a flat record structure, we can’t (yet) nest different expressions of a work, to use RDA parlance, within a work-level authority record. Instead we’re stuck with one record per manifestation, whose titles we have to disambiguate. Because so many resources exist in both print and online versions, and often a library has access to both, the obvious differentiating factor is whether it’s online or not. Therefore a resource might be titled: 130 1# $a Economist (Online) to distinguish it from the print version.

The problem is when cataloguers take this to mean that every online resource must be so titled, even when it has no print equivalent. This has the effect of 1) cluttering the catalogue with unnecessary uniform titles and 2) furthering the antiquated narrative that print resources are the norm, and online is the exception. There’s no point in creating 130 1# $a Digital humanities quarterly (Online) if it has only ever existed in an online format.

Associate, collocate, disambiguate, infuriate! (sigh)

Tell you what, I can’t wait for my wholly RDA-compliant, IFLA-LRM-based, fully FRBR-ised catalogue of the future (now with 25% more acronyms!). I look forward to being able to bring expressions together under a work-level authority, and have this tree display intuitively in an OPAC. I look forward to not having to use titles as disambiguators for indexing purposes. I look forward to relinquishing some of my control over the form and display of titles within a catalogue.4

I look forward to dispensing with uniform titles, for they have well and truly reached their use-by date.


  1. As reproduced in the RDA Toolkit, accessed 29 April 2018. 
  2. For more on this fascinating topic, see Jo Calk & Bob Persing (2000). From Catalog Card to MARC, The Serials Librarian, 38:3-4, 349-355. DOI: 10.1300/J123v38n03_20 
  3. Ibid, p. 351. 
  4. For more on the history of uniform titles, see Jean Weihs & Lynne C. Howarth (2008). Uniform Titles From AACR to RDA, Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 46:4, 362-384, DOI: 10.1080/01639370802322853 

Classifying works on Indigenous Australian languages in DDC, UDC, LCC and Bliss

Wiradjuri to English dictionary

It’s no secret that the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) is racist, sexist, classist and every other -ist under the sun. I can’t truly say it’s of its time, because it’s still in wide use. Libraries around the world use DDC as their main classification system for physical materials. Aren’t we supposed to be better than that?

As a former local history librarian, our collecting remit naturally included materials by, for and about the various Aboriginal nations on whose land our city was built. In particular, my former workplace has a modest collection of works about local Aboriginal languages, both in-language and in English. Unfortunately they are a DDC library, and so these materials are all classified with the same call number. In a bigger library with materials on many different Indigenous languages, this would render the call number virtually useless.

In the interests of advocating for a better solution (not just for me personally but for other DDC libraries), I thought it might be interesting to briefly compare and contrast how Indigenous Australian languages are treated by four widely used general classification systems Dewey Decimal (DDC), Universal Decimal (UDC), Library of Congress (LCC) and Bliss. (Okay, so Bliss isn’t as widely used, but it deserves some attention.)

DDC: 499.15 (source: DDC 22, hardcopy)
– Treated as an afterthought. After devoting the majority of the 400s and Table 4 to Romance languages, the rest of the world is unceremoniously shoved in the 490s at the end of the schedule. The entirety of Indigenous Australian languages are accorded /9915 in Table 4. Clearly inadequate to describe the language diversity of an entire continent

UDC: 811.72 (source)
– UDC is broadly based on DDC but with a few major structural changes; here, languages and literature are co-located, and the 4XX schedule is not used.
– ‘Australian languages’ more clearly integrated into Table 1c, but again there is no subdivision or faceting for any individual regions or languages

LCC: PL7001-7101 (source, p. 324)
– PL LANGUAGES OF EASTERN ASIA, AFRICA, OCEANIA > Languages of Oceania > Austronesian, Papuan, and Australian languages > Australian languages
– This schedule is a bit better thought out, and less squashed. Also specifically lists about three dozen individual languages (though not my local ones, sigh)
– Individual languages are cuttered, not classified by any real measure—still essentially lumping all Australian languages together as one entity, which taxonomically isn’t much better than DDC / UDC, but if you needed to create a local cutter for a particular language that wouldn’t be difficult

Bliss: XJE (source, p. 43)
– X classification is still in draft (after all these years) so I will give the authors a pass on this, but just FYI: ‘Austronesian languages’ ≠ ‘Australian languages’. The former refers to a language family roughly around the Mekong Delta.
– Astonishingly—and I was really not expecting to see this in Bliss, of all places—the authors have actually properly classified individual languages! It’s a bit piecemeal, to be sure: initially a prefixing / suffixing divide, then the prefixed ones by multiple, dual or non-classifying (in a linguistic sense), followed by suffixing languages by geographic region. It is… idiosyncratic, but it’s a damn sight better than anything the other three came up with. I appreciate that this was given serious thought

In summary, it looks like Bliss is your best bet for classifying materials related to Aboriginal Australian languages. But if you’re in a position to create a local, culturally appropriate classification system (as is being done up in Galiwin’ku), totally go for it!

