Cataloging and the startling beauty of organization

Blessed be the catalogers. They do, despite public knowledge (see assumption: librarian = “lady who checks out books at the desk and says ‘shh,'”), exist. I follow a number of them on Twitter—they’re a hard-working, lovely, clever bunch, keeping the clockwork heart of the library ticking away smoothly and giving us all an order that lets us all sort our heads from our feet and breathe a little easier. They also do a job that—bless them—can seem dauntingly complex and more than a little bit dull. I don’t know how they do it. I’m just happy that they exist.

They also have INDISPUTABLY EXCELLENT HAIR; there is a lot to admire about catalogers. (image credit:

They also have INDISPUTABLY EXCELLENT HAIR; there is a lot to admire about catalogers. (image credit:

If you use an amateur cataloging software, chances are very good that you’ll be doing what’s called copy-cataloging rather than original cataloging. This is what it sounds like: rather than making up your own records for materials, you’ll find and pull in someone else’s. Don’t worry, it’s not cheating. It’s common practice, like the way programmers will use chunks of other people’s code.

Same laser-like focus, slightly less excellent hair. (Sorry, programmers. Image credit:

Same laser-like focus, slightly less excellent hair. (Sorry, programmers.) (Image credit:

The software I used did allow me to copy-catalog records for most of my books, pulling them from the Library of Congress and Amazon. (In fact, I cataloged only one item, a brochure on a chicken breed called Silkies from the American Bantam Association.) (I am absurdly proud of this record.)

I can even. But I don't need to. (image credit:

I can even. But I don’t need to. (image credit:

Unfortunately, as I mentioned in my resource post, many records came in incomplete. Namely, a large number lacked Dewey call numbers.

Unexpected challenge #301: Learning to hunt down Dewey call numbers. As explained on the excellent Librarians Unite!, there’s no comprehensive database listing every Dewey call number. They recommend, instead, the following:

This is how we determine what number we will use.

1.       In a new book, the Library of Congress information is often printed in the front of the book. This is the first place to start. The suggested Dewey number will be at the end of the listing and will be a 3 digit number, possibly followed by a decimal and further digits.  If this number suits your organizational system, use it.

2.       Check in your own system. If it’s a book about elephants, and you already have another book about elephants, use the same number so they will be together on the shelf.

3.       Check with other libraries to see how they number the book.  You can search for books here and then look for how libraries number them.

4.       Try to use the general Dewey Decimal system to determine where the book will fit.

Slowly but surely, the collection began to take shape. This most dramatically affected the nonfiction, which up until this point had been sorted by one category only: er… not fiction. Bit by bit, agriculture began to separate itself from religion. The biographies of Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton nestled up side by side. Our director, walking by the shelf, exclaimed, “Oh, I love this book!” and “Oooh, we have that?”

When I was young, my mom was always infuriated by what she called my dad’s “gray” messes. A gray mess was when there were so many different things jumbled together than none of them were distinguishable anymore: nails and pennies and Band-Aids and hair ties and outlet covers and bottle caps and guitar picks… it all averaged out to gray. When our shelves looked like this:

library before 2

…it was impossible to see what we had (except for the SAT prep books, because they are purple behemoths) (NOBODY WANTS TO SEE YOU ANYWAY, SAT BOOKS). Dewey’s not a perfect system, but as the chaos began to settle, the collection began to seem like… a collection.

Displays help, too. We'll talk about them later.

Displays help, too. We’ll talk about them later.

I also had a lot of fun with my catalog. You make the catalog? You make the entries. Which means, for my users, a few Easter eggs:

utopia easter eggpride and prejudice easter egg

Titanic easter egg

(There’s also one record in the system that promises the students that I’ll eat my hat if any of them ever checks that book out.) (AHAHAHA YOU’LL NEVER FIND IT, KIDDOS.)



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