Librarianing Theory

We all like theory around here, right?  That’s what draws many of us to the library — the dusty ideas in dustier books; considering Simone de Beauvoir  to be light reading (it wasn’t in the original French, ok?); spouting off lines of Ginsberg and then dressing down the privilege found in white, male Beat lives; quoting Hegel or Marx; fan-boying over Naomi Klein or Johanna Lawrenson or any of our other illustrious visitors.

Let me give you some library theory, then.

Maybe half of us in the working group are MLS-bearing librarians (that’s master’s degree in library science for the lay-folks) or are in library school.  Other folks can speak for themselves, but I’m probably not the only one who went into librarianing partially due to my intense need to organize stuff.  (I’m probably also not the only one who also did it as political praxis, either.)  I could catalogue all the live-long day, and some days I do, happily parked in front of our LibraryThing for hours on end.

That said, you may have noticed that the OWS Library is possibly the least organized library ever.  It lives in a bunch of plastic tubs, sorted by genre.  We do not use Dewey, Library of Congress, Cutter (you’ve heard of Cutter, right?), or any other call number classification system.  We don’t check books in or out in any formal way.  When asked if we have a specific title, the answer usually is, “I saw a copy a couple days ago,” and if asked where exactly a book might be, it’s, “Possibly over there in history, or maybe you could check the reference crates.”

Needless to say, since we’re in it for the organization, sometimes this drives certain librarians, present company included, around the bend a little.

Much of the disorganization arises from the specific issues facing the kind of library we run.  To quote a fellow librarian’s recent Facebook status, “To file under ‘problems I never imagined I’d have': Trouble completing a make-shift tarp-shelter over an illegal outdoor library because Alec Baldwin kept getting in my way…”  We have an extremely limited amount of space, and we are outside at the mercy of the elements, deeply envious of Occupy Boston’s tents.  We have a very limited supply of power from generators and batteries, and a little bit of internet access.  The library is open from whenever people get up in the morning until it slows down in the evening and the live-in contingent of librarians set out their bedding for the night.  We have staff meetings to reach consensus on questions such as what to do if the cops forcibly evict the Occupation (answer: evacuate the archives, supplies, and electronics ahead of time, the books stay till the bitter end).

So then, to wend my way around to what I’m actually writing about today, what are any the guiding principles of the librarianing we do at the OWS Library?

Out in the normal library world, there are two basic elements of library work: cataloguing and reference.  Cataloguing, or arrangement and description for you archivist types, includes in-taking new materials, creating card or database catalogue entries, categorizing materials, assigning location identifiers, shelving, etc.  Reference work is connecting people and their needs to materials and information, answering questions, locating materials that are out there in the collection.  At the OWS Library, our work is a little different, but still falls into these two basic divisions — we intake books, catalogue them in LibraryThing, stamp or sticker or write on them to mark them as part of the collection, sort them out into genre and subject bins, resort things that have been returned, help people find the books they are looking for, make reading recommendations, answer endless questions about how the library works or when and where something is happening or, to mention two reference questions I’ve answered recently, find an out-of-towner the address of a benefit concert somewhere uptown and subway directions to it, and explain the meaning of “ecology” to a non-native English speaker.

The cataloging and sorting is not particularly intellectually taxing work, which means that we can explain the basics to new members of the working group in a couple minutes.  Since this is the People’s Library, we also allow more leeway in categorization than a traditional library would — librarians make autonomous decisions about where an item is shelved (or reshelved — in tidying up yesterday I found a Jean M. Auel novel in Kids & Young Adult and immediately moved it to general fiction; for those unfamiliar with her books, and if a survey of my friends is correct, they are pretty much every teenage girl’s first foray into erotica).

But, back to my question: how do we decide where things go, how do we arrange the books, how do we hold off the chaos?

My answer is always use.  Use, use, use, use.  How do our readers use the library?  If they were looking for a specific work, where might they think to look for it first?  Where might we put it that would make it easy to say, “ah, that’d be in the x section.”  If a reader is looking in a specific section, what books will they be delighted to find there?

This is why I’m mostly okay with the controlled chaos that characterizes the library most of the time.  Even though it grows every day, we have only about 3000 volumes in the park (the catalogue lists 3,344 at the moment, but some are out being read).  That sounds like a lot, and is vastly more than most people have in their own personal collections — I’m an unrepentant bibliophile, but my collection is only a third of that — but it’s not endless, and it doesn’t approach the holdings of most public libraries.  What I’m saying is that, sorted out into topics and genres as we have it now, and without specific call numbers and shelf locations, a person can still find what they want.  One can eyeball the whole of non-fiction in a few minutes.  There aren’t so many bins that if Religion is five feet away from where it was yesterday a reader or librarian won’t be able to find it.

A week or so ago, a young man asked me why all the non-English works were in the same bin.  My answer was that they all fit in the same bin.  Despite specifically asking for more material in a variety of languages, we still don’t have much.  Fiction and non-fiction, Spanish, French, Chinese — it’s all in the same bin.  The principle of use says that this currently works.  If a reader comes looking for book in a language other than English, we’ll always know where to direct them.  And then once they are at the bin, there are only twenty or thirty books in it, so that person will not need to spend much time at all looking through it for works in their language.  Especially because we have limited space, it doesn’t make sense to have mostly empty bins with only a few books in them, as would happen if we separated these books.  I assured my questioner that, when we’d gotten enough books to separate them into bins for fiction/non-fiction, or into different languages, we surely would separate them.  Because, again: use.  At that point ease of use would dictate that all the Spanish books go together, or all the fiction, so that we’d still be sending our readers to a single place for a single kind of book.

So, when an anxious, newly anointed People’s Librarian asks me where they might shelve a particular book, I shrug and tell them to put it where they think it might go, where they might expect to find it if they were looking for it.  Their opinion on the matter is as valid as mine; after all, you don’t need a master’s degree to be one of the People’s Librarians, and they are readers and users of the library just as much as I am.  We’ve democratized the work, direct-democratized it even, since to become a People’s Librarian you just show up and start sorting and cataloguing.

And, if one of the guiding principles that we can draw from the normal library world and repurpose for our own needs at the People’s Library is use, perhaps I should re-resort that Auel novel back into YA, since, as I said, it has an strong tradition of use among YA readers.

5 Comments

Filed under Jaime, Process, Reference, Scholarship

5 responses to “Librarianing Theory

  1. jbetzzall

    Just wanted you to know that we’re consulting this post in thinking through the organization of Occupy Seattle’s library.

  2. michelle

    Hey! I’m librarian314 over at Shakesville and have signed up to work at the library at Occupy DC @ McPherson Sq. It’s nice to see how y’all in NYC are doing it so we don’t have to try and re-invent the wheel.

    How easy is Library Thing to use? I don’t know that I’ve visited it at all (or if I did it was years ago).

    • I think its basic use is pretty easy, but I’ve been using it nearly since it began, so can’t really speak to new-user experience. The front page can look kind of busy, but once you get into the working of it, it’s simpler.

  3. Pingback: People’s Library unshelved | BookCrossing Gossip

  4. Glad you rethought the sorting of Auel’s book! :)

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