Sunday, 29 January 2012

Library day in the life of ... day 4

9.15 Re-shelving

As the re-shelving situation is as bad as ever, let's give up on reality and go for a bit of fantasy and swap this day for a day when Darren Criss would bound into the library and start something
This at least gets the day off to a good start.

10.30 Manuscripts reading room

I look after the archive of the Cambridge University Greek play committee as well as running the retrocon projects. It isn't very onerous for me - the Manuscripts dept staff do all the organizing - but the pictures of old productions are fascinating - this picture shows an actor playing Zeus in 1883, complete with thunderbolt. Today somebody wants a selection of images from the production of Sophocles' Ajax in 1882. Even more interesting, he's staging a version of the play in Cambridge later this month. There's one photograph which is definitely from that production, but several others where it's uncertain which play they represent. This is where it's useful being in a university full of classicists ...

11.30 Blogging for beginners - 10 minute slot at training session on blogging

Blogging session today with other librarians in Cambridge, led by Clemens Gresser. I only had to talk for about 10 minutes, about how our Tower Project group blog works, how we get ideas and turn them into blog posts. I'm just about to boast about our 30,000 blog views a year when I find out that blog stats are notoriously unreliable.

12.45Rare books reading room

3pm Cataloguing problem of the day: cliffhangers
"The shadow of sin" is typical of the "cheap fiction" material in the tower collection. We have lots of beautifully bound books, presumably intended for middle/upper class children, or perhaps Sunday school prizes for the less well-off. But there's also lots of very cheap paperbacks and some that don't even have a cover but are printed like a newspaper. I was cheerfully cataloguing one of these - "The shadow of sin" - when I realised that it came to an abrupt end "There came a crash - the echo of a woman's cry of fear - and silence!"

Turning over the page, I found an essay on "Our food supply" and then "The children's corner" which ended in mid-sentence "when Jesus comes to live with you" - what? Several questions come to mind: is this a printer's specimen, a sort of preview copy of part of a work? An offprint? Is it part of a periodical? Is it just a fragment of a larger work and is the rest of it in another box? I tried OCLC Worldcat and the COPAC database to see if another library had the same fragment or the whole work, no luck. So it just has to be described in a note, as is often the case with this sort of ephemeral material.

I'm signing off from day in the life of now, I'm on leave tomorrow. It's been interesting to write about my working week, but also quite a challenge. Writing about cataloguing turned out to be particularly difficult: I realised how rarely I talk to non-cataloguers about cataloguing, The vocabulary is quite specialised, again (I think) as a result of cataloguers talking primarily to each other. Definitely something to think about in future.

Library day in the life of ... day 3

9.15 Re-shelving
We're currently tracking a sample of books from the point where each book is returned by a reader, to the point when the book is back on the shelf and available for the next reader. My results don't look very encouraging.

10 Coffee

10.30 Review productivity for the project and write report. It's the first day of February, so it's time to investigate whether we catalogued enough books last month to meet our targets. In fact I keep an eye on this every week - I don't like a nasty shock at the end of the month. Some people shudder at the idea of quotas for cataloguers, but I would find it difficult to manage a project without some sort of targets. Funding bodies want to know how much a project will cost, quite reasonably. There's a certain amount of theorising involved - if one person takes a week to catalogue 100 books, how many people will it take to catalogue 200,000 books? But we've been cataloguing this sort of material for 4 years, so I can make a reasonable estimate of how many books people are likely to be able to catalogue in a week or a month. Year on year comparisons are also useful - we almost never reach our target in December, for example, because the library closes from 24th December to 2nd January, so a certain amount of catching-up has to be done.

11.30 Review yesterday's cataloguing with new staff.

12.45 Rare books reading roomIt's a bit quieter in the room today. Which gives me time to review the various card catalogues housed in the rare books reading room and wonder what might be done about them. There are provenance catalogues, catalogues of ephemera, catalogues of ballads - all the specialist categories that don't fit into the usual book catalogue record. How much work would it take to convert these catalogues to something searchable online? What level of staff? How long? The essential thing to do is to work on a representative sample of the cards, and the Head of Rare Books has recently begun on this.

