Libraries, books, and information on the frontier

Rare Frontier

Emancipatory Education in Cataloging

The fear, and lack of understanding, of standards acts as an oppressive force for cataloging librarians. I recently had a discussion with a friend who wanted to know what makes a good cataloger it went something like this-

Friend: “What makes a cataloger good? Have they memorized more of the Dewey Decimal system?”

Me: “Well, actually not all of us know the Dewey Decimal system, since our libraries don’t use it.”

F: “Wait, so what do you use then? Do you memorize that?”

M: “No, it’s not really about memorization, although a photographic memory would help. I suppose the longer you are around, the more stuff you know since you can see standards as they develop and know the past standards that they have been based on.”

F: “So wait, a cataloger is good by virtue of how many obsolete standards they know?”

M: “Hmmm, in fact I think there is a strong correlation.”

This line of reasoning left me wondering. Why is it that senior catalogers are the ones who know all the standards? Their seniority actually makes some sense because they can better work within library databases. While a skill in writing, or analyzing the text, can be valuable, ultimately the product of cataloging is data that is reused in a bewildering array of systems. Thus, better cataloging increases the number of systems the data can move through smoothly, and so better catalogers know how to do their work to maximize the number of systems that can read the data. Some of these systems, still use obsolete standards, and thus I think that the cataloger who knows the most standards well wins.

I don’t think this is obvious from the outside, or at the beginning, of the profession, and what looks like simply agism and cronyism actually corresponds to something deeper. (although, it is sometimes still just agism and cronyism)  So, I decided that it would be good to encourage librarians to read the standards themselves. I channeled my inner George Fox and said to myself “FRBR is here to teach you in person, you don’t have to rely on the elite to translate.”

Thus, we decided to have the entire cataloging department read all of FRBR, play with strings, and work on developing a collective sense of what that document means. I’m VERY pleased with the results. I believe we might be the only substantial cataloging department where everyone (staff, faculty, everyone) has read FRBR and formed an opinion.

Of course, I still have my issues with FRBR, and would much rather see a bibliographically oriented version that incorporates edition, state, issue, impression, etc. (these sit uneasily within the hireachy, if they sit there at all) but that’s a future project.

You can see the report of the event here:

The blog lives here:

We’re hoping to do the same thing for FRAD, so any thoughts would be welcome and appreciated.

I’ve become an adult now, I own my own domain

While I love the free service provided by, I decided it was time to move to my own hosting. I’ve officially moved my blog to . This is a moment of reflection for me. I had started the blog as an outlet for some of my ideas that were not fully fledged into research, and since that time I’ve been working more and more aggressively on doing research that is publishable. This focus has caused the enormous hiatus I’ve been on lately. I plan on continuing to write, but I need to find my voice again.

Having participated in a fantastic online conference at APPOSITIONS, I wonder if having my own private server for research is necessarily a good idea. Connecting and sharing research with other academics seems like a much better approach than shouting from my own platform. Thus, online conferences, and shared blogs are more interesting approaches. Perhaps I should just point to articles online? But then, isn’t this just a live CV?

I suppose one solution is to return to the reason for writing, the sheer pleasure of it. So please join my at my new location at-

Progressive Bibliography

Rare book cataloging is a queer chimera. On one hand, the cataloger must be conversant with bibliography, the history of the book, and cultural studies in general, so that they can place the artifact in its proper milieu; on the other hand, Card Catalogtheir scholarship often goes unobserved because it is concealed under the cloak of unostentatious librarianship. Unlike a full descriptive bibliography, rare book cataloging does not conjure determined research project, but provides links and anchors to other projects, which itself is a sort of meta-bibliographical project.

How, then, can the work of the cataloger ever be complete? Or for that matter to be useful to scholars who need current information?

I argue that progressing towards bibliography resolves these issues by recognizing the nature of the chimera and its limitations. I discuss this idea in more depth in my recent article

“Progressing Toward Bibliography, or, Organic Growth in the Bibliographic Record,” RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage, 10, 2 (Fall, 2009): 95-110.

I welcome any comments, criticism, additions, or counter-points. What do you think is the interface between bibliography and cataloging? Is there one?

(Also, I’d love to put this up on a CommentPress instance, but I don’t have one installed right now. Do any of my lovely readers have such a thing they’d like to volunteer?)

The future will know us by our giant coffee-table books

Textual works create a trace through which the future can know its past. We interrogate  the texts (meant in a broad sense) that history deems worthy to survive to determine what came before. So question of survival is paramount to humanist epistemology. Lost books lobotomize the historical/archival record and so in exploring these losses we can begin to understand the limits of historical necromancy based on the text.

