How catalogues work: editorial influence

There are several places in a catalogue where there’s a degree of what might best be called editorial influence. More bluntly put, it’s people (at some degree) making decisions about these things, and those decisions come with biases, both good and bad.

We also use algorithms and those algorithms have biases, and that’s a different topic (and one for next week.)

Words mean things

Those words we use as a controlled vocabulary come from somewhere. Humans came up with them – humans with all their virtues and all their biases.

Sometimes, terms were recommended by experts in the field, or people who knew a topic intimately. (Those aren’t always the same thing!) Both these perspectives bring history and assumptions with them that may or may not fit in with the larger collection or way terms are arranged.

Sometimes those terms were the current thing at a particular time, but we have come to new understanding (this is true for a lot of terms about gender identity and sexual orientation, and also for terms around neurodiversity, and around topics like disability.)

Sometimes topics are entirely new – as technology changes, we need to come up with words to help us find things about it. Do we catalogue it by the current tech device, or do we use a more general term, because the iPhone X of today is going to be barely in service in five years, and mostly forgotten in fifteen?

Sometimes we have to pick one – like my exaple in earlier posts, you sometimes need to pick an option so that you have one main subject heading, rather than making people search through

  • Cat
  • Cats
  • Felines
  • House cats
  • Kitties
  • Pussy cats
  • Fuzzballs who take over the bed

(Ok, that last one isn’t very likely.)

Some of these terms are more clinical than others. Some are questions of ‘do we make a standard of singular or plural for groups of things’? Some are ‘do we include a common nickname or slang term’. Some terms might be more historically dated than others.

Why does this matter, anyway?

This might not seem like a big deal with cats – but it can be a bigger deal if you’re talking about health information, or topics where there’s often a difference between experience of a thing and professional knowledge and training about a thing.

(Dealing with the legal system as a person dealing with a crime versus lawyers and judges. Dealing with a health issue as a person experiencing a problem versus being a doctor or nurse or health care professional.)

Sometimes terms can bias our assumptions about results. I mentioned the issue with the Library of Congress wanting to drop ‘illegal alien’ and use other terms, and being blocked by Congress (because of the role the Library of Congress plays with the actual work of Congress and the need to reflect the terms used in the laws.)

Individual library systems may decide to change their terms for these kinds of topics, to create a more welcoming and diverse environment in various ways and to reflect the needs of their particular communities.

That part, of course, is where it can get complicated. Libraries are aware that they’re serving the people who come into their building (many of whom do so fairly anonymously: librarians don’t know what you look at on the shelf, and many libraries deliberately do as little tracking of activities, loans, and other user-specific details as they can get away with, to preserve patron privacy.)

But libraries also serve people who never come into them. Not just the people who use online resources (libraries can see what’s getting used), but libraries should also be thinking about all the people who don’t use their services but could.

This is most easily illustrated by public libraries, since they serve a particular location. A library might notice that they’re seeing some types of people use the library regularly, and may be able to tell from demographic information about their area that they’re not seeing some groups as often as they should be.

Sometimes that’s about the words we choose. Whether people can see themselves reflected in the library and the catalogue and the displays.

Who decides subject headings for a work?

There is also a degree of editorial influence on who sets the subject headings.

Large publishers often suggest them – you may see this in the front of the book, on the copyright page. Below the legal information, there will be some suggested subject headings and call numbers. Libraries don’t have to listen to that, but in practice they often do unless there’s a specific reason to overrule them.

In other cases, it may be a central cataloger (in a large library system) or an individual librarian. It’s hard to tell!

Generally, no one in this process (except maybe someone on the publisher’s end) has read the whole book, and the subject headings will reflect the large topics in the book, not specific ones.

People will also pick how specific the subject headings are. For example, do you pick United States – History or Massachusetts – History? Or maybe Women – United States – History – 20th Century. (Here’s a page explaining some of the options from New York University.)

Next time, a brief look at algorithms and how they affect searches. (It’s a huge topic)

A day in the life of a librarian (October 2017)

Welcome to a periodic installment of ‘day in the life’ because I figure it might be interesting to see what this looks like for a librarian. This was not quite a typical day, but it gives a good range of the kinds of things I do.

(I’m not being very specific about the content of some of the things I’m working on, both because of patron privacy and because it’d fairly quickly directly identify where I work: instead, I’m talking about the kinds of questions and projects in more general terms.)

Image: A wooded path with autumn leaves, trees arching overhead. Text reads: Librarians: Day in the life (October 2017)

A not quite typical Friday

5:15am :

Get up, do minor morning computer things, put on swimsuit and nicer work clothes on top. Make sure to pack jewelry and a nicer hair thing. (Normally, I am a knit top, knit skirt, and hair in a braid person, but we have international visitors today.)

