Inexpensive information sources

I was talking to someone last weekend about Pagan topics, and money’s tight for her (like it is for a lot of people), so we got to talking a bit about the usefulness of the library.

Which leads me to wanting to talk about some tips for getting books inexpensively in general.

Skills and tools : Glasses and pen resting on sheets of printed music

​The library

Let’s start with the most obvious – libraries exist to share materials so we don’t all have to buy our own. This is a win for basically everyone involved. (Even for authors. If their work is popular, the library will probably buy more copies. A copy in the library means many more people may explore their work, and eventually start buying it.)

There are some complexities, though.

1) Library purchasing practices

Libraries do buy books on a huge range of topics (unless they’re a specialised library). However, many libraries rely on a fairly limited set of sources to figure out what they’re going to buy. Large library systems may have a structure to how items are selected (some libraries routinely order a certain number of copies of books in particular categories, like award winners or new books by a list of much-loved authors.) In many cases, libraries look at a number of review publications (designed for librarians) and make selections from that.

That is a great start, but there are a lot of limitations to it. One big one (for Pagans and other people with esoteric interests – and I’m using that word both in the magical and occult sense, and in the sense of ‘interests that are uncommon and not widely shared’) is that those review publications don’t include a wide range of books in the relevant field.

In a previous library job we got Booklist, one of the major publications for library reviews, and there’d be a handful of books a year on explicitly Pagan, magical, or divinatory topics that got reviewed. There’d be other relevant titles (myths, herbs, history, and so on.) There’s only so much room in the publication, after all. Mostly those would be books from mainstream publishing houses that publish an occasional Pagan title, and a select few from the bigger metaphysical and magical publishers like Llewellyn or Weiser.

2) Publishing methods

Libraries buy most of their books from traditional publishers. While there’s been a big rise in the number of self-published books (and I’m gearing up to do some of that!) it’s been a big challenge for libraries. That’s because the quality is so incredibly varied, and because people doing independent publishing methods often aren’t aware of what information libraries used to make their decisions, or what they need to consider adding.

(Take a look at the copyright page of a traditionally published book, and you’ll see a lot of information that looks a bit incomprehensible, but has cataloging information for libraries. When a book doesn’t have that, someone has to create it for the library to use, and that takes staff time and therefore money. When the publisher provides it, the library still has to do some steps, but most of the time-consuming part is already done, and they just have to make the changes for their particular standards.)

It’s also just plain hard for libraries to find out about small press or indie published books. It can take really significant time to search sites, figure out what formats are available, and so on. (And quality for format of printed books can also be poor, and not hold up to circulation.)

Because of this, many libraries have limited selections of indie books. Sometimes their collection development policy will be available online and explain how they handle this (for example, they may collect books from local authors, or set in or about the local area, but not others.)

3) Library networks and interlibrary loan

Getting books via the library network is often what happens with esoteric books (more specialised topics, in less active demand). You may need to plan ahead a bit, but if some library in the system has it, you can get it fairly quickly, check it out as many times as your library lets you renew it, and enjoy!

4) Requesting books

One great way to get books into public libraries is to see if the library has an option for requesting titles. You enter the information about the book (title, author, publisher) and usually there’s a way to comment on why you think it’s of interest. There’s usually a box where you can sign up to be the first person to check it out if the library buys the title.

Libraries review these requests, and if there’s money in the budget and the book seems like a good fit for the collection, they may well buy it. Picking books that have really solid reviews will help a lot.

A word about libraries and privacy

Privacy when using the library is a key part of library ethics, and librarians and library staff shouldn’t be sharing what you’ve checked out unless required to by law (which in many libraries involves a subpoena). Many libraries actually delete loan records once the item is returned specifically so they can’t be forced to share that information.

That said, if you use a local library where the staff know you, they can’t erase the part of their brain that’s about you checking out books on a particular topic. Library ethics says they shouldn’t talk about it, but sometimes people do gossip. If you have concerns about privacy, consider getting your esoteric topic books at a different library, or even a different library network.

Used books

If you’re trying to save money, used books are a great way to go. Amazon has extensive listings for used books, and ABE Books is now a subsidiary company of Amazon, but has independent listings. There are other used book seller online tools.

In general, for online sellers, look for ones who have a good rating (I look for 95% or better satisfaction), and whose shipping prices are reasonable. (A lot of places price the book very cheaply, but make it up in shipping charges. If the book is cheap enough, that’s not a big deal, but it can make it harder to make comparisons.)

Another option is to find a used bookstore – if you find a store that has the kinds of books you’re generally interested in, the owner or staff may be willing to keep a wish list for you, or to help you search for particular titles.

Some Pagan, esoteric, or metaphysical stores have used book sections, or Pagan community groups may have periodic book sales or other chances to swap materials.

If you get to know people in the community, you may also hear about chances to pick up books inexpensively – sometimes if people are moving, or their focus has shifted, they’ll be glad to part with books to someone who will appreciate them.

You can also occasionally find great things at library book sales. (Often these books are donations, not books from the library collection that have been withdrawn.)

Ebooks

If you can read ebooks, they can sometimes be very affordable options. I subscribe to a couple of announcement lists for ebooks on sale, and have a running list of titles that I’m interested in.

This is harder to do specifically with esoteric books (though if you have favourite authors, it can be worth getting on their newsletter or email announcement list) but for history, cookbooks, and some types of wellness or lifestyle books, it can be a great way to pick up books you’re interested in at a steep discount.