Bringing a balance to cataloguing

Today I learned that the old-fashioned cataloguer is not, in fact, extinct. You know the one: the process-driven, rules-focused, slavish adherent to The Done Thing who can’t handle change and can’t see the forest for the trees. I thought they were all gone. Turns out they’re still out there.

At first I was disappointed to find this out, as I’ve made a point lately of trying to smash these stereotypes about cataloguers. But then I remembered people I’ve met who have the opposite problem: people who don’t care enough, who see no value in structured, tidy metadata, who are, in fact, so user-focused that they forget what their users might actually want.

I’d like to think the optimal position is somewhere in the middle. I like a cataloguing rule as much as anyone, but I also like breaking them if it results in a better user experience, or if the rule doesn’t result in a net gain for staff. There is a balance to be found in cataloguing, a compromise between what the rules want and what a user wants. Pragmatic cataloguing, if you will. It’s entirely possible to create beautiful, 100% RDA-compliant MARC records that are also functionally useless. It’s also possible to break almost every rule in the RDA Toolkit and yet present a functional, accessible, meaningful catalogue. I’ll pick the latter every time.

These needs must also be balanced with what your ILS and OPAC are capable of. I recently discovered a former OPAC didn’t display 545 (Biographical or Historical Data) fields, which I had used in MARC records for archival and manuscript collections. I was extremely annoyed by the failure of our OPAC to do this, but I was also annoyed at myself for not discovering it sooner, and not habitually looking at the records I create from the user’s perspective. I resolved instead to use a field the OPAC did display, like a 500 or 520, so that the information would be accessible to the user. Yes, it’s breaking a rule, and I would rather not have to compensate for an OPAC’s failings, but I’ll do it if I need to.

Cataloguing rules still have their place, but I feel it’s important to take a pragmatic approach to metadata creation. The rules are a guide only. Do what you feel is best for your users, and bring a little balance into the world. 🙂

How to catalogue a beer can

Stout is an optimal accompaniment to cataloguing. (Photograph by the author)

Documentary heritage is far more than just books. Working in a local history library, I come across a wide variety of items that help record the history and culture of my town. We tend not to collect realia (the local museum takes care of that) but occasionally some items are too good to pass up. Like a selection of beer cans and beer bottles! Craft breweries have really taken off here over the last few years, and there’s no better way to record that heritage than with the cans and bottles themselves.

No taxpayer money was spent on our beer collection—I personally drank every drop from these cans and bottles in order to catalogue them. How I suffer for my art.

This guide shares a few similarities with my recent post on cataloguing board games. Again, I’m assuming a basic familiarity with MARC, RDA, and the principles of cataloguing. This is also not an exhaustive, official, top-cataloguing-body-sanctioned guide. It’s simply how I would do it, and your mileage may vary. I hope you find it useful!

Fixed fields

For my collection of beer cans, I decided not to create a MARC record for each individual can in the interests of time and usability. So I’ll need a collection-level record for this group of objects that I, the cataloguer, have brought together. I’ve chosen to create one record for each brewery. Leader/07 is ‘r’ for realia (or ‘Three-dimensional artifact or naturally occurring object’ if you want to get personal) and Leader/08 is ‘c’ for collection. If I decided to create item-level records instead, I would use the far more common ‘m’ for monograph/item.

The 008 field uses the Visual Materials specifications. The important field here is 008/33 Type of Visual Material, which again is ‘r’ for realia. Code the date, government publication, etc fields as appropriate. Most other fields will either be blank or ‘n’ for not applicable. You can code 008/22 Target Audience as ‘e’ for Adult if you want a laugh, but I don’t think simply viewing an empty beer can is innately harmful to children, so feel free to leave that one blank if you wish.

Access points and title

Generally-speaking, collection-level records don’t come with a ready-made title, so be prepared to invent one. Something along the lines of ‘[brewery name] can and bottle collection’ is appropriate.

I thought long and hard about whether to use the brewery as a 110 or 710 (i.e. main or added entry), considering the collection is made up for cataloguing convenience. In the end, I figured the brewery is responsible for both the content of the resource (the beer) and its manifestation as a physical object (the can), so I decided to give the brewery the 110 and use the relator term $e creator (because $e manufacturer wasn’t quite right). There’s probably something in the RDA Toolkit about this, but I don’t have access to it so I didn’t read it! If you feel a 710 would be more appropriate, or if you want to slide into my Twitter DMs and tell me I’m totally wrong about access points, go right ahead 🙂 NB: This does not negate the need for a suitably descriptive collection title.

If using item-level records, put the beer’s name (if it has one) in 245 $a and the variety in 245 $b, as in 245 $a Forty acres : $b pale ale. If the beer doesn’t have a specific name, put the variety in 245 $a. This is another reason to use the brewery as the main entry, as the authorised access point will then include the brewery: $a Frogstomp Brewers. $t Imperial stout.

Optionally, you could create a 490/830 series entry, if you expect to have multiple collections of this type and feel it would be useful to bring them all together. Suggestions include ‘[library name] beer can and bottle collection’ or ‘Breweries of [place] realia collection’.

Descriptive cataloguing

This is where the fun happens! You’ll want to be as descriptive and detailed as possible, given that these beer cans and bottles may well be unique to your library.

