Monday, October 15, 2007

From Reader to Librarian

Every Monday, I will be writing an essay on libraries (and will last as long as I can sustain it).

Because I'm not a librarian, the first thing that I associate with librarians are people who organize and catalog books, never mind the other, less-obvious duties that they seem to perform such as research and education. While organizing and cataloging books is not the only thing that librarians do, I think for the most part that's what lay people assume simply because it's their first impression of them ("Where do I find this book?") and they've attempted such a feat at home ("See how organized my collection is!" or "Where did I place my book?"). That's the topic I want to talk about.

For the most part, I think most readers have their own library at home. It can be a single row of books to several shelves worth (a library isn't defined by the number of books you own: you can have ten books or a thousand and it'll still be called a library). Last week, I talked about the importance of identifying the specialization of libraries. Because quite frankly, we all have different definitions of what a library is and what it should contain. Many bibliophiles start amassing books and build their own libraries. In fact, this is how the first libraries were formed. What differentiates our own personal collection of books however from the stereotypical image of the library is that our own library is private while the institutionalized ones are public. That distinction is important when it comes to organizing and cataloging books.

The fact that public libraries are public is perhaps the very reason why we have the Dewey Decimal System and OPACs. Systematical organization's biggest asset isn't that it's organized for you, it's the fact that everyone else can comprehend the organization. I mean if I were just considering my own collection of books, I could arrange it in any arbitrary manner: by publisher, by date of publication, by date of when I purchased the book, by author, by title, by subject, or perhaps a formula involving chaos theory. Any of those methods is perfectly valid because my only criteria is meeting my satisfaction. That shouldn't be the case when you visit a library--or a bookstore for that matter. Ever had problems finding a book? As long as you understood the library's cataloging system, you'll do fine (unfortunately, not a lot of people are aware of their system). And in many ways, I don't think librarians are these omniscient beings who know where each and every book is placed (especially if it's a huge library). But their advantage is that they know and understand the cataloging system so even if someone approaches them with a book they've never heard of, if it's in the library, they'll know where to look for it (and that is why librarians will ask you for details on the book: author, subject matter, etc.).

That is not to say private library owners are disorganized. I mean my shelving scheme makes perfect sense to me and while many bibliophiles just throw their books in a pile, for the most part I think most of them arrange their books in a certain manner. Some obsessive-compulsive readers even take a page from public libraries and give their books ID numbers (in database programming, I'd call this the primary key) and borrower cards (I remember my grade school and high school teachers implementing such a scheme). In many ways, that's a testament to the effectiveness of a library's system and it shouldn't be a real surprise: the library's methods have been honed over the centuries, in contrast to us mere mortals who only have a lifetime (but that doesn't mean we can't innovate--I mean the OPAC certainly wasn't available a century ago). Nonetheless, improvised shelving schemes and library cards aren't the entire librarianship experience. The lay person after all can only practice what he sees and honestly, most people don't see librarians inputting entries of the book into the database, assigning the systematized call numbers, and recording other relevant entries (such as the quantity of the book).

Lately, technology is becoming a tool that helps libraries and their patrons. I mean two to three decades ago, you had people hesitant to use the card catalog system. These days however, while there are definitely some people who suffer from technophobia or are Luddites when it comes to computers, for the most part OPACs and its search engine is quite accessible. When a patron needs to look for a book, instead of merely depending on the librarian, there's a sense of self-empowerment by looking it up themselves in the computer (yes, they could have done the same with card catalogs, but honestly, while it has a small learning curve, the fact that you need to invest time to learn it is enough to dissuade some people). And these days, search engines are slowly becoming more and more refined (just take a look at Google and what they recommend when you misspell a word).

Currently, I think there are new technological innovations that are popping up that is blurring the lines between mere collector and librarian. In the past two years, we saw the likes of LibraryThing and Shelfari. Is it the same as the librarianship experience? No. But it's definitely a method with which people network when it comes to books. I mean previously, the only way fellow bibliophiles talked about books was through book reviews and perhaps show each other a list of books they personally own. Now, we actually see other people's collections without actually being present there, and we give feedback and comments (the "mini-review" so to speak). Software also organizes our books for us, even if the actual physical location of our books is a mess. By no means is it a signal of the demise of the librarian (because they do more than simply organize books) but in many ways, it demystifies the act of shelving and cataloging.

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