(It can also be hard on your bank account, so be cautious here!)

What not to do

If money’s tight, it can be easy to be tempted by pirated copies – PDFs of books that sometimes get circulated in various ways. There’s a couple of reasons not to do this.

First, it can destroy the market for an author’s future work getting published. (Which, if you like their work, is something you probably care about.) It can also damage the ability of publishers to put out new works. (Especially smaller publishers – and basically, every esoteric or magical book publisher is a small publisher, just for different definitions of small.)

Publishers rely on data about what’s selling (and how) to make decisions not just about an author’s books, but about other books on similar topics or similar approaches.

Second, it can open your computer up to viruses, malware, and other bad things. Not worth it!

And finally but most importantly, it’s just wrong. Authors work hard on their books. They may choose to share some material for free, but that choice needs to be up to them. They can benefit from library sales or giveaways, or other ways of sharing books that put them out in the world cheaply, without the utterly destructive effects of pirated books.

For the same reasons, don’t take copies from libraries and not bring them back. Libraries have limited resources, and in many cases, they can’t afford to replace copies that go missing (or not quickly). Bring your books back. If you’ve honestly lost a copy and can’t find it, talk to the library staff: they can suggest the best options.

How catalogues work: algorithms

The last part of how catalogues work is looking at algorithms.

( was not a computer science major. This is going to be the non-technical discussion.

Also, the two links I mention here are from 2016, and technology has moved on a bit, as technology does, but these are good illustrations of my specific points.

Catalogues: Wooden chest of old-fashioned catalogue cards

What is an algorithm?

A good definition is that an algorithm is a step by step way of doing this. This video from the University of Washington notes that sorting your laundry is an algorithm (is it a white shirt? This pile, these things get washed together. Is it a red shirt? That goes in a different pile. Does it need special treatment? Follow these steps.) The video’s a great overview of the topic in a couple of minutes.

Computers are extremely fast at doing this kind of step, but how successful the algorithm is depends on what the people programming the algorithm have told it to do.

An important digression

The fact that human beings design these lists is a particularly business-centered reason why diversity in technology (and in companies in general) is such a big deal – people who have different backgrounds, life experiences, or ways of looking at the world are going to think about different things in the design process,. When that’s managed well, a diverse group will likely come up with algorithms and other programming that work much better for a wider range of people.

(An example here – though it is a legitimately sort of complicated record keeping – is that the Apple Health app didn’t include any menstrual cycle tracking for a long time, and it’s still much more rudimentary than some other apps. If your body does things outside of the expected timeframe, you have fewer options.)

What does this mean for catalogues?

Some of the things a catalogue uses an algorithm for are pretty straightforward. Sorting a list by the last name of the author, or the title of the work, or the year it was published is pretty simple, so long as the data is consistent.

What data might be inconsistent? An example would be if the date formats swap between United States standard dating (Month-Day-Year) and the Day-Month-Year common in parts of Europe, your results are going to be confusing. Good data is essential to sorting and organising your catalogue.

(This is why I am spending my summer cleaning up a lot of data in our catalogue at work. This week, this has meant hours of moving identifying file numbers from the format area, where they shouldn’t be anyway, to a different area, and making sure the correct format is actually entered.

We can automate some kinds of data changes, but this one requires moving data into a different field, and we don’t have an easy way to do that automatically.)

Where it gets complicated

However, once we get into things where there is a bit more of a value judgement.

What kinds of images should we get if we search on “beautiful”?

One of the examples that has stuck with me the most was something illustrated in a keynote Dr. Safiya Noble illustrated in the keynote she gave at the LibTech conference in 2016 (LibTech is my favourite library conference for a reason) It’s worth noting this was given in March of 2016, and she talks about the manipulation of algorithms and the effect on elections….

In her keynote, she did an illustration where she did a search on “Beautiful” and at that time the algorithm turned up a lot of landscapes (that were really gorgeous). But if you searched on ‘beautiful woman’, you turned up white women (and white women of a particular kind when it came to facial structure, hair, body size, and a bunch of other characteristics’. That’s what happens when human programming goes awry, or is not sufficiently questioned.

And if you tried searches like “black girls”, you got a whole different set of results, and much more mixed ones in terms of positive and negative.

So, when your library catalogue tells you you can sort by ‘relevance’ or gives you options for ‘similar topics’, there are probably a lot of different things at play. Usually, there’s software decisions in there somewhere. Some of these may be accessible to the library staff, others may be decided by the software programmers, and the librarians may have no idea how it works.

(In our new catalogue, we can choose which things to weight more – so for example, we could choose to weight phrases in the abstract (where we put a summary of the content) more than the title, or less than the title (depending on what decided). We haven’t played around with this much yet, but it’s a way to help refine options for people.)

Even more complicated

Large companies – Google, Amazon, Facebook, any of the big ones – also look at your reactions to what you click on, where you spend time, what you click away from and when (and where you go to) – because it helps them create vast maps of data they can use. Sometimes this is really handy (like when Amazon’s list of also-boughts shows you a book you love and you had no idea it existed, or Spotify’s algorithm suggests music you really like.)

Sometimes it’s a lot creepier and more awful. There’s a famous story, when it comes to algorithms, of Target figuring out a teenager was pregnant based on other purchases before her father found out about it, based entirely on purchases that were not specifically intended for a baby, but rather things like body lotion, a larger purse, two common supplements, and a bright blue rug.

