A Sheepish Return

Originally posted 8/22/05:
Well, once again I've lapsed in my blogging. Now, however, I've started Law School and probably won't have time for either video games or blogging, so this seems a stupid time to start things up again. Nonetheless, today something happened that I felt compelled to blog, causing a voice from the depths of my soul to scream "You must tell the world of this, and also how you feel about it, because it's kind of vaguely interesting, to the right sort of person!"

The precipitating event was my visit to Columbia's main library, the Butler Library. As you (perhaps?) know, I dedicated three years to working at the Main Stacks of Doe Library in Berkeley, one and a half of those years as a clerk responsible for database maintenance, problem solving, and general low-level scut work. So I tend to find libraries very welcoming and homey and, to an extent, Butler was no exception.

I am forced here to make comparisons between Butler and Doe, not all of them flattering to my old place of work. Butler has a nice coffee shop and lounge for the drinking of said coffee right by the main entrance, which I know many of my co-workers would consider a godsend. Further, Butler's food and drink policies are somewhat more sensible than Doe's (No food, but beverages are permitted in spill-proof cups, which are readily available for sale and can also be found all over the place free of charge during orientation). The architecture is quite nice in Butler, very similar to Doe's, and the interior decoration hinges more on stately murals, rather than display-of-the-month tchotchkes and rare books. There are a number of reading rooms that, while not quite as sumptuous as Morrison, make up for it by their larger size (the outer rim of three floors) and their more extensive hours.

So. Butler has very nice amenities, all the trappings of a great library, interesting architecture, aesthetically pleasing. But what, you are now asking, about the books themselves?

Here, I am afraid, Doe wins hands-down, which ultimately makes it the better library. To begin, and this is a rather esoteric point, Butler houses a mere 4 million volumes, while UC Berkeley's collection now approaches 10 million. This is not to say that Columbia's collection is paltry and insignificant in comparison, but... well, it sort of is.

More to the point, all of the elaborate reading rooms and coffee houses seem an elaborate facade designed to distract from a run-down stacks. The design of the library is such that there is a ring of peripheral stuff, reading rooms, computer labs, etc. with the books in the middle, behind somewhat obscure doors. The books are divided among, I believe, 15 small floors, each floor containing perhaps 30 ranges of 4 sections each. The stacks are poorly lit, claustrophobic, and somewhat dank. The ground is exposed concrete, the shelves metal, and there are metal link walls separating the patron from what (I believe) are the Butler-equivalent of 4RS, though I saw no SLEs scuttering about organizing books (On a related note, their trucks were all numbered. No cute names, no artwork. That's just sad). Large segments of the stacks have no lighting at all, necessitating either a flashlight or eyestrain.

And then something happened that set me off as a former clerk who has managed, by close and prolonged contact, to acquire some of the librarian's characteristic obsessive-compulsion: As I perused the books, suddenly and abruptly the call numbers changed. Initially I was in the CD section (I believe those are history-related science books, for example archeology). Then, suddenly, I encountered books that had call numbers that began with actual numbers. "This is curious," thought I to myself. "Are they Rowells?" but no, of course not, that's a Berkeley thing. I stared at the oddly numbered books and was suddenly struck by a revelation: These books are classified by the Dewey Decimal System! I ran to a directory and, sure enough, Columbia's books are divided between books with Library of Congress call numbers and books with Dewey Decimal call numbers (in about a 1:2 ratio), with Dewey Decimal books in the eastern half of the stacks and LoC books in the western half. Once home I looked up some books in the on-line catalog to see how this works in operation. Some books with multiple copies have both Dewey Decimal and LoC copies, others have just a Dewey Decimal copy, while still others have just an LoC copy.

I suppose I can understand how it works from the patron's point of view; you find your book, you get it's call number, you grab it. You don't care whether it uses one arbitrary organization system or another. But damnit! It's just not right! Having two separate call number systems in the same library goes against every principle of organization! I don't order half of my books by title, and the other half by author's last name! The whole process really cuts down on the ability to browse for books on the same subject, one of the most welcome and important features of an open stacks. Unless your book is one of the few with two copies, you need to research to find what the Dewey/LoC call number would be, and then browse that area after you finish looking in the other area.

I had been toying with the notion of applying for a job at the library, but now I'm not so sure; I don't think I could stand to be around so flagrant a disjunction in organization. Frankly, I'm not sure how Columbia's librarians allowed it to pass. Granted, it would be a lot of work switching to one or the other, but for Pete's sake, how can you justify living with such an abomination? I know I'll have a tough time sleeping tonight after what I've seen.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on August 24, 2005 10:17 PM.

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