Things I've learned because of cataloging

I work in technical services for a county-wide public library system. Literally every single new material that we purchase for any of the branches in the county touches my desk before it goes anywhere else. And a lot of it stays on my desk to be cataloged and processed before it hits the shelves. So I see EVERYTHING - the good, the bad, and the questionable. Here are some observations I’ve made:


  1. You really CAN judge a book by its cover (sometimes). If the book has a picture of a cat on the cover and says “cat sitter mystery,” you’re going to get exactly what is advertised. Mysteries are particularly good at this - Amish knitting mystery, Bookmobile mystery, Quilter’s Club mystery, cupcake bakery mystery series. But you can also tell a lot about a book based on the way it was published - the size and shape of the physical object, the color scheme, the fonts, the layout. I can often pick out a fantasy book based on the font and the colors used on the jacket. Same for sci-fi. And thrillers. And some romance. I can pick out a YA book from a shelf based solely on the book’s height (typically 22 cm, whereas most adult fiction is 24 or 25 cm high). I’m a lot of fun at parties.

  2. But labels can’t always be trusted. I like to call this the “Fox Mulder rule,” i.e., Trust No One. I catalog all of the adult fiction for our library system, and we assign each book to a genre and give it a genre sticker on the spine to help patrons browse more easily - romance, mystery, sci-fi, fantasy, westerns, historical fiction, etc. And while there are sometimes clues from the publisher or other hints I can use, I am the ultimate arbiter of which genre a book falls into, and in the case of cross-genre fiction I can only pick one genre and one sticker. So the whole process is pretty arbitrary. And the next time you pick up a romantic suspense historical mystery thriller with magical wizards in it, let me know which genre you’d pick if you could only pick one.

  3. The world is your oyster… and so is the library. Check out anything you want, from any section, from any department, and don’t be afraid of the judgmental looks you’ll get when you, 30-something, childless, wander into the Easy Reader section because you heard about this great picture book with some awesome illustrations and you just want to sit on the floor and take a look at it before you decide whether or not to take it home.

  4. There is a book for every reader, and a reader for every book. I had no idea that Amish fiction was such a huge market until I started my current job. Amish romance, Amish thrillers, Amish Rumspringa tales, Amish historical fiction, Amish westerns(?!), Amish knitter’s club, Amish murder mysteries, Amish knitter’s club murder mysteries… We can’t even keep those books on our shelves because they are so popular. Diet books about only eating vegan food, or gluten-free food, or raw food, or wild game you caught yourself while living in a shack in the woods. And that one about the cat that rides around on the library Bookmobile. Suffice it to say that whatever niche interest you’re into, someone has probably written a book about it, fiction or non. And if you ask your librarian nicely, we’ll probably buy a copy.

  5. A sense of humor will get you far. I’ve recently cataloged:

    • A romance book by Heather Cocks.
    • The novel “A Little Life,” which clocks in at over 700 pages. Perhaps a not-so-little life.
    • A thriller about the history of the United States Federal tax code. (How… thrilling.)
    • More cat mysteries. Always with the cat mysteries. See also: books of cat poetry, both poems about cats and poems purportedly authored by cats. We really have a thing about cats.
  6. There are still things you don’t know. Even in this job, where I have a master’s degree and years of experience, there are always new things for me to learn. I had no idea what a “cozy mystery” was until I had to start cataloging them. I also had no idea that Amish fiction was such a huge market (see #4 above). I read about 100 books a year, I have a TBR pile in my house that numbers about 400, and just when I think I’ve seen (and maybe even read) it all, I find out there is a whole world of books out there I have yet to explore. I’m sure this applies in some grander way to life in general, but that seems like a lot to think about right now. I’m going to lay over here on my couch with a cup of tea and an Amish knitting club cat-on-a-bookmobile historical romantic suspense murder mystery thriller in space. I’ve heard this is a good one.


On truth in cataloging

(Or, to boldly go where no cataloger has gone before….)

Recently, there has been much discussion in the library cataloging community surrounding the recent release of The Autobiography of James T. Kirk. That’s right - an autobiography. Which means a biography (so, a book about a person), written by that person. Except James T. Kirk is a fictional character and therefore not able to write real books out here in the real world.