And of course, it gets even scarier if we start talking about government agencies making decisions about who can get visas, fly, or do many other kinds of things, based on algorithms and data management decisions that are obscured to the end user of the information.

What you should take away from this

Trusting a computer on fairly simple sorts (like title or author or date) is fine – but if the computer is suggesting related items, and you care about getting a wider range of options, or you are concerned about implicit bias in how a system designed by unknown people might work, that’s a good time to do some more digging, or to try a variety of searches with specific parameters so that you get a sense of what is there, what’s recommended, and maybe what isn’t.

Simply knowing more about algorithms will also give you a lot more choices and awareness.

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)

How catalogues work: figuring out search terms

One key step in using catalogues is figuring out search terms.

Catalogues: Wooden chest of old-fashioned catalogue cards

What kinds of searches can you do?

In most electronic catalogues you can search by all sorts of things.

Many libraries have gone to the single search box (popularised by Google). Technically, this is called a keyword search, and it usually searches all the text in the record.

Pro: You don’t need to guess which field a given thing might be in, and searching on things that aren’t subject headings but show up in the title or blurb will still come up.

Con: You can get a lot of false results that don’t actually have what you want, especially if you’re searching for commonly used words.

If you end up with all sorts of results that don’t help you, two things can help. First, there’s probably an option somewhere on that first search screen that says something like ‘advanced search’. Second, once you do a search, you may be presented with some options to help you filter the results.

Advanced search

Depending on the catalog, you will usually see a variety of options that let you limit your search in different ways. Common ones include:

  • Searching just the author, subject, or title fields.
  • Searching a range of years.
  • Limiting the results to a particular format, location (for systems with multiple locations), or sometimes specific collections (like juvenile books), or languages.

You may need to do a little digging in the help information (likely also linked from the search form) to understand your options in detail.

Limiting results

It’s sometimes (okay, often) a lot easier to start with a keyword search and then limit your results in different ways.

In my library’s catalog, I can limit by the following, to give you an example:

  • Location (so I can find books in my local library)
  • Availability (books I can get right now, either in a library or online)
  • Whether the search term is found in the title or subject
  • Format (book, ebook, audiobook, etc.)
  • What collections it is in (this distinguishes library and children or adult)
  • Places the book takes place

And then it shows me related searches, including established subject terms, and some additional suggestions.

Understanding subject headings

In practical terms, you are probably not going to do what librarians do to learn about subject headings.

(For the curious, this involves most library schools require a class in cataloging that includes a lot of the specifics. Then you go out into the world and spend a lot of time starting at instructions and hoping you’re doing it right, punctuated by asking other people if you are.)

Individual libraries also have their own policies – the library I work at has set up a list of keywords instead of official subject headings, because a lot of our needs aren’t represented in them (or are using terms that aren’t a great fit for us – they’re dated, they draw from specialities that aren’t the terms the people who use us will use, or both!)

As a library catalog user, my best tip is for you to look for hints about what kinds of terms will work. Fortunately, these are pretty straightforward

1) Try searches

One of the best tips for getting your bearings in a new catalogue (by which I mean one that’s new to you) is to try some searches of items you’re pretty sure are in there, and that are reasonably similar for other items you want to look for.

Ideally, these will be the same subject (generally speaking) as the items you want, but if you’re not sure about that, at least try for the same topic area – if you want to do searches about religious information, try other religious titles or topics. If you’re looking for history, try other historical things. And so on.

The goal here is to do a few searches and see what comes up and how the search terms work.

2) Linked subjects

In many library catalogs, you have the option to click on the subject headings to find other items with that subject heading. This can be tremendously helpful once you find one book that’s what you want. (Of course, it’s finding that first thing that can be tricky!)

You may want to add several books to a wish list or cart (whatever the catalog uses) or bookmark them before you go too far astray in your searches, so you can get back to your starting point again easily.

If you’re having trouble with searches, try simpler ones – for example, if you’re trying to search an entire title, try

3) Look for known books or topics that should be in the collection.

For example, for modern Pagan materials, I often suggest people try Scott Cunningham’s Wicca for the Solitary Practitioner, or Starhawk’s Spiral Dance. Both are commonly held by most moderate to large library systems, and they’ll give you a starting place for what terms are being used.

In my local library system, Cunningham’s book comes up with the subject headings “witchcraft”, “magic”, and “ritual”.

That’s a hint that I probably want to check ‘witchcraft’ as well as ‘Wicca’ as subject headings.

(This is because older books were cataloged before Wicca became an official Library of Congress subject heading around 2006 or 2007 – libraries don’t generally go back and recatalog subject headings unless there’s a very significant reason to, because it’s a big cost of staff time.

Something like ‘witchcraft’ and ‘Wicca’ where it can be tricky to figure out exactly which heading applies to some books, and where ‘witchcraft’ is still accurate, if a bit more general ideal, is less likely to get edited than, say, a library that is fixing or updating subject headings to reflect current understanding of gender identity or sexual orientation or legal issues.)

4) Check the ‘about’ for information or ask a librarian.

Still stuck? Check the library’s help information or ask a librarian for help – you can ask general questions, and they can help you navigate.

If you don’t want to (or can’t get to) the physical library easily, most libraries have an option for email or chat help these days, at least some of the time.

How catalogues work: Controlled vocabulary

Today’s discussion of catalogues is about how you find things by topic. I talked about some of this in my post from March about personal libraries, but I want to talk more here about how libraries select subject terms.