6:00am :

Leave my apartment, drive to the fitness club where I swim. Swim from 6:25 to 7, shower, change, drive to work.

7:35 am :

Get into the library. Our library and archives assistant is working in the archives this morning (so she can be up in the library this afternoon) so I turn on the lights, unlock the stacks, and pull the cart of materials for our visiting researcher out into my office.

For the next hour, I eat breakfast, work through my email, review some pages on the intranet that we need to tidy up, and read web pages about the people who are visiting this afternoon, so I can have a better sense of their possible questions. Forward one question to other people in our institution who can probably identify the thing being asked about much more quickly.

We’re light on questions today – only the one so far. Some days, I come in to find three or four waiting.

8:45 am:

Quick bathroom break, set up our webcam for monitoring our researcher and wait for her to show up at the front desk.

We have a very small staff (me, our archivist, and a shared assistant) and visiting researchers work at a desk in my office. It’s common for archives to have limits on how materials are handled (that’s another post!), and for people using materials to be observed the entire time.

Our IT folks helped us figure out a webcam option (pointed at the work table researchers use, but we can’t see things on their screen or notes, just that they’re not mishandling materials), which means I can take a quick break (bathroom, to help someone else, etc.) with a little advance warning now.

However, there are some other limitations: there’s some kinds of work I have a much harder time doing or focusing on, and I can’t do things involving extended phone calls or going back and forth to the stacks. And I can’t have music on, and there are definitely some tasks I find easier or more pleasant with music or a podcast.

This researcher has been here for two days already, so we don’t need to cover any of the basics like how things work.

9:00 am:

Waiting for researcher to appear. Get a reply to the ‘track down this particular thing’ with a list of other people to ask, send the question off to them. Answer another email re: the library newsletter. Open most recent newsletter so I can set up this month’s version (it goes out the last week of the month.)

My researcher days involve a certain amount of ‘can’t start more complex task because I am waiting for them to show up/come back from lunch, and don’t want to get into the middle of something’

9:35 : Go to plug in my phone for music, researcher arrives. Get her settled.

9:50 am:

Get a call from our front desk: there is a walk-in visitor who’d like to visit the library. Get assistant to Skype in from downstairs to keep an eye on researcher.

It turns out to be a book jobber who buys books from various sources including library discards and resells on Amazon/eBay (she is here with a friend doing something at our institution.) We discard very few books, but I give her a chance to look at our free shelf.

10:15 am:

Get back to my desk to actually do things. Take a while to settle down again. Answer an email about shifting one of our general email addresses over to Gmail (we are at the tail end of shifting from Outlook to Gmail: I am delighted by the switch, but will be glad when everything’s in one system.)

Get an answer back about the thing this morning, remove stuff not to be shared with person who asked (a “The person who developed this is very elderly, you might be able to reach her at this email” which is the kind of thing we don’t pass on to researchers unless actually necessary.)

11:15 am:

Work on newsletter. Pause to make an accessible version of a handout I want to include in the newsletter.

The newsletter is a simple Word doc that goes up in our staff intranet. There’s a section about something the Research Library offers (this month, I’m talking about getting research articles), an Archives thing (usually a recently digitised collection) and then information about the month’s book display and a list (with some brief annotations) of new titles in the library.

12:00 pm:

Have lunch with colleagues and researcher (outside on a picnic bench: we are making the most of the last of the decent weather.)

12:30 pm:

Back at my desk, doing a few small things before my 1:00 meeting.

1:00 pm:

Meeting and tour of campus with two people (the CEO and an architect) from overseas who are doing a tour of schools and organisations like ours around the world to see best practices for specific kinds of design. They were fantastic.

(Also fantastic: the foundation that gave them a multi-million dollar grant on the condition they did such a tour. Very smart. They were learning a lot from seeing how different places did things and what was working for them best.)

3:30 pm:

Dash back from the tour just in time to let my assistant go for the weekend (since she’d been the staff member in charge of our researcher.) Grab a bottle of fizzy water because that was a lot of walking. Catch up on email that came in while I was gone, try to finish the newsletter except for pulling the new books.

3:55 pm:

Discuss interesting reference puzzle with archivist. Put interesting puzzle on to-do list for Monday, because the amount I will get done before leaving is approximately 3 minutes and a lot of frustration. See researcher back out to the main door, do a few tiny things.

(As a note, the research on Monday involved about 90 minutes of diving into the actual process by which people made sculptures in the 1840s. Who knew?! We’ve got useful answers now, though.)

4:15 pm:

Head home, via my local pharmacy for a flu shot. Get back home around 5:30 (due to the flu shot: I normally get home around 5.) Make dinner, fall over, do brainless things for the rest of the evening.

