Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Librarians: A Dissection

As a library professional, one often feels that it would be better for us if no-one ever used libraries, if all the books should just stay on the shelf, perfectly primed for learning.

Shelving, which all librarians have to do at some point, is like making your bed. You know it’s going to be messed up every day, but you have to do it to make the place look tidy.

It's like filing, only horizontally. Placing the books in numerical order from left to right doesn’t sound that difficult, but

1) It’s hard, sweaty work, especially in libraries as the heating system is often in full flow.

2) You can develop a real crick in the neck from tilting your head to peer at book spines all day long

School libraries are especially trying. You can feel like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill, only to watch a bunch of Year Sevens steam in, eat sweets, drop the wrappers all over the floor, pick up books from the shelves and put them straight down on the tables.

The rock gently rests at our feet again. We nudge it back towards the brow of the hill, picking up An Introduction to Greek Myth [291.13], and slotting it back in place.

The Dewey Decimal classifcation system is not difficult to learn. The books go from 001 to 999, with three - or four or five or even seven - decimal places depending on the size/depth of the library. Economics books, for example, go in the 330 section. Chemical engineering's around 660.

This is fairly simple. Unless of course you work at Keele University (which I did), as it’s one of the only libraries in the country that still uses the American Library of Congress system, where the books theoretically range from AAA000 to ZZZ999.

This caused a lot of confusion for the students, many of whom went blank at the sight of letters and numbers together. I tell you, the look on some of their faces when you tell them the Marketing book they require is at classmark HD 3497.65. It’s like you’ve just asked them to untie a Gordian knot. The horror at having to find their own way around a library, it’s palpable. "What, we have to search for our own books?"

You can see the colour draining out of them (and for some computer scientists, they’re already pale).

There’s a lot of Virgos in this field. There’s also a lot of OCD-style behaviour exhibited.

And library professionals (those who’ve done it for a number of years) generally know everything. Everything. Don’t be surprised if the man or woman serving you has more degrees than you do. I used to work on the issuing counter with a brilliant but bone idle woman who had a PhD in Geology.

If they work in the information searching section, guaranteed they’ll be amazing at pub quizzes. All that time spent researching random data has given them superpowers of information-handling.

They may be able to name the all members of Aztec Camera, The Spin Doctors and The Polyphonic Spree (depending on how current their tastes are). They will be able to tell you what all the flags of the world look like, and what the sizes of Champagne bottles are, in order.

A toast, then, to these unsung heroes of the educational system. Cheers!