Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Classification - a bit of a rant!

A book classified is a book lost … if no-one understands the classification scheme!

When I started at university one of the first big words I heard was “serendipity”. At the time my understanding was that the lecturer concerned was referring to the joy people experienced on browsing among the bookstacks and happening upon some exciting book they weren’t looking for but were keen to read, now that they'd come across it.

Today we could equally well apply this browsing to the [online] library catalogue. There are so many opportunities for users to happen upon something of interest, through almost any search of the catalogue – author, keyword, related search etc..

I went into librarianship because I wanted to help people, but was bothered by the sight of blood and the smell of hospitals, was not comfortable with the formality of teaching, was ill-prepared for a career in social work, but wanted to do more than work in a shop. I didn’t enter the profession because I loved books! For me, the excitement was always in tracking a book down - and not often about reading it - and seeing library users go away happy!

Do you need to understand Dewey (or whatever classification scheme the library uses) to know where to find your books? I would argue that you don’t. As a cataloguer, however, I do need to understand Dewey so I can assign your books with a number that suitably reflects the subject of the book, so that when you are looking for books on that subject you will be able to find them. And, yes, it would be nice if all the books on your subject and related subjects were on the shelves together, but this is virtually impossible to achieve, whatever classification schedule the library chooses to use. This is because in some way all subjects are related, either through their discipline, their subject, or in your own mind! This is perhaps where the internet has lead us to false expectations: Yes, if you are reading an article on the web about one thing, it will have links to articles on related topics, which you can easily navigate to and read, and then return from whence you came. That’s because computers are built to store and retrieve things in a particular way, which just isn’t possible with tens of thousands of physical items – in this case, books.

So, books are ordered on the shelves according to a specialised classification scheme. This could be a sequence of numbers, or letters, or a combination of both, and to the untrained eye, could be seen to be random. A classification scheme is designed with a couple of things in mind: It helps to a certain degree to collocate related subjects and it helps you to find the one book among the thousands on the subject you are interested in.

But, if books are hidden in some, seemingly, peculiar order on the shelves, how do you unlock the secret of that order? Well, the way in is through the OPAC; OPAC is your finding tool. If the library has it, it will be listed on OPAC and by typing in anything you already know about a specific book, or about a specific subject you can find the location of any book in the library. Library staff at the enquiry desks are always able to help you use OPAC and find what you are looking for.

That’s the easy bit! Once you’ve found your classification number, knowing how the books are arranged on the shelves and being able to find the one you want can be rather difficult, if not daunting. And that’s why we have library staff roving the floors, and who can be called upon to help you find books on the shelves. They are expert at it; this is their job!

We also provide leaflets aimed at explaining to you how to find things on the shelves – written by experts, with you in mind! However, when those experts question the choice of classification scheme, I do begin to despair …

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