In Volume 10, Number 2, of The Library, Alexander S. Wilkinson discusses “Lost Books Printed in French before 1601.” He compares two 16th century catalogs of books (François de La Croix du Maine, Premier volume de la bibliotheque (Paris, chez Abel L’Angelier, 1584) and Antoine Du Verdier, La bibliotheque (Lyons, Jean d’Ogerolles pour Barthélemy Honorat et Thibaud Ancelin, 1585)) to the database used for the French Vernacular Book Project. He observes that survival of copies of books printed prior to 1601 is based largely on two factors: physical size (as reflected in imposition scheme) and topic. Larger books were more likely to survive than smaller books, and reference, illustrated, or poetic works were more likely to survive than texts intended to perform functions (political tracts, almanacs, literature, calendars, games, textbooks, etc.) . Although the size of print runs for these various texts would be hard to know, it is easy to imagine that the functional texts were more popular and printed in greater numbers. Large reference works, while highly useful, are simply not needed in as great a number as this year’s astronomical almanac. It appears the issue of rarity for these books comes from their treatment, not their conditions of publication.

I discussed the terminology of rarity in a previous post, but in this case relative rarity, the number of books surviving through historical accident, seems to more important than absolute rarity, the number of items produced. Wilkinson argues that some books were seen as more valuable, and less replaceable, and so were preserved. One easily explained exception is the low survival of bibles. Bibles, although reference works and large, were likely to be lost since they could be more easily replaced by another edition with the same text. Larger books were both more expensive and harder to lose because of their size.

So, if we extend this idea to our present production, perhaps coffee table books will define the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Scholars may try to understand the significance contemporary culture by looking for historical antecedents in Time Life’s coffee table books. These books are large, appear to be valuable (much to the chagrin of gifts librarians), are plentiful, and are a distinct text (not just another bible). This is, of course, complicated by preservation issues. Pre-1601 books were on hand-made paper and vellum, which is almost certainly longer lasting than clay-coated art paper which constitutes many of the recent coffee table books.

The lesson here, though, is that survival in the documentary archive depends on popular reception. Big, flashy, and apparently distinct books define the bulk of what remains, reinforcing the hegemonic interpretations. As critical scholars, we must therefore seek out the unusual, the small, the odd, and the paradoxical if we want to unmask the hidden narratives. Leave the historical “coffee table” books alone and take a look at the “almanacs.”

Humanities as the Hub, Mapping Knowledge

The research done by mathematicians in information-library science has a certain appeal to me.  It’s like some sort of H.R. Giger chimera a combination of technology and organic structure.  To name a few of these mathematician/librarian/information researchers we have:

  • Claude Shannon, Ma Bell researcher, father of information theory, mathematician
  • S.R. Ranganathan, librarian, father of library science in India, mathematician
  • Gottfried Leibniz, (a new one for me) founder of library science, originator of publisher’s abstracts for libraries, mathematician
  • Herbert Van de Sompel, assisted in creating OAI, developing SFX, OpenURL syntax, mathematcian

The application of the mathematical approach to the humanities seems to be a fertile area for ideas and developments.  This was uncanny to me,

Map of Science

Map of Science

until I read a recent article co-authored by Herbert Van de Sompel, and began this line of thinking.

The article has a wonderfully explicit name, Clickstream Data Yields High-Resolution Maps of Science, and is equally lucid in describing a fascinating visualization of the connections of knowledge (based on clickstreams through various journals and number/thesaurus crunching.)  The image here is taken from that article and shows a colored dot for each intellectual discipline represented in the study and a line connecting ones that had a high probability of user crossover.  In other words, disciplines are connected if many of the users in the study were looking at articles in both.

One really interesting thing about this map, is that yellow-white blob north-west of the middle of the chart is the location of many of the humanities disciplines.  The area is highly connected, internally as well as externally, and if one believes the methodology of the study, this is not an artifact of the visualization.  That is, the humanities disciplines are highly connected to each other and to the other disciplines.  The article reads,

To provide a visual frame of reference, we summarize the overall visual appearance of the map of science in Fig. 5 in terms of a wheel metaphor. The wheel’s hub consists of a large inner cluster of tightly connected social sciences and humanities journals (white, yellow and gray).

So we have a hub, or core (or rhizome if you are into A Thousand Plateaus) of the humanities and social sciences connecting the natural and applied sciences.  These core disciplines seem to be characterized by connections and interdisciplinary, both in their rhetoric, and also through this particular study.

Mathematicians are often concerned with the abstract or the ideal of something.  Their work is often finding patterns and building systems to connect already established systems.  Mathematically inclined people who move towards this hub, in the form of information/library science, seem to retain the knowledge-as-erector-set-between-disciplines ideal.  Seeing the connections, they gravitate towards humanism and abstract connections between disciplines.

In the end, we get cybernetic chimeras which seem so dirty and perverse, but are somehow beautiful because they get us closer to understanding our weird web of knowledge.