3pm Storage and access
I'm on floor 15 of the tower again, and pondering the old wooden cabinets in which 19th century non-academic material is stored. I don't know how old they are, but I find myself wishing for the days when I worked in further education colleges and everything was new. Or at least circa 1970. These cabinets may have been fine to stoe things when nobody looked at them very often, but now the tower material is being photographed and written about, the cabinets are old, it's difficult to open the drawers, and they're far too full of material. Time to write another plea for money for new cabinets ...

4.15 Training session: cataloguing Bibles, and books about the Bible.
This is mostly about looking at uniform titles and how different versions of the Bible are organised in the catalogue so that people can find them. We need to include in the catalogue heading all the essentials that identify a Bible - eg. language and version. Staff have to cope wth the massive cultural change between 1913, when the Bible was central to childhood and adult culture, and the present day, when it's just one of many texts. The cataloguing rules also assume familiarity with Christian texts, referring to Gospels, Epistles, Apocrypha in a way that many people find quite baffling. The Library of Congress subject headings refer to Hermeneutics, Versions, Harmonies, using very specialist language. But again, one of the skills of being a great cataloguer is about being able to read specialist texts and understand something of the structure of the subject. I'm quite at home with Catholic and Church of England texts but years ago I catalogued a large donation of books from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and I had to get to grips with the literature quite quickly. It's about analysing the content and understanding the context. Which is what makes it a great job. Don't ever think that cataloguing is just about following rules!

Library day in the life of ... day 2

9.15 Re-shelving
And the trollies have multiplied to 4 ...

10 Coffee
Today's topics: Venice, holidays, Belgian food. Just the things for a grey January morning ...

10.30 Planning future projects
Our current Tower project ends in December this year, and it's time to think about what we should be doing next. Although 2013 seems a long way off, the University financial year starts in August, which means that I need to work out costs of several possible projects so that decisions can be made about expenditure for August onwards. There are still three or four huge card catalogues in need of conversion, but the university and the wider world are struggling with a lack of money. This isn't the financial climate for an expensive top quality project. We're starting to think about other approaches, possibly scanning some of the catalogue cards.

11.30 Talk to cataloguers about books they catalogued yesterday.

12.45-2 Rare Books reading room
What's being read from the tower collections today?

Guide to Leeds, Wortley and Holbeck including suburbs. (1878)

Cassell's household guide : being a complete encyclopædia of domestic and social economy, and forming a guide to every department of practical life. (1883) Which includes this rather nifty picture of 19th century aerobics:

On duty under a tropical sun : being some practical suggestions for the maintenance of health and bodily comfort and the treatment of simple diseases ; with remarks on clothing and equipment for the guidance of travellers in tropical countries / by Major S. Leigh Hunt.

2pm Lunch

3pm Training session
for two new cataloguers who started work just three weeks ago. Today we're looking at how to catalogue adaptations of earlier works. Our tower collection includes hundreds of classics adapted for children to read in school. The cataloguing rules are clear enough (see Anglo American Cataloguing Rules 21.10) Give a catalogue access point for the adapter, and one for the original author. But the original author isn't always stated - how many of these could you identify?

Tales from Troy / adapted from the Aeneid.

The little mermaid and The brave tin soldier: adapted texts for ages 6-9

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight / retold in modern prose.

Quentin Durward (adapted)

Different cataloguers play to different strengths - some are voracious readers and have read many of the works in question, others create networks of colleagues to help out (or even Twitter) but most of us are graduates who have had a lot of training and practice in finding information and assessing it.