Start off by describing the cans in a 300: how many you have, what they look like, and how big they are. For example: $a [number] cans : $b various colours, $c 7 cm diameter x 13 cm.

While I am usually the sort of cataloguer who hates using 500 General Note fields, for special collections like these 500s are where it’s at. All the interesting little details will go here: things like additional can or bottle text (that isn’t clearly a title or variety), logos, motifs or other graphic design elements, and/or a short blurb about the collection itself.

Record the beers’ titles and varieties in a 505 Contents Note, like a table of contents. If it’s useful, consider including the colour or other identifying detail of the can or bottle in square brackets (to clarify that this information is not derived from transcribing the can itself).

As mentioned above, the brewery produces both the beer and the cans, so record details of manufacture in 264 #3, much like you would the publisher of a book.

If I were feeling cheeky, I might consider a 541 Immediate Source of Acquisition Note, if only so I could record 541 0# $a Cataloguer's fridge $c donated privately after responsible drinking. (Probably a good idea to keep in-jokes of this kind for your local system, not the union catalogue.)

Use the 336 Content Type / 337 Media Type / 338 Carrier Type combo of ‘three-dimensional form’ / ‘unmediated’ / ‘object’, respectively, and a 043 geographic indicator if appropriate.

Subject indexing

You’ll almost certainly be including one or both of the topical terms Beer bottles and Beer cans. For these, you’ll need to include the form subdivision $v Specimens at the end of the string. Geographic subdivision is optional.
For example: 650 #0 $a Beer cans [$z Queensland $z Townsville] $v Specimens.
I would also recommend Breweries and Beer industry as a catch all, with geographic subdivision recommended. (I’m including both with an eye to broadening our collection to include distilleries of various kinds, where it would be helpful to disambiguate, say, Distilleries and Gin industry. Feel free to leave out the industry heading if you don’t feel it’s relevant to your needs.)

I really wanted to use a genre heading of some kind. Fortunately Getty’s Art and Architecture Thesaurus provides the terms Aluminum cans and Bottles. Sadly there is no narrower ‘beer bottle’ term (for a usage example, see this item from the Scott Polar Research Institute).

Examples

NB: these are fictional entities and collections, do not search the ANBD, do not pass go, do not collect $200

Collection-level record

000 01078nrc a2200265 i 4500
008 171003s2017    neannn e          rneng d
040 ## $a ABCD $b eng $e rda
043 ## $a u-at-ne
110 2# $a Three Cheers Brewing Company $e creator
245 10 $a Three Cheers Brewing Co can collection.
264 #3 $a Gosford, N.S.W. : $b Three Cheers Brewing Company, $c 2017.
300 ## $a 3 aluminium cans : $b chiefly silver with coloured elements ; 
       $c cylindrical, 7 cm diameter x 13 cm each.
336 ## $a three-dimensional form $b tdf $2 rdacontent
337 ## $a unmediated $b u $2 rdamedia
338 ## $a object $b nr $2 rdacarrier
490 1# $a Breweries of the Central Coast realia collection.
500 ## $a Title devised by cataloguer.
500 ## $a Collection of empty beer cans from Gosford-based brewery 
          Three Cheers.
500 ## $a "Proudly brewed in Gosford"--can.
505 0# $a Forty acres : pale ale [red can] -- 
          The penguin : cool lager [blue can] -- 
          Riptide : IPA [green can].
541 0# $a Cataloguer's fridge 
       $c donated privately after responsible drinking.
650 #0 $a Beer industry $z New South Wales $z Central Coast
650 #0 $a Breweries $z New South Wales $z Central Coast
650 #0 $a Beer cans $v Specimens.
655 #7 $a Aluminum cans. $2 aat
830 #0 $a Breweries of the Central Coast realia collection.

Item-level record

000 01078nrm a2200265 i 4500
008 171003s2017    neannn e          rneng d
040 ## $a ABCD $b eng $e rda
043 ## $a u-at-ne
110 2# $a Frogstomp Brewers $e creator
245 10 $a Imperial stout / $c Frogstomp Brewers.
264 #3 $a Gosford, N.S.W. : $b Frogstomp Brewers, $c 2017.
300 ## $a 1 glass bottle : $b brown with purple label and grey motifs ; 
       $c cylindrical, 6 cm diameter x 23 cm.
336 ## $a three-dimensional form $b tdf $2 rdacontent
337 ## $a unmediated $b u $2 rdamedia
338 ## $a object $b nr $2 rdacarrier
490 1# $a Breweries of the Central Coast realia collection.
500 ## $a From a collection of empty beer bottles from Gosford-based brewery 
          Frogstomp Brewers.
500 ## $a "Darker than midnight"--label on neck of bottle.
541 0# $a Cataloguer's fridge 
       $c donated privately after responsible drinking.
650 #0 $a Beer industry $z New South Wales $z Central Coast
650 #0 $a Breweries $z New South Wales $z Central Coast
650 #0 $a Beer bottles $v Specimens.
655 #7 $a Bottles. $2 aat
830 #0 $a Breweries of the Central Coast realia collection.

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.

530.
11
ABBO

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
F53
2009

‘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
2010b

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