Reference questions: why I love being a librarian

I adore the puzzle of helping someone find information that makes their life better. Also great is the chance to help someone learn skills that mean they can do it themselves. If that’s the thing that’s helpful. (Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes people just want the information, because they’re overwhelmed with other things in their life. It’s part of my job to figure that out, or figure out how to ask in a way that works out.)

Here’s how I got there.

Seek Knowledge, Find Wisdom: Research help for esoteric and eclectic topics. Consulting, courses, resource blog. Jenett Silver : http://seekknowledgefindwisdom.com

I’ve had two conversations this week about how much I love my day job.

(One with my mother, who’s back in my area helping a friend, and one with my boss, because it was my annual review today).

The reasons I love my day job are also the reasons I started Seek Knowledge, Find Wisdom.

My last library job, I didn’t get a lot of chances to answer reference questions – I was usually on shifts where we just didn’t get as many. I was also doing other library tasks that meant I got fewer through class liaison relationships or other interactions.

(Reference is the library term for “People ask us questions and we find sources that answer their question or get them information they need for their research.”)

I’d done a lot of it at my first library job, in a high school library. I helped people find books to read. I understood them balancing high-achieving academic expectations (and parents) and a need to do something else with their brains sometimes. (Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.)

I knew they had a lot riding on some projects and research – and more than that, they were great kids who cared about doing the project well, not just getting a good grade. And sometimes, there were kids who needed a place to spend some time that wasn’t with a teacher who’d grade them or a coach with expectations. Just librarians who’d say hi, and maybe suggest a book.

My current job reminded me how much I’d missed it. Immediately. 

I overlapped with my predecessor for a couple of weeks (she was retiring) so she could get me up to speed. The second day, she threw me an interesting and complicated research question to track down. It was a question about the sculptor of a particular famous bust (well, for values of famous: it was really well known in the 1800s, much less so now) and whether there were other copies, and what else we knew about it.

It was hard to figure out what to look for, about a topic I hadn’t done a lot with. Once I dug up some of the answers (which included asking her what info we already had about it, in filing cabinets I had only just learned about), I got to answer the question.

I had to figure out how to write the response, to hit the line between friendly and not too informal, to write like the skilled professional I am, but not be stuffy. A big part of being a reference librarian is figuring out how to present the information sometimes.

It took me a lot longer than it’d take me today.

For all that was overwhelming, I loved it. I knew then that this job was going to be hard work to learn all the subject material about the main topics we focus on that was new to me . But it was going to be so much fun.

I was right. 

I get to do things like that a lot. Pretty much every day, I get to answer a question from someone where I know it’s going to make their life better or mean something to them. I know how rare that is, too, so I really appreciate it.

A bunch of the questions I get are easier than that first one.

Do we have this book? Can we get this article? Can we help with this common question? What’re the recommended books about this topic we get all the time? (We have a list. And sometimes a handout.) Someone’s just discovered a famous person associated with our school, and has questions. (Enthusiastic fourth-graders – or high schoolers – are the best.)

Some questions are a little tedious to track down, a lot of searching through lists or being systematic about where we look for obscure things.

But some questions, we’re the only people who stand a chance of answering them. Or we’re the best chance. (There are other institutions that deal with our topic, but not that many, and most of them don’t have full-time reference help. At best, there’s someone doing it along with a couple of other roles.)

Those questions, I go home feeling great when I find an answer. Or even if I know we’ve looked everywhere and come up blank.

There are lots of other great reference librarians out there.

I know some of them. I know there’s a lot more.

But I’ve been around the Pagan community for a long time (and around the SF community, and around academics, and…) And I know that there aren’t enough. That people get frustrated or overwhelmed. Some people have had lousy experience with judgy library staff, or people who told them there was only one way to do research, and that way didn’t work for hem.

Then there’s the fact that the kinds of research skills that many of us learned in school don’t always work for things like religious or spiritual research – some tools work, but others need some adjustment or people need some additional ways to apply them or evaluate what they find.

Frankly, many of the things we learned about research in school don’t always work for medical or legal or business or internet privacy and security information, either, but that’s a whole other post. Or series of posts.

Not everyone’s got a great librarian handy where they live. (Or maybe you do, but you can’t always get to the library. Or you’ve got questions about topics you don’t want to bring up at your public library, for various reasons.)

I want to give you options. 

I love what I do. I love finding information for people. And not just finding information, but figuring out which sources are more available, or better for a particular goal. I think every bit of information is giving people that much more choice, that much more freedom. It’s not my job to tell you what to do. It’s my job to help you figure out the possibilities.

And that’s why I started Seek Knowledge, Find Wisdom. Reference help for esoteric and eclectic topics. It’s up to you whether that’s some Pagan or magical technique or concept or historical tidbit, or something for a fiction book you’re writing, or trying to figure out the best way to do research on a topic you want to learn about.

If I and my skills can help, I’d love the chance.