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In The Library Of Misshelved Books

Jan - 7 - 2007
Nicole C. Engard

I’m still reading The Long Tail – and hoping to finish it today since the next term starts tomorrow – no more reading for fun :( Last night before bed, I was reading the section that starts on page 156 titled In the Library of Misshelved Books. I was reading so many great things that I had to go get my post-its so I could mark these pages to mention to you all this morning.

While reading these pages I kept thinking back to David Weinberger’s keynote from KMWorld & Intranets 2006. Anderson talks a lot about the limitations of physical space when it comes to the long tail.

One of the most vexing problems with physical goods is that they force us into crude categorization and static taxonomies … That means that the windbreaker can be in the “Jackets” section or the “Sports” section, but not in the “Blue” or “Nylon” sections. Generally, this isn’t seen as a big problem, since most of those categories would be silly for most people … With the evolution of online retail, however, has come the revelation that being able to recategorize and rearrange products on the fly unlocks their real value.

Anderson goes on to show the limits of the Dewey Decimal System “which divides the world of knowledge into ten top-level categories” – only 10?? What were we thinking? This is where it reminded me of my summary of Weinberger’s keynote:

It's as if libraries were invented to keep ideas apart. Where do you put a book about the history of military cooking? You can't put it in all 3 places because of the rules of matter, books can only be in one place at one time.

Anderson talks about the Seattle Public Library re-construction and how architect Rem Koolhaas “faced the challenge of making stacks of books fit into a search-engine culture. There were a few pictures I found in the library’s photo slideshow that helped me see what Anderson was talking about (one, two, three). The only thing I noticed in these pictures that was different from other libraries I had been in was that the Dewey numbers are on the floor beside the shelves. The fact of the matter is:

Yet even within this commendably flexible system, [Koolhaas] obviously need to arrange the books in some order. Since it takes more than the turn of a century or two to change library culture, that order was our friend the Dewey Decimal System.

I’m not sure that library culture is 100% to blame for the limitations of our physical spaces, but I do see where Anderson is coming from. As a consumer, it’s important for us to be able to find what we’re looking for without having to ask for help. This brings us back to my post last week about the usability of our public libraries. Something has to change if we want people to find what they’re looking for.

It’s be belief that that something is going to have to be our catalogs. We can’t help that the laws of physics say that one book can only take up one space on a shelf – but we can help that our catalogs are only searchable by a few main categories – and even those aren’t helpful. Until I worked in a library I didn’t realize (and this may not be true of all systems) that a title search only searches for titles that start with the words you’re typing it!! So if I want to find books with HTML in the title I have to do a keyword search and sort through all of the garbage to find what I’m looking for. Why is there so much garbage? Because HTML could be in a link in the description of the book (ex: page.html) – not very helpful if I want a book on learning HTML.

When I develop a new database for work I always make it clear to my users that they can search anything they want – in any combination – and I do my absolute best to provide them with the tools to do just that. The same should be true for our catalogs – even though I already knew this – this book as really brought this truth home. It’s time for librarians to stand up and demand more – and if we’re not getting it we need to be out there making it – or helping those who are already making it.

Why should it take the “turn of a century or two” for us to change our culture? Why, when there are so many of us out there with the skills to make the change ourselves? I make this promise to you all – I’m not all talk – when I finish my MLIS I’m going to take the time to learn everything I can about the way we catalog and the way people want to use our catalogs – and then I’m going to find someone who wants my help. We can’t just all sit around and complain over and over – we need to be out there doing something about it – and that’s my goal – I’m going to DO something!

4 Responses so far.

  1. Regina Hart says:

    While classification assigns books to one Dewey number (as is necessary for physical collocation), don’t forget that books also receive subject headings. Any given book can possess a number of these, and I would suggest that searching in an OPAC via subject heading is more productive then shelf-browsing by classification. In the future, we will hopefully see faceted subject headings (see OCLC’s FAST project for more information). I believe this approach will make subject headings even more useful than they already are.

  2. Regina Hart says:

    While classification assigns books to one Dewey number (as is necessary for physical collocation), don’t forget that books also receive subject headings. Any given book can possess a number of these, and I would suggest that searching in an OPAC via subject heading is more productive then shelf-browsing by classification. In the future, we will hopefully see faceted subject headings (see OCLC’s FAST project for more information). I believe this approach will make subject headings even more useful than they already are.

  3. [...] fall I wrote about David Weinberger’s keynote at KMWorld. He mentioned that a lot of what he was talking about would be in his upcoming book – [...]

  4. [...] Weinberger did a talk at Google about Everything is Miscellaneous. It borrowed a bit from the keynote I heard last year at KMWorld – and is just as exciting. I highly recommend that you watch it if you have some time to [...]


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