Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Aesthetics of the Library Catalogue

Summer in a university library involves long, repetitive, "housekeeping" jobs while the students (or most of them, anyway) are away. For the second summer in a row, we've been working on a weeding project in the short loan collection-- well, it's as much a replacement project as a weeding project, replacing books that are in bad condition with new copies.

The job involves a lot of checking the library online catalogue, and it's funny how much I find myself enjoying this. I've been trying to analyse the pleasure.

There's always something very pleasing about a facility-- and I mean this even in the crudest sense of "the facilities". Is anything more pleasing than a clean, well-kept public rest room (I like the American expression), especially in a place where you might not expect to find one?

On the other end of the scale, I find myself thinking of the only four-star hotel I've ever visited-- on my honeymoon, in Germany. The hotel had a swimming pool and sauna, downstairs. There was a sign beside them announcing that, if you wanted a drink, you could call up to reception to have one brought down to you. That's always stuck in my head as the acme of luxuriousness, for some reason. I didn't avail of it, but it was luxurious knowing that I could.

Another thing that delights me about hotels-- any hotel-- is the knowledge that the hotel reception is open all through the night, that you can phone down and somebody will be available. There's something very comforting about it-- it reminds me of the title of the Smiths song, "There is a Light that Never Goes Out".

Have you ever noticed that there is nothing more luxurious than having just what you need, or having a little bit of comfort, especially if you are in some kind of confined or limited situation? I notice this especially on airplanes. Perhaps it is the contrast between the mild discomfort and confinement of the flight, and the fact that you actually have a surprising amount of facilities available to you-- books, radio, movies, air hostesses pressing food and drink on you, a view from above the clouds. and so on. I never had a tree house or went camping but I imagine this must be the appeal of such activities, or much of it.

But again, Chesterton said it best, in a discussion of Robinson Crusoe:

Crusoe is a man on a small rock with a few comforts just snatched from the sea: the best thing in the book is simply the list of things saved from the wreck. The greatest of poems is an inventory. Every kitchen tool becomes ideal because Crusoe might have dropped it in the sea. It is a good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day, to look at anything, the coal-scuttle or the book-case, and think how happy one could be to have brought it out of the sinking ship on to the solitary island.

Anyway, this is the pleasure I get from using the library catalogue. And not only the pleasure of its convenience and usefulness, but the realization that it was built up over untold man-hours (and, indeed, lady-hours) of my colleagues entering catalogue records. (I don't do cataloguing.)

Some years ago I arranged and catalogued the private library of a retired Supreme Court judge. It might be the only job I've ever done where I was completely responsible for everything from beginning to end, with no fall-back. The sight of all the neatly arranged volumes on the shelves gave me a thrill. Not only that, but it made me more cognisant of all the work that goes into everything we see around us-- from the paving stones on the street, to the people standing on the paving stones, all of whom had to be carried, born, raised, schooled etc.

So, though the job is quite tedious, it has its benefits. And so far I've been working through political science books, which are endearingly nerdy.


  1. As an archivist I enjoyed this post! Catalogues, in archives and libraries alike, are many things. They are keys; they are sea-charts; they are fastnesses of knowledge about knowledge and defensive wordworks against ignorance...

    And although they are scientific in their approach there is still some mystery to them, just as Chesterton says. And because there is seldom enough time to do it properly, and concision is the order of the day, many archival descriptions have a breathless air to them, like an urgent whisper or message that might easily have been lost.

    I also gain plenty of satisfaction from the hierarchical structure of archive catalogues, in which the smallest, flimsiest piece of paper with the slightest of information has its context and relation to the whole. Just like us cataloguers who are both humble in the grand scheme of the project of preserving information, and proud of making any contribution at all.

    1. Thank you! Yes, there is so much that can be written about this! Especially how it all comes together, like you say...I love coming across some index card or computer record which may have been written ten years ago, fifteen years ago, twenty years ago-- sometimes many decades ago-- and think how that person's work endures.

    2. Yes, that is one of the most satisfying things about working in archives: that a day's work lasts, or ought to, anyhow. One doesn't have to do it again the next day - it's just that there's always more!

      And I also enjoy the thought that each record might one day be just the thing somebody is looking for.

  2. Séamus(Australia)June 8, 2017 at 5:36 AM

    You actually came to my mind the other day;I was in a café with a choir director/organist and she asked wether I wanted to go for the ride-she was borrowing stuff from the UWA music school library(She HAD graduated from there, but apparently they would accept library members on other criteria also)[it's not an enormous room, but most of the shelves have print music or cds; no thick volumes from the glance I had, so there's probably a lot more there than one would think at first]
    She showed me,from outside, one of the exam/performance rooms-it's called The Eileen Joyce room. I remarked that she must have been Irish descent. She was born in Tasmania at any rate and (no doubt a Catholic) educated by Loreto Sisters. RIP
    (at this stage one of us remembered that the parking had expired-it's not cheap to park in the grounds and the inspectors are ruthless- so off we charged , box of music books in hand) (despite the parking situation you don't see rows of bicycles around, such as you see in postcards of Dublin's Trinity college)

  3. We have a music library but it's rarely used. Surprisingly, sheet music seems more popular than CDs or vinyl.