Catalogues: Wooden chest of old-fashioned catalogue cards

It’s mysterious

Let’s be honest. A lot of the process librarians use to select subject terms is pretty mysterious. That’s because we’re trying to label quite complex things in a very complex world, and we’re using a variety of tools to do it, because outside of very very small collections (relatively speaking – in practice, this is probably a couple of thousand books at the smallest), it’s too big for anyone to keep in their head.

On the good side, this means people have to write things down, which makes long-term consistency easier, and which can help us see patterns.

On the bad side, it means things can feel (and be) very rigid, or slow to change, or complicated to navigate. All of which can make things a lot less accessible or useful. And the speed of change often means terms don’t reflect current understanding of things like identity, culture, or communities.

So where do these terms come from?

In libraries, libraries usually pick a set of subject headings to use. The subject headings act as a controlled vocabulary (which basically means ‘we have a fixed set of terms we choose from.) Like I explained in the post last March, this is what helps us avoid using all of these terms for the same thing:

  • felines
  • cats
  • cat
  • domesticated cat

Sometimes we might want to make distinctions (domestic cats as compared to lions or tigers or snow leopards), but if we don’t, we want to pick one term and settle on it.

Libraries use one of a couple of common lists for subject headings. The most common, probably, are the Library of Congress. These are very extensive (it takes up about 20 volumes as print books on a shelf) but the fact the Library of Congress deals with so many different topics means that it’s often quite slow to make adjustments.

For example, the addition of the word “Wicca” as a subject heading only took place in about 2004, and only after a petition from a librarian. (This is often the way changes get made: one or more librarians notice that a term needs adding or improving or changing, and they provide evidence.) The term ‘Wicca’ had been in broad general use since the 1950s and 60s, so that’s about 50 years.

This isn’t always simple – here’s a story of attempts in 2016 to get the terms ‘aliens’ and ‘illegal aliens’ changed, and how the support from librarians and library associations for a student-led project ran smack into issues of law.

(Why does Congress get a say in this, you might be wondering? The Library of Congress’s first job is to provide resources for Congress and members of Congress. Makes sense if you think about the name.)

One other important note is that many libraries don’t have the resources to go back and catalogue older items to the new subject headings – so you may see pointers from new terms to check older terms as well. (This depends a lot on the library and the priority of the topic.)

Who assigns the terms?

Good question. In many cases, the subject headings are primarily assigned by whoever it is at the Library of Congress assigns the headings for that particular item. These are likely people who have some experience in the general field or area of the books, but you can usually assume they’re not experts or specialists in all the nuances of the field or topic.

(In other words, they’re not going to get really nuanced about choosing, say, a term of magic or ritual in a Pagan setting. They may assign them both.)

Usually terms are based on the few most obvious and relevant topic. If something is mentioned for less than a chapter or two, it almost certainly won’t get a subject heading unless it’s something really unusual. For a full length nonfiction book, you can usually expect 3-5 subject headings.

You can also assume the person doing the cataloguing probably hasn’t read the book. Cataloguers don’t have time for that! They’re relying on the blurb on the back and things like skimming the table of contents. Publishers can also suggest subject headings or terms to include.

Some libraries do have their own cataloguers evaluate materials and add or edit terms. This is particularly true for things like local history or other items of particular local interest.

Or a school library might assign a heading for particular regular class assignments or projects, to make it easier to find those items. (There are other ways to group things, too.) Some libraries do a “Best resource” subject heading to make it easy to find the best resources in a topic. (Mine does this.)

Next week, more about working with search terms in practice.

How catalogues work: An introduction

We’re working on a major catalogue update at work, which has me thinking a lot about how people use catalogues, databases, and other collections of information.

In talking about our new catalogue, I’ve also been reminded that most people don’t know how these things work, or what might be useful to them – so it seems like a great time for a short series of posts about that.

Catalogues: Wooden chest of old-fashioned catalogue cards

The basics

So, the first thing we should start with is what’s a catalogue?

For libraries, a catalogue is a highly specialised database that holds information about books in the collection. Often these are parts of an Integrated Library System, or ILS, that tracks a whole bunch of things. Sometimes the catalogue only does pieces of it.

Common things included:

  • Information about works in the collection (such as title, author, publisher, publication information, call number, subject headings). This is sometimes referred to as the bibliographic record.
  • Information about particular items in the collection, i.e. each actual thing that’s on the shelf (or however it’s stored or accessed). This is sometimes called a ‘holding’ record (because it describes the holdings of the library).
  • Loan information about specific items in the collection and who has them.
  • Information about electronic resources (sometimes this might be a link to them, sometimes systems pull in all the things in a database so you can search for them all in one place.)
  • Additional resources the library has chosen to add (documents, files, etc.)

These records may have public notes (things to help library users) or staff-only notes (to help staff manage resources and answer questions.)

Again, not every library will have all these things.

Our collection at work has bibliographic records, but doesn’t have separate holdings records (all the information about all our copies is in a single record: this is sometimes a bit clunky, but it works okay for us because we don’t check a lot of items out.)

Likewise, we don’t have a separate circulation (or loan) module – all the loan information is in the record. Library users can’t see it, because it doesn’t display to them, just to the tools staff uses.

(In some libraries, this would be a problem, but in our library, there’s just one and a half staff members, and we both need to have access to it. The library assistant usually deals with loans and circulation, but if she’s on vacation or something comes up, I need to be able to see what’s going on and make changes too.)

Metadata

When you put information into a catalogue, you are collecting metadata – that’s the term for ‘information about a thing’.