                                                                                                       Surprise! I'm fictional!

                                                                                                       Surprise! I'm fictional!

Except under RDA, our current set of cataloging rules, standards, and practices, fictional authors are considered to be true authors of their own works, if the item presents them as such. This is a change from previous practice, and from the previous framework that outlined our rules, standards, and practices. This change was hotly debated when the RDA framework was being written, and when RDA was released five years ago, and apparently is still being contested today. Someone on one of the cataloging listservs I subscribe to went so far as to say that “cataloging is the pursuit of truth” and therefore, we could not afford authorship to fictional characters, as we would be misleading the public and propagating dangerous and unethical hoax information.

To which I say: hogwash.

First of all, let me say that anyone who thinks “cataloging is the pursuit of truth” needs to come down off of their pretentious high horse and realize what cataloging truly is: a means of collecting and describing various pertinent information, data, and metadata about an object in a library collection, ideally so that information can be used to fully describe the object to aid patrons and staff in finding materials. Cataloging is a public service. It’s ground up. We catalog so that the public can find things and can know what it is that they have found. This is, by necessity, a job that must be done as objectively as possible - once we start refusing to describe things we don’t like, or describing things in a clearly biased way (“this book is written by a political candidate I disagree with so I’ll mark it as ‘humor’ and that’ll show ‘em”), we are failing to provide that public service. We are instead pushing our own agenda.

Of course, no human being is truly able to do anything in a completely unbiased manner, because as human beings we have experiences and memories and relationships that color our perceptions, often without our full awareness. But one important way that the cataloging standards attempt to check our human biases is through one simple, cardinal rule that every MLIS candidate learns on their first day of cataloging class: record what you see.

This means if the title has a typo in it, and you know it’s a typo, and everyone knows it’s a typo, and you would so desperately like to fix that typo - don’t. Record what you see. There are other places within the cataloging record where you can note to your public that this is probably a typo and you can make their searches easier by recording the un-typoed version.

This means that when I get a book with a copyright date of “2016” (of which we have received several already this year, usually from the same misguided publisher who apparently can’t get their dates right?), 2016 is what goes in the record as the copyright date.

Now, thanks to RDA, this also means that when your book about a talking mouse purports to be authored by same talking mouse, then Geronimo Stilton gets listed as the author. And children’s librarians rejoice, because finally all the Geronimo Stilton books can be shelved together by author name.

                                                                                         Mr. Stilton even does author signings.

                                                                                         Mr. Stilton even does author signings.

Which brings us back to James T. Kirk. Who, yes, in a proper RDA cataloging record, will be credited as the author of his own autobiography. Seem strange? It really shouldn’t. The purpose of cataloging is to record what is on the item. If the item purports to be penned by James T. Kirk, then James T. Kirk it is. There are other places in the record where it can be clearly noted that James T. Kirk is a fictional character, and that David Goodman, purported editor, probably actually wrote the actual text.

The reason for this is because there are so many edge cases where it gets tricky. If we don’t allow fictional authors, then what about Richard Castle, superstar best-selling author who has written many books except… he doesn’t exist. And the public does not yet know who the actual author of his books are. Richard Castle is the only name we have to go by.

What about pen names? Should J.D. Robb never be given an author credit, because catalogers as “arbiters of truth” all know that J.D. Robb does not exist and is in fact a pen name for Nora Roberts? Not to mention the thousands of nonfiction books that are ghostwritten (think: every celebrity memoir ever) with no mention of the ghostwriter’s name even included or acknowledged anywhere.

What about subject headings? Greg van Eekhout’s latest book is about dragons and magic - both subject headings I just added to the book’s catalog record for my library - but dragons and magic aren’t real. As “arbiters of truth,” should we not include these?

