Overgrown Shelves

This is an interesting post on a subject I don’t have a lot of experience in.  Weeding.  At the NCCO, we don’t really throw much of anything away, unless it’s too dangerous to exist.  In which case there is a lot of paperwork.  According to our government mandate, we are actually supposed to keep all related materials indefinitely or unless ordered to dispose of them by an act of parliament, which has happened only once and the details of which are strictly classified.  Having effectively infinite shelf space helps with that.


What is it about book weeding that gets library patrons so panicked? I can sort of understand the furor over that weeding project gone awry in Illinois last year, but it seems to happen all the time.

A late example is the library at Emporia State University in Kansas, which has had its weeding project halted until an internal auditor can examine the situation. Some people were complaining, and it must have been bad considering this sentence: “the library has slated a good amount of books to take out of the library, but not in the book burning style that many have imagined.”

Were people really imagining book burning?

I know it’s Kansas and all, where just like Arizona conservatives proposed anti-gay legislation and then voted it down when they realized how much like pre-Civil Rights Era southerners it made them seem, but hating gays so much you want to deprive them of civil rights isn’t necessarily the same thing as burning books.

Well, maybe. Anyway, this isn’t the Kansas legislature, but a bunch of librarians doing the weeding, and librarians are about as fond of burning books as they are of wearing uncomfortable shoes.

The librarians even provide all the standard and irrefutable reasons why a place like Emporia State should weed books: it’s not a research library, space is finite, etc. This isn’t weeding gone awry. It’s just weeding that people notice.

I would think the faculty could figure out that if the library keeps buying physical books and doesn’t have more physical space, something has to go. University libraries aren’t like faculty offices. You can’t just start piling books in random places and hope for the best when finding them.

And although it’s called a university, and even has the prestigious honor of having an ALA-accredited MLS program, it’s not a research library. The only ARL library in Kansas is the University of Kansas.

Therefore, it has no special obligation to keep materials indefinitely, or to build the offsite storage that makes this possible. Heck, maybe even the U. of Kansas doesn’t do that, but it’s still the sort of thing big research libraries do.

Now it could be that people fear they won’t get the material they need for research. That’s a possibility, although since it’s not a research university, they likely don’t have the funding to support everyone’s research.

Instead I suspect the panic is driven by one thing, bibliofetishization. I thought I’d coined that term, by the way, but it got 13 hits on Google, so I guess I didn’t.

Anyway, bibliofetishization, or having a fetish about books if we want to sound less pretentious, seems to be a universal phenomenon, at least among people who read books at all.

How many libraries have had to deal with people offering to donate hundreds of worthless books they found in their granny’s attic because the potential donor couldn’t just throw them out?

“I just want the books to have a good home,” they’ll say. The librarians are thinking that a dumpster is a good home for garbage. Leave them in the dumpster on the way out. “Impossible!”

People who don’t work with books professionally don’t think of them as commodities. Every book is sacred, and every magazine, too, judging by the old sets of National Geographic people are always trying to donate to libraries.

Thus, while it could be that there’s something alarming at Emporia State, I somehow doubt it. Rational explanations about space and such aren’t working well, either.

It might be time to sit down individually with everyone who hates weeding in the library, offer them a cup of tea and a biscuit, and tell them in a sorrowful voice that the librarians are terribly sorry for making any changes at all, but sometimes, every once in a very long while, we have to make a few changes or else things get chaotic, and nobody wants that.


Love and Librarianship

Thankfully, this wasn’t something I had to watch during my orientation, though I’ve certainly seen my fair share of hilariously out of date educational or vocational videos extolling the virtues of produce management and the dangers of unions.  I actually got the link from a friend of mine going to library school here in the city, and she wanted to know just how familiar some of this seemed.

Honestly, I think it still holds a lot of water.  Certainly, the look and tone of it are well out of date but a lot of the roles and responsibilities of librarians laid out in that video haven’t changed all that much.  It starts by asking if you love books and people, and states that they are important traits for anyone wanting to enter into the profession.  Some people will disagree with this, or say that libraries are moving away from print, or that you don’t really have to love people to be a librarian if you work at a special or academic library, but I’m not convinced that’s the case.

While it’s true that print media has taken a back seat to electronic media over the past couple of decades, there is still no shortage of books in most libraries.  Print is still more convenient for some people or purposes, and it’s also a lot more secure.  If your ebook provider goes under or we wind up in some sort of Mad Max post-apocalyptic scenario where the power’s gone, print will still be around.  And once you own it, you own it, which is increasingly a concern in the world of licensed content.  Also, ebooks do still arguably count as books.  Depending on just what it is about reading that you love, some sort of affection for information and its storage really is necessary if you’re going to get into this profession.

grimoireAs for me, I do enjoy the physicality of books.  The smells of old wood and treated leather and dried velum.  The feel of embossed and riveted covers, smooth metal clasps and the comforting weight of centuries, slightly electric to the touch.  Pages upon pages filled with crabbed handwriting that crawls drunkenly up and down the paper, glossy illuminations in hundreds of swirling colours, frantic marginalia, smudges, stains and splatters telling stories beyond what anyone meant to tell.  Wonderful.  Filled with wonder.