My favourite explanation of metadata comes from a Scientific American piece from 2012 that used Santa Claus and Christmas lists as examples. Go read it, if you’re not sure how metadata works, I’ll wait for you.

So, metadata about books includes the title, author, publication information. It might also include things like if a book is considered a particularly good resource, or is on a recommendation list. It might include if it was donated (and if so, by who). All kinds of things can be metadata.

Libraries have some commonly used systems for formatting it. A lot of libraries still use MARC (which stands for Machine Readable Cataloging record). Here’s a longish explanation from the Library of Congress about the details. This provides the structure for the data.

Besides the structure, there needs to be consistency in how you write things down. For a long time, libraries used the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules (AACR or AACR2 for the 2nd edition, etc.) but now a lot of libraries use RDA or Resource Description and Access.

Why all the rules?

Computers are still fairly stupid – they’re really quick at matching up things we tell them with things that they have stored, but they need a lot of help to match up things like typos or alternate ways of phrasing things.

(Google, Amazon, and the other tech giant companies have huge amounts of resources and lots of cutting edge design capabilities to make that work. Your average library just doesn’t. Your average library is probably pretty excited if their staff computers are less than four years old.)

So, in order for the computer to match things up, the library needs to be using consistent words (what’s called a “Controlled vocabulary” for things like subject headings and formats) and an underlying structure.

What does this mean in practice?

A lot of what I’m doing in our new catalogue right now is setting up that structure and arranging the different screens so they do what we want.

For example, we have a lot of options on the screen to add things to the catalogue, but when we edit things, we’re usually only editing a couple of specific pieces. So I set it up so those are at the top of the screen, and then we can get to everything else if we need to, but don’t have to scroll to get to it.

(You have no idea how exciting this is, when you’ve been spending years having to scroll down a very similar-appearing form to look for one specific field.)

But another big part of what I’m working on is fixing things so we’re using a smaller list of terms for things like format and location. That means people will be able to filter usefully by them, which will be amazing.

(This is going to take months and months. Fixing the formats and locations are pretty quick, but we have 14,000 subject headings, and a lot of them are tiny variants or typos of the ones we actually want.)

Personal libraries : putting books on shelves

Of course, once you’ve got some idea of what things you have, you probably need to figure out how to store them.

As with the other sections here, there’s no one right answer. Your space, your preferences, what you want easy access to, are all going to affect how to shelve things.

I do have some tips for sorting it out.

A hidden bookcase opens out, revealing a room behind. The bookshelves are full of leather-bound books.

Where will you use things?

This is the obvious sort of question – it probably makes sense to shelve cookbooks near your kitchen, crafting books near where you do crafts, children’s books where you read to your children (or they read to themselves), and so on.

You may not have perfect space to do all of that, but starting with the books that are most rooted in a particular task will get you started.

Plan for expansion

When you’re laying out shelving, think about where in your collection you may want to add more items in the future.

If you’re shifting over more items to ebooks, maybe you’re going to buy physical copies more heavily in some areas. (Books you want to lend people, or have in print, or books that don’t have electronic versions), and other areas of your collection won’t need much expansion space.

Consider building a virtual collection list first

You may find it easier to create a digital list of what you have first (or, well, I suppose you could also do a big stack of index cards.)

This will let you get a count of different types of books, and also a better sense of what you have. It’s also often a task that can be broken down into small manageable pieces more easily than actually moving everything around.

Tip: I found it easiest to work by taking a photo on my phone of 8-10 books (stack, as they would be on the shelf or flat, whatever fit in the camera frame readably.) I’d take a string of photos, then go enter them comfortably at my computer.

LibraryThing and some other catalog tools have scanning options, as well.

What groups matter to you?

We’ve talked already about books you may use in a specific place, but this is the time when you split things up.

Some people shelve their collections by author, A to Z, regardless of topic. Some people shelve by size, or colour, or other factors.

Some people shelve by type of book – topic or genre. This is what I do: all my modern fantasy books are in one place, all my mysteries together, all the non-fiction history together. (I group by subgenre, because when I am standing there going ‘what do I want to read’ my answer is usually a subgenre: “I’m in the mood for a historical mystery.” and when it isn’t, it’s a specific book, and it’s easy to find it on the genre shelving.

One shelf has my astronomy and astrology and stories about constellations and planets. Other people might entirely separate these three. Another shelf has what I refer to as ‘ritual technology’ – material on how to do things in magical or religious ritual, relevant to my religious witchcraft practice.

Your groups are almost certainly different, but find what works for you.

Expect the process to take a while.

I mean both that it will take some time to sort out, and that you’re probably going to end up doing more than one iteration of how things are laid out.

Chances are pretty good you’ll discover something in the first round that makes sense in your head, and not so much when you actually try it. (This happens no matter how sensible your planning process is, I think.)

Move things around virtually first

When I was setting up my bookshelves in my current apartment, I first put everything into LibraryThing.

Once I had that, I added tags to group them by, and figured out about how many books I had in each of the major tags. I set up a spreadsheet where I could list all of the possible topics, and then another sheet where I had a list of major subjects down the side, and then boxes along the horizontal for each possible shelving space.

I counted how many books would fit comfortably on each possible shelf, and then moved things around until I got shelf counts that made sense for me.

Move things around physically

For physical books and other items, there’s no denying you will eventually need to move things around physically.

I tend to strongly prefer to do this kind of thing by setting aside time to do it over the course of a week or so (maybe in segments, depending on your space) with some room to leave things in stacks on the floor temporarily while I’m arranging things.