And of course, because everything in life is political, what about things that I as a cataloger consider to be ridiculous, baseless, and downright propaganda? What if Caitlyn Jenner writes a book, but I am a transphobic “truther” cataloger who insists that Caitlyn Jenner does not exist? It would be a great disservice to our public, and a downright lie, to list Bruce Jenner as the author of a book written by Caitlyn. But if we take this “truther” rhetoric to its logical conclusion, this is where we end up - denying people their civil liberties and disregarding the rich diversity and free expression that American democracy is supposed to be founded on. Pushing our political agenda on an unsuspecting public that relies on us to be as impartial as can, and to record what we see. (Even when it’s the latest ridiculous Ann Coulter book, which I have tweeted about in the past.)

Here’s the point: critics contend that listing James T. Kirk as the author of his own autobiography is perpetuating untruths and making things more difficult for future historians and researchers. Except this argument is completely unfounded. Historians are smarter than this. I, an unsuspecting member of the public doing some research on “Driving Heat” can look up the title of the book, see that it was authored by Richard Castle, dig for a little more information, and find out that Richard Castle is not a real person. Do I feel tricked somehow by the cataloger who listed him as the author in the bibliographic record? Of course not. If I never bother to do the research and I walk around thinking Richard Castle is a real living breathing human being who lives in Manhattan with his family (as his author bio states), am I the victim of some terrible hoax? Of course not. There is a time and a place for everything, and a MARC record is not the place for a cataloger to stand on her soapbox and proclaim herself to be the arbiter of truth.

Cataloging is about describing the item based on the facts. It is not our job to be arbiters of truth, nor is it our job to be critics of content (that’s what blogs are for, not MARC records). Your public will decide for themselves whether they consider that item to be propaganda or hoax, a light-hearted bit of fictional fun or a gross disservice to the historical record.

On attraction

Yesterday I stopped at Sheetz on my way home to get dinner. This is a semi-regular ritual of mine - if my husband will be home late and I have to do dinner alone, I will often stop at Sheetz and buy something greasy and delicious and guilt-inducing (I'm looking at you, fried cheese curds) and sit at home and watch a movie and revel in my short-lived singledom. It makes me happy.

I place my order for so much food that the kind ladies working behind the counter give me multiple forks (sidenote: I can judge just how sad a night will be based on how many forks they give me for my one dinner, for me). I get a milkshake, and I stand and wait for my food to be ready while drinking said milkshake.

That's when I notice him. We'll call him Mr. Black. He's a young man about my age, and he's dressed in all black - black jeans, black t-shirt, black baseball cap. His feet and the bottoms of his legs are covered in some sort of grass/hay - probably a farm hand, which is a common enough sight in my rural-ish area.

Mr. Black obviously notices me, too. He starts meandering in circles around me, then back and forth. I'm bemused. What is going on here? And then he zooms in to deliver his lines, and I realize: Mr. Black is trying to chat me up. He is going to try to hit on me.

Now, I am an unattractive woman. People think I'm trying to fish for compliments when I say this, but I view it as an objective truth. I'm not thin, and I'm not pretty. I don't believe any stranger has ever tried to hit on me in my life. I don't think I've ever been checked out by someone who wasn't a lesbian or a lecherous old man. I'm not hideously deformed, and my husband thinks I'm beautiful, but in general, I am not the stuff that dreams are made of.

But sure enough, Mr. Black gives it the old college try. He starts asking me how I feel about the weather ("It's hot") and then rolls up his sleeve to show me his sunburn (and his muscles). I'm trying not to be rude, but I'm also trying to shut this conversation down, because even if he were the nicest man on the planet and my eternal soulmate, it's hot and I'm sweating in line at a Sheetz where I'm waiting for a small mountain of food to come out so I can go home and stop wearing pants and eat everything in sight until I pass out on my couch in sweet sweet solitude. Even on my best of days, I don't enjoy small talk with strangers.

After a minute, I realize something - I'm holding my milkshake with my right hand and my left hand is in my pocket, meaning my wedding ring is not visible. So I nonchalantly take my left hand from my pocket and gesticulate a little, switching shake-holding hands and continuing to smile as pleasantly as I can muster. Mr. Black, to his credit, spots the wedding ring and quickly leaves.

There are many, many things to unpack here, and I'll spare you a close examination of all of them. But I will leave you with the questions I've been asking myself all night and still this morning:

Who is it that teaches young men that it's okay to approach any lady in any public place and try to chat her up and expect her to be nice and docile and responsive and flattered? There are many, many reasons I don't want to talk to you when I'm out running errands. Yes, I'm sure you're charming. No, I still don't care.