Trip up the tower to plan work for the next few weeks. The tower has a great atmosphere - a chilly silence and the sort of smell you used to get in second hand bookshops - but it's a horribly impractical place to store books and indeed to work. We catalogue a thousand books each week and every book has to be carried downstairs from the upper floors of the tower to the lift on floor 15. So book-moving, cataloguing, training, and returning the books to the tower all have to be carefully planned. There's a picture of the inside of the tower here on the Library's Flickr stream.. There's a great view of Cambridge though, plus the chance to check the state of traffic on the M11 before heading home.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Library day in the life of ... day 1

Today is my first day describing my working day for the Library Day in the Life Project:

A brief introduction: I work in Cambridge University Library as a cataloguing project manager. My official title is Head of Retrospective Conversion, which doesn't sound like something essential but is (and not just because I say so). The Library still has many books only catalogued in card catalogues, which means that the books can't be found in any online database. My job is to organize the 'conversion' of the card catalogue records into records that can be searched via the internet. We're not talking about making the full text of the books available, just the catalogue record, but no magic wand is available: the card catalogues must be scanned or keyed. Or, in a few wonderful projects, as in the present Tower Project, the material is considered sufficiently rare and undiscovered to be re-catalogued from the book itself. There are ten of us working on the project: you can see our Tower Project web pages and our project blog


It's Monday morning, and it starts with re-shelving the books that have been returned by readers. I try to remember that it's great the the library is so well-used, that the books are borrowed so often, but the downside is an awful lot of books to re-shelve each morning. Each trolley holds 120 books and this morning I have two trollies and just 40 minutes to re-shelve them. Impossible jobs aren't a good way to start the week. I can only remind myself that our whole book re-shelving process is currently being critically reviewed.

Coffee Unlike any other library I've worked in, people actually have plenty to say at coffee time. Today we cover the Australian Open, football (of some kind, not my thing), the TV series Borgen and Coronation St.


If you're still reading, by 10.30 I've actually started something job-related. My job is to ensure that cataloguing projects are completed, on time, within budget to an agreed standard. Key to this is quality control of the catalogue records we produce. All records for this Tower Project have to be keyed from scratch. This means copy-typing information from the title-page and keying in the MARC21 coding and punctuation. Staff use templates for as much material as possible, but there is still a lot of scope for human error in keying. We have various ways of dealing with this: our validation programme, Catalogers' Toolkit, a brief visual check by cataloguers (preferably the next day). This morning we're using a programme called MARC Report to check for MARC coding errors. Why does it matter? MARC coding is (partly) what makes catalogue data work. More importantly, compiling a list of errors enables me to prioritise and correct the most damaging errors. What does 'damaging' mean in a catalogung context? If you can't find the book in the catalogue. So we prioritise keying and coding errors that affect classmark (call number), title and author name.

12.45 Rare Books reading room

Working in the reading rooms gives me a chance to see which books catalogued by the project are being read. Last year we finished cataloguing all the books published in the nineteenth century and they're very heavily used. In a place like Cambridge there are always the 'regulars' in a rare books reading room, so you get to know the people working on 19th century popular material. There are also the short-term visitors from overseas, very focused, trying to see as many texts as possible within a limited time. It's also an opportunity to talk to people about how the books are being used: what's the topic of their PhD? Have they published anything on it? Most researchers seem quite happy to talk about their interests, I can only remember one who looked rather alarmed.

2pm late lunch

Over lunch I checked the student newspaper Varsity to see how the UL was reported. Two journalists visited the library last week to research an article on the library and I did a brief tour of the tower and talked about the collections. Both writer and photographer (who are also full-time undergraduates) absorbed masses of detail without blinking, managed to capure something of the more entertaining side of life here, and even included my favourite advert for 'electric corsets' published 1892.


Cataloguing - more about this tomorrow.

5pm General admin.

Preliminary admin for meeting of heads of department on 7th Feb., book-moving rota, blog-posting rota, answering email and phone enquiries about our cataloguer vacancy.