Your stamina stands a good chance of being greater than mine, so maybe you can do it in the course of one or two more intensely busy days.

Either way, there’s a balancing act between arranging things mentally and getting them in the right places. If you need to move things in larger chunks, some banker’s boxes or cardboard book boxes can help you store and move things around temporarily.

Group items by shelf

Usually, it will go faster if you work on getting items for a given shelf in the right place, and then you can worry about arranging them on that shelf further. This may lead to stacks of books all over the place temporarily. If that’s a problem for you, try sorting things out into labelled boxes, or doing just a shelf or two at a time.

Finally, organise the shelves

This is something that may depend on your actual physical setup, and how much you care about precise order. Because I double stack some books (so many books, not enough wall space), I don’t worry about having books within each shelf highly organised by author or series, because they’re in small enough groupings I can spot things.

At times when I’ve had more space to play with, I’ve usually preferred to shelve my fiction by author, and by internal chronology of the series (though there are some series where I prefer publication order – it’s weird what things we have a really strong opinion about!) My shelves, though, so my strong opinion is fine.

Personal Libraries : Simple cataloging principles

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”

Which is to say, now that we’ve got a bunch of items, how do we keep track of them? This article is an introduction to basic cataloging principles.

(The quote, of course, is from Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter” and it’s here because it’s a thing that often pops into my head when I start thinking about lists of subjects.)

A hidden bookcase opens out, revealing a room behind. The bookshelves are full of leather-bound books.

What is cataloguing?

Most library schools require librarians to take courses in cataloguing, and many librarians find it really frustrating. At its most formal, cataloguing has a lot of little tiny minute details and special cases.

(My favourite of these, from the system in use when I was in grad school, the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules, 2nd edition, was that there’s a method for cataloguing material gained through spiritual mediumship. For the curious, it’s point 21.26 and says “Enter a work that is presented as a communication from a spirit under the heading for the spirit. Make an added entry under the medium or a person recording the communication.”)

Fundamentally, though, it’s about providing ways to get access to information about what your library has.

There are lots of ways to do that. Some of them scale better than others (or work better for large, nuanced collections). Some of them are easier to manage. Some will make more sense for you intuitively than others, probably.

The essentials

Some of this will depend on how you’re keeping track of what you have. If you use software, they’ll probably ask you for certain pieces of information, or have a way to search for it. (I use LibraryThing, about which more in future articles.)

You want to think about points of entry for finding works. Normally, these are author, title, and some sort of subject categorisation.

Title

Titles are usually the easiest to sort out.

Sometimes you have a subtitle, sometimes you have something that feels a little weird. Sometimes series titles look like book titles or vice versa. But we can usually figure out a title most of the time.

Author

The author is also usually pretty obvious, but again can have some complications (some systems deal with multiple authors a lot more elegantly than others.) Corporate authors, the term for an organisation being the author, can also be complicated.

But you can usually look these up, and use what the booksellers or libraries are using.

Subject

Subjects are where it gets complicated.

Libraries use established subject headings (sometimes from the Library of Congress, sometimes from other established lists. These are almost always going to be way more complicated than you want for a personal collection.

However, there’s a concept you may want to consider, which is the idea of the controlled vocabulary. This means that you use a set list of terms to organise what you have.

Controlled vocabularies are often contrasted to folksonomies, which are things like open-ended tagging. A lot of us are now used to tagging our things in some way, whether that’s blog posts, social media posts or something else. (Tagging people’s names or handles is a sort of variant method: it connects pieces of information together by whatever that thing is.)

The downside of an open-ended system is that you can end up with things like

  • cat
  • cats
  • cat stories
  • my ridiculous cat

or

  • book
  • books
  • reading
  • read

Now, these may actually be four distinct categories for you! If they are, there’s no reason they shouldn’t have four distinct labels. But if they’re not, you might want to think about tidying this up.

If you use a variety of words to mean the same thing, you’ll lose a lot of power to search and gather similar items.

Controlled vocabulary tips

Here are a few tips for beginning to build a controlled vocabulary for your collection, if you want to be able to use your tags to find all the material on a topic.

Start with a sample set

It can be really helpful to start with a small but manageable set of items and see how that goes. You’ll often learn a lot about what you care about after you’ve done a few dozen items.

Somewhere between 20 and 40 is a good starting number: you can work through that fairly quickly without it feeling overwhelming, but there’s enough variation you’ll start seeing places your initial ideas may work well or not. Either pick items that are in a similar large category (different fiction books, different non-fiction books, writing research books, etc.) or you can try a mix of all your categories.

Decide on format

Part of why I suggest starting with a sample set is you may discover you have a really strong preference for format when you start actually applying it. This can mean different things, but I find it helpful to have a consistent structure for similar things.

In my catalogue, I have genres broken out by different aspects (usually historical/modern) because that’s part of how I shelve them. So I have:

  • fantasy – high
  • fantasy – historical
  • fantasy – modern
  • fiction – historical
  • fiction – modern
  • mystery – historical
  • mystery – modern

That means I can see all the mysteries together, and all the fantasy, and so on. I could also have decided that each item would get a genre tag, and also get a ‘time’ or ‘style’ tag. (High fantasy is for the ‘this is a unique magical world with stuff that is not directly connected to our historical timeline’ and ‘historical fantasy’ is what I use for a world that has magic or other elements not in ours, but that is rooted in a time and place that either is in our world, or is a close cognate. The point is, the terms make sense for me.)