Why is it okay to try your pickup lines on any lady, except when you finally notice her wedding ring? (You won't respect my own decision to not talk to you, but if I'm "another man's property" then you'll finally back off?)

Why did I feel the need to be nice to this stranger? What is it about my experience living as a woman in modern society made me refrain from walking away like I wanted to? Was I afraid of angering him? Being seen as rude? Some sort of violent retaliation? Was I supposed to smile and feel flattered?

This experience was most troubling because it happens to me so rarely. I can't imagine how unbearable and constant this unwanted attention would be if I were thin/pretty, and that alone speaks volumes about the problems our society has with its treatment of women. I'm also a bit socially awkward on my best of days, so talking to strangers is a dreaded task no matter how pleasant the interaction. And, I'm genderqueer - so while I'm fine being identified as a woman and living my life as a woman and having all the experiences that go with being born a biological woman, in my head I don't really see myself as a hallmark of feminity, and I find it super odd and super disconcerting when strangers treat me as feminine based on their assumptions about my physical appearance.

So, so strange. This life is so strange and ugly and beautiful and strange.

Why embargo?

Ever since the release two weeks ago of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, I've been thinking about the publishing industry and libraries and book releases and embargoes.

For those who are not familiar, an embargo is, essentially, a release date for a book. Some embargoes are adhered to more strictly than others (think: Harry Potter). The idea is that the book is sent to bookstores and libraries before the release date but with the understanding that the stores and libraries will embargo the title; that is, do the necessary processing and cataloging of the title in their system but wait until the actual release date to put the physical book on the shelves and release it to the public.

And since I am a librarian writing this from a librarian's perspective, I will let you in on a dirty little secret: many, many libraries ignore these embargoes entirely.

Some of the reasons are benign neglect - sometimes the vendor who sells us the books does not actually tell us there is a release date. Sometimes the person unpacking the delivery forgets to look at and record the release date. Sometimes the slip of paper we write the release dates on gets lost. Sometimes librarians simply decide they don't care. For many libraries, with budget cuts and staffing shortages, books are typically processed well after their release dates anyway, so some of us just assume it will never be an issue and stop caring.

I actually work for a library currently that makes its best effort to honor release dates and embargoes. In fact, this comprises a large part of my actual day-to-day job. We also process materials very quickly, so that new books often hit the shelves the same day they are released, which means we are processing them far enough in advance that we have to store them until the embargo date.

So I often find myself thinking: what is the actual point of all this extra work I'm doing to accommodate all these different release dates? The average reader could not care less when a book goes on sale or whether or not they get it early/late. And since embargoes are so frequently ignored, they're all but useless at controlling who gets to see a book when.

Let's face it: books leak. Books leak all the time, sometimes for the reasons I mentioned above, sometimes because of piracy or other shady enterprises, and sometimes because bookstores and other retailers (hello, Walmart) simply think, "I have this book and I'm putting it on the salesfloor because I have no room to store it and I can start making money now. Screw it." Publishers also often release Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs) or uncorrected proofs to reviewers and bloggers and other industry folk so they can preview the book early, write press blurbs for it, and start generating a buzz around a new title to boost sales once it is released.

Which brings me back to Go Set a Watchman.

Go Set a Watchman notably had no ARCs or reviewer copies released. The publisher made every attempt to keep the contents as "hush hush" as possible. The first chapter of Go Set a Watchman was released by the publisher a few days early so the public could get a preview of the book, but otherwise the contents were completely unknown until release day. Mostly. Sort of. Maybe.

Of course, in a world of 7 billion people, one publisher cannot control everything. One Walmart store in Louisiana put the book on display a few days early - they were soon forced to take the display down until the official release date, but I have no idea if any copies had already been sold by then. But really: what if they had? What if some copies leaked?

What if some copies had been released a day or two early, by that Walmart in Louisiana, or by a librarian, or by anyone anywhere else? Does the world stop turning? Is the entire book experience ruined?