And the second point, a love of people.  Aside from the obvious implication of working with people, a librarian also works for the people.  Both are most important for public and school librarians, as they have both the largest amount of interaction with patrons and are the most obviously civil servants, working to further the public good.  But librarians in all roles are primarily a supportive role, we do what we do so that others can do what they do better.  A library without a public to serve is just a bunch of books (and microfilm, databases, &c.) and if you are going to be a librarian, you need to be comfortable with that idea.  Everything you do in your job is done for the benefit of someone else.

I could go on, there’s certainly a lot one could tackle in that video, but I think the crux of it is that while a lot has changed on the surface of librarianship, the core of the profession is still the same, and is founded on these two principles.

Authority Control: It’s Important

So one thing I’ve come to realize that we could do a little better here is authority control and how our requests are handled.  Most library cataloguing systems, including the one we use here, will assign any given copy of the same book the same code.  Normally, this is just fine, as they are all basically the same, and even if they’re different printings there will be, at most, a slight difference in the call numbers assigned.  Unfortunately, when it comes to many of our rare manuscripts, sharing the same name is not a guarantee that they share much of anything else.

Combine this with an electronic request system which lets the patron select the call number on a web form from a little dropdown list that populates based on the title entered (which they may or may not have spelled correctly) and you get a recipe for something bad.  Jello salad or squid ink icecream.  Something like this, except worse and with people who can have you fired.  Let’s just say that mistakes were made all around and I’m glad the people I work with are so understanding.

Mistakes were made, but no lasting harm was done, and next month we’re going to be updating our request system to include comprehensive notes from the bib records and better clearance checks.  We’re also going to be making more comprehensive notes in our bib records and adding clearance data to them.  I look at this as an opportunity to get to know our collection, and MARC, a little more intimately.

Adventures of Tim I

Something a bit less technical today.  I thought I’d share an anecdote I heard from Tim the other day over lunch.  Tim is the head of acquisitions here at the NCCO, which I’m sure you can imagine is a pretty interesting job.  He’s been with the NCCO for 10 years now, and has been head of the department for six.  Before that, he worked as an archaeologist, mostly studying pre-European Iroquois Nation sites up north.  He also watched way too much Indiana Jones, and never takes off that hat or “fine leather jacket.”  Anyway, that’s enough background.  Here is the story as Tim told it, as nearly as I can remember.

This happened about five years ago, not long after I took over as head of Acquisitions.  Don’t ask about what happened to the last guy.  Especially don’t ask Marney.  Sore subject.  So, five years ago, and I get a tip about something odd showing up in the lots for an estate sale happening next week.  That’s next week from five years ago, not next week next week, right?

Right.  So I ask, what sort of odd things and they tell me that some old guy with an interest in the not-so-ordinary had croaked, and his family was unloading all his so-called junk.  Used to travel the world, picking up bits and bobs that peaked his interest.  Kindred soul, you could say.  Maybe I met him once, who knows?

So at any rate, I get down to the estate sale and have a look around the lots before the auction starts.  I’ve got a nice spending account to pick up anything that might be the real deal, maybe get a some dinner later -ha ha- you know how it is.  But I’m looking around and it’s mostly just old tack.  Some big old books, probably worth a fair bit, but nothing I haven’t seen before.  Some big mirror with black glass, real spooky silver-work frame.  Table full of fetishes and voodoo dolls and sacrificial knives.  Real nice collection, and I wouldn’t mind picking up some of it myself, personally, but not what the NCCO is after, right?

Right, but then I see this old lamp, and I just know.  That’s it.  That’s what I’m after.  So I go back to the front room and wait for it to start.  Chat with this nice old bird.  Shame about her.  The auction starts and I just wait around for the lamp, had to hold myself back a few times.  Almost criminal how low some of those bids were.  Anyway, the lamp comes up.  Lot 51.  I wait a bit, see who’s interested, not many.  Not many.  I bid 3k and the other guy looking at it says its a bit grimey, could the auctioneer please polish it a bit?  You can see where this is going, right?

Wrong.  Guy polishes the lamp.  Once.  Twice.  Thrice.  Good word, thrice.  Nothing happens, except the lamp gets cleaner.  Then he pulls off the lid, and that’s when all hell breaks loose.  No friendly, cartoon djinn in that bottle, but an angry ifreet, a demon of flame and sand.  I duck down behind the table just before the first blast of fire lashes out, and lucky thing I did.  Not much left of the other people at the table.  Damn shame.