Formatting also applies to things like ‘do you use plural or singular or adjectives’ or what? For topic terms for my books, here are some examples:

  • astrology
  • astronomy
  • biography
  • cosmology
  • creativity
  • deities
  • divination
  • embodied life

It continues with things like

  • genii loci
  • internet & technology
  • magical fiction
  • microhistory
  • ritual technology

These may not be terms that matter for you – but these are all really useful for reasons I often go looking for books.

As you can see, I am mostly using names for disciplines if there’s a name for that, and then creating other terms or phrases. I also tend to prefer lower case.

Apply your terms

You’ll almost certainly need to make some adjustments as you go. That’s entirely normal and expected.

You may figure out a more elegant way to phrase things or a phrase that makes you grin. (It’s your collection. You get to have puns, pet phrases, or personal in-jokes in your cataloguing if you want.)

You may also decide to combine things. I try to find a larger category for any term where I have fewer than 2-3 works that fit into that category. (And I look pretty closely at anything less than 5-8.) This helps keep my overall list of tags manageable and useful.

Consider fancy formatting

Depending on the tool you’re using to keep track of things, you may have the chance to group tags (such as in Pinboard, which I use to keep track of web links.)

In others, you may want to use specific characters to group things, if your software allows. You can use these in some tools to keep similar terms together. For example, in LibraryThing, I use characters on the front of terms to group things.

  • !time for the era when something takes place, such as !ancient, !modern, !between the wars. (Where I’ve got rather a lot of books.)
  • .genre for the genre. .fantasy – high or .mystery – historical go here.
  • @location for where it takes place. Some of these are pretty general (@Africa), others are more specific, like @Boston or @London. (Those cities also get regional tags, like @New England and @British Isles).
  • I use the tilde for specific shelving locations for print books, which sorts those at the end.

I find these really helpful for two reasons – it lets me scan the list of tags quickly for similar things. And when I’m entering tags by hand, I can use autocomplete to see a short list of the things of that type. If I type a period at the beginning, it will give me a pretty complete genre list, and the period plus a letter or two gets even better. This is tremendously helpful in keeping a manageable and internally consistent list because I’m relying on autocomplete, not my memory.

I also love using tools that let you rename tags quickly and easily – in LibraryThing it’s just by editing, in some tools you have an extra step or two. But if I discover I’ve been entering “cat” in some and “cats” in another, I can quickly combine the two by editing. The same thing if I have a typo.

Next time

I’ll be talking more about how to figure out how to group things and put them on shelves or otherwise deal with them in long-term groups.

Organising a personal library: 5 ideas from Ranganathan, applied

Organising a personal library is hard. Even for librarians.

I moved here a bit over two years ago, but with one thing and another, I was busy in ways that made it hard to sort out my personal library for a long time. Since December, I’ve spent part of two vacation weeks sorting out my books, including the second week of July.

I’m delighted to say they’re all on shelves now in some semblance of order that pleases me, and entered into LibraryThing. I’ve got a bit more work to do, but I’m now at a stage where I can work on it in much smaller pieces that fit into my day to day life.

One of the things I was thinking about while I was doing this was S.R. Ranganathan, who in 1931 wrote the Five Laws of Library Science. These are like ‘laws of physics’ not ‘laws of the United States’, which is to say they’re concepts for understanding how things work or should work, so we can create practical models that work with our physical and intellectual world, not against it.

All of which makes me want to talk about organising a personal library, and how this librarian does it.

Card catalog drawers with different drawers of slightly different woods. Text reads: Personal Library: 5 ideas from Ranganathan, applied

 

Ragnathan’s Laws

One reason these are so popular is that they are stated very simply. (Though they have a lot of room for nuance and discussion.) Here they are:

  1. Books are for use.
  2. Every reader his / her book.
  3. Every book its reader.
  4. Save the time of the reader.
  5. The library is a growing organism.

So how do those apply to a personal library? How I apply them may be different than how you apply them, but here’s some food for thought.

1) Books are for use.

When applied to institutions, the idea behind this law is that books should be available. Ranganathan was familiar with libraries where books were chained up, could be used only after extensive application processes, or only by people who could provide certain kinds of references. That’s a very different model than most public libraries in the United States in the 21st century.

For personal libraries, I think this is a great place to apply the core Marie Kondo question – does this thing bring you joy? Is it actively useful? Or are you keeping it for other reasons?

I don’t think people should get rid of books if they don’t want to (minus actual health and safety or practical reasons like moving or moving into a much smaller apartment) but it’s definitely good to think about why we’re holding on to physical objects.

My personal library these days is about 400 print books, and over 600 ebooks. (I got rid of a lot of print when I moved from Minneapolis to Maine, for reasons that are obvious if you think about moving print books.) These days, I mostly read print in the bathtub – I’ll come back to that – and ebooks everywhere else.

Here’s what I chose to keep in print:

Books with specific sentimental value. Not just ‘a friend gave this to me’ but things where the book itself has a lot of specific resonance. 1066 and All That which I remember reading with my father. Books he wrote.

Books I want potentially want to lend (or at least let someone look through). Lending ebooks doesn’t really work (both logistically and legally). This means most of my Pagan books are in print format.

Books where the print format works better for me. A large book of illustrated stories about the constellations. Cookbooks. Herbalism books.

Books without an ebook version. For obvious reasons, since this is the only way to have that book.