Clearly, I think the answer is no. Embargoes exist to benefit one entity alone: publishers. They are part of a planned marketing campaign whose sole purpose is to drum up interest in a particular title and maximize profits. If GSAW had not been strictly embargoed, somebody might have had the chance to tell us all how disappointing a read it was, and then fewer people might have bought it. This would have been a great service to the readers but results in less bottom line for HarperCollins.

So when I see regular people concerning themselves with embargoes, I can't help but think: Stop. There are so many better things to worry about. Let the publishers do their job. Let yourself enjoy your books.

And the world keeps spinning.

Women be uncomfortable

(Thanks to those of you who get my obscure reference to "women be shoppin")

People like to tell me all the time that we live in a "post-" society - you know, post-racism, post-sexism, post-gender, post-classism. I think it is pretty obvious to anyone with eyes and a brain and a heart that we do not, in fact, live in such a society. But alas.

I work in a public library in a small town. As is the case in much of the profession, particularly in the entry-level ranks, I work with mostly women. Our director is a man but the rest of the administrative staff are women, and otherwise in an organization of about 50 employees, only about 5 of them are men. Women be librarians.

Unfortunately, as is the case in probably every job where you have to provide services to the public, our patrons are not always... the people we would like them to be. Some of them are smelly. Some of them are annoying. Some of them are whiny. Some of them are angry. And some of them are men - men who leer, men who stare, men who strike up unwelcome conversations, men who follow you around the building without saying anything, and men who try to follow you when you walk home from work.

We've had all sorts of incidents that have now gone into the canon of "office lore" and "fun stories" bandied about the workplace. There's the guy who wandered upstairs to the third floor (home of the administrative offices, where I usually work, and not generally open to the public), walked into a meeting room, shut the door, turned out the lights, and went to sleep under the conference table. There's the guy who took his shoes off, put his feet up on that same table, and ate his lunch. There's the guy who rearranged the furniture in our public area so that he could stare into the glass-doored office of one of our female supervisors (we had to buy her curtains). There's the guy who beat his wife in the elevator while their baby was sitting in his stroller right next to them. There's the guy who followed a female employee home from work and then later grilled a different employee to find out her last name. I could go on. Perhaps there are creepy female patrons, too - most assuredly they exist somewhere - but I never hear those stories, and I haven't experienced any firsthand (yet).

As a woman in our society, one gets used to a certain amount of male attention. Even I, who am decidedly not society's ideal of femininity and attractiveness, have been the object of unwanted leering, glaring, creepy smiles, and creepier "hello"s. Because I look the way I do, I'm far more likely to receive unwanted attention from lesbians than from men, and I have had a lifetime's worth of creepy lady interactions and pick-up lines and misunderstandings, but there's something about working this job, in this area, at this point in time, that stands out to me as "the time of the unwanted male gaze."

Fellas, there is a lot of information out there already about the proper way to behave in public. Just because she smiles at you doesn't mean she wants to have your babies. (We have actually had to train female staff to smile less often and less widely around certain patrons to protect themselves from harassment by said patrons. That. is. nuts.) When she's running away from you, she's not playing "hard to get." People: Go forth. Google. Learn.

But what I'm more focused on right now are the ways in which we as women change our behavior, and sometimes our personalities, in order to protect ourselves and accommodate the circumstances happening around us. Fundamentally this feels wrong to me in a very deep and real way - but when I'm the one in the trenches, when I'm the one in the line of fire at the reference desk, it's much easier to simply stop smiling and wear dowdier clothing than it is to change an entire culture's perception and treatment of women. Is it right? Of course not. Is it fair? Hell no. Does it work? Not always, but often. And it makes it easier to focus on the quotidian parts of my day until I get home.

Women have to be brave to live in this world. Women have to be strong, to be tough, to have a thick skin, to have their wits about them, to know an uncomfortable situation from a dangerous one in the single span of a glance, or a leer, or a gibe. But, at the same time we are expected to be soft, to acquiesce, to save face, and to feel embarrassed when we are frank and direct. It's an impossible dichotomy to inhabit. It's an impossible world to live in.

We should be better. We can be better. This is not the world we should be living in. But it's the only world we have. Let's treat each other better.