Books that had an ebook version, I made notes about, and have been slowly adding titles back to my collection as my budget allows if I want to replace a copy. There are places I made exceptions (I have a complete set of Dorothy L. Sayers novels in print, because my brain wants to read them in print.)

Your decisions might be different! That’s to be expected, because I bet you use your books differently than I do.

One other part of books being for use for me is that I’m hard on the physical objects. (With a few exceptions of rare and hard to replace books that have particular value – I’ve got a first printing of the Charles Vess Book of Ballads, for example – that link describes the second printing.)

I read in the bath. I read while I’m eating. I dogear pages. (Only in my own books, all of these.) I want the books to be something I use, not something I worry about damaging. I take reasonable precautions, of course, and sometimes I have to replace a physical copy. But normally it’s the content I care about deeply, and the physical item is the way to get that.

2) Every reader their book.

In large libraries, this rule guides librarians to look at the entire community they serve when deciding what books to focus on. (Since basically no library can buy – or house – everything. It’s also a rule about not judging people by what they want to read.

Back around the turn of the 20th century, there was a significant movement in public libraries in the United States to have libraries focus on morally uplifting literature – things that would ‘improve’ the reader. If you’ve walked into a public library recently, you’ll see that’s not true these days. But librarians still argue about how much libraries should focus on books versus movies and dvds. If they should be collecting video games. If certain genres (romance, or genres tightly associated with particular communities, like urban fiction) should be part of the collection.

Individual different libraries come to different decisions about these things, and how they do that is a topic for other posts.

For me, it means that I think about what books fill out my collection. What does this book bring me that isn’t already here? “Something amusing to occupy me that’s similar to other things I’ve liked before” is a perfectly fine reason.

Knowing how a book I’m considering relates to what I already have and don’t have yet helps me make better choices. (And since I’ve always read more than my budget entirely supports, this is important!)

3) Every book its reader.

This is the flip side of the second law. This means that every book that someone wants to read has a place in the library, even if a relatively small number of people want to read it.

For me, this is a reminder in my personal library that it’s my personal library. The books that are there make sense to me, for reasons I don’t have to defend. (Though I do choose to keep my main LibraryThing account private for a variety of reasons.)

In a world where there’s often a lot of performative norming, especially on social media, this is a pretty powerful concept.

We’ve probably all seen the discussions where people are shamed because they’re reading something from a problematic author, or not just reading things from authors valued particularly by that community or group, right? And how poisonous that can get sometimes?

I definitely believe in thinking about what I’m reading and why I’m reading it. But I think that is – has to be – my own call.

Sometimes I find myself doing what I’ve come to call processing reading, where I find myself reading certain kinds of stories, for an extended period of time, as I try to work through particular emotions or reactions or situations. Sometimes it’s pretty obvious why I’m stuck on a thing, but sometimes it isn’t. (And often, during my witchcraft training, this would happen and it would take me months to figure out what my subconscious was working on!)

Letting other people control what goes into my head has never worked well for me. I suspect I’m not alone in this. Especially for something as personal as reading.

4) Save the time of the reader.

Applied to larger libraries, this has to do with things like signs and catalogs and information about how to find books.

In my personal library, I come back to “When I want to find this book, where am I going to look for it?”

I normally group my physical books by genre and subgenre because those are the things I’m most likely to remember about a book or want to look for a book by. Here’s some examples of my current shelving:

  • Stars : astronomy and astrology, because I have some books that are about both.
  • Ritual technology : magical and ritual techniques – though not ‘how to write a ritual itself’
  • Rituals : which is the shelf for collections of ritual works, and larger ritual structure discussion.
  • Fantasy – historical : my classification for fantasy in mostly historical settings.
  • Anthologies : because they tend to be cross-genre but I’ll remember that it’s an anthology.
  • Embodied life : books about being in a physical body, with all its quirks. (Cleaning, health, exercise, etc.)

In my current shelving, I also thought about making sure the books I’m likely to want to grab most easily are convenient for that – my cooking books are in the shelf nearest the kitchen (on the other side of the wall in the living room), and in my bedroom the physical copies I keep but don’t read often are in the bit of shelving that I have to move something to get to.

5) The library is a growing organism.

This last law is about remembering the world changes, and we should adapt with it. In libraries, the approaches (and books, and materials) that were great 20 years ago are no longer sufficient. We’ve got new technology, different needs, communities the libraries in are changing.

In my personal library, it’s a reminder that this book that was hugely meaningful ten years and two moves ago might not be a thing I need to hang onto forever. It’s a reminder that a book that I love can have some serious flaws (and that means some things about whether I should recommend it to others). It means I should look at what I’m doing periodically with my books (and other sources of information) and make sure that’s still working for me.

And on a practical level, it means I should think about how much space I have for shelving, and what I’m going to do about that. In my current apartment, I have a bit of expansion space, possibly, but in other places shelf space has been so limited that I definitely had to watch how many print books I brought home. Some people have a “One book in, I have to get rid of another.” (Yet another reason I love ebooks.)

What does it all mean?

There are hundreds of different ways to look at organising a personal library, whether we’re talking about print books, or ebooks, or videos, or bookmarks, or podcasts, or any of the many other possible formats. Having a guide like Ranganathan’s laws helps me remember what really matters most when I’m making decisions.

It’s not a quick and simple checklist (I’m working on one to help people with these questions!) On the other hand, five rules are pretty easy to pin up and put somewhere obvious.

How do you apply these concepts in your own library? Leave a comment, use my contact form, suggest what you do on Twitter.