Now, you might think that I was very heroic and battled the ifreet using my wits and a few useful items from our collection here, and any other day you might be right because I’m sure as hell no slouch in that department.  But today, that day, it was modern safety codes that were the real hero.  You see, ifreet, being made mostly of fire, are not so great with water.  And your modern building, if it is up to code, has very sensitive fire detectors and very powerful sprinkler systems.  He wasn’t out of that bottle two minutes before getting a nice, cold shower and shooting right back into it again.  Ha ha ha!

At any rate, I ran up there, closed the lid and high tailed it out before I had to explain to anyone what just went on.  Got myself a nice dinner, seeing as I didn’t have to pay for the lamp.  And that, kids, is why we here at the NCCO don’t have to pay any heating bills.

Shelving at Right Angles to Reality

Here at the NCCO, we’ve come up with an unusual solution to one problem that plagues all libraries: lack of shelf space.  The building we’re housed in was never huge to begin with, and the very special library only occupies one floor.  Due to obvious security concerns, we can’t really build an expansion, and our government mandate prevents us from destroying or discarding anything without backing it up somehow.  Certainly, the advent of good quality scanners has helped, but the shelves were already starting to overflow back in  the 80s, or so I’m told.


Higher dimensional shelving works like this?

That’s when Marley took the initiative and decided to put some of the information we keep here to practical, in-house use.  I’m sure at least a few of you are familiar with the idea of parallel dimensions, I know I watched a lot of Sliders growing up, and it works along sort of that principle.  Our three-dimensional universe (three spacial dimensions, that is.  Kim tends to get huffy about time also being a dimension) exists within a higher-dimensional framework where other universes may exist alongside ours, separated by some distance along another axis we cannot normally perceive or interact with.  By projecting our shelves out along this extra axis, we were able to secure effectively infinite shelf space, limited only by our ability to finely control the hyper-positioning of the shelves.  Or, again, so I’m told.  Explaining how it works is beyond me, and would be better left to someone in Applications.

Aside from the shelf space, there are a few other benefits to higher dimensional shelving.  First is its preservation aspect.  As any librarian knows, books need to be kept under very particular conditions to prevent decay or damage.  It turns out that the void between dimensions is perfect for this, having absolutely nothing that can react with anything in our collection.  Another plus is the isolation factor.  More than a few of the objects kept at the NCCO, and not just our books, need to be kept in strict containment because of the adverse effect they can have on the employees or on other artefacts.  Being separated from reality itself, even by just a few nanometres, does a better job of this than anyone could ever have dreamed, with only a couple special exceptions.  Ever since we started using HDS, rates of headaches, nosebleeds, insanity and possession have all dropped off remarkably.

Of course, it does have some dangers as well.  Living things do not take well to being outside of our physical universe.  It’s apparently not inherently deadly, at least not immediately, but anyone who’s read House of Leaves should have a good idea of what it’s like.  I found a dead rat on the shelf once, frozen completely solid.

As for why this technology hasn’t been put to wider use yet, well, Kim tells me that it only works here because of our proximity to the Breach.  It really deserves its own post, but it’s pretty much what it sounds like, and it’s pretty much the heart of Containment and Disposal and is, itself, the inspiration for the whole HDS system in the first place.

Now, most of this is just second hand knowledge for me, but I hope it helps to share just how exciting it is to work here at the NCCO.

A Candle in the Darkness


Hello, all.  I’m pretty excited to be starting this blog, not only because it feels great to be trusted with this sort of responsibility, but because I love getting the chance to talk about my work.  I started working at the NCCO, the National Council for Curiosities and Obscurities, in October of last year and I have to admit that when I got the job offer, I had pretty much never heard of the place.  I’m glad I took the job, though, because now I can hardly imagine working anywhere else.

The NCCO, we pronounce it “Nico,” is a pretty tight-knit and very diverse group consisting of librarians, archivists, archaeologists, thaumaturges and physicists, a bunch of technicians and admin staff, and a few people whose job descriptions I can’t quite figure out.  At the top of it all is Marley, who’s been here since the beginning back in 1974 and tends to run things in a pretty hands-off style, and at the bottom are the new hires: myself and Kim.  I’m in the very special library (that’s its official name, by the way) mostly doing grunt work to get acquainted with the stacks.  To be fair, it’s a lot more interesting than I’d thought it would be.  Doing a bibliographic description gets interesting when the book has opinions of its own.  Kim is a physicist, and mostly works in Containment and Disposal, or C&D.

My newest responsibility, though, is this blog.  Public relations.  Seeing the way government libraries have been treated lately, we’re all more than a little worried here at NCCO, and Marley decided that it was better to get the public involved and interested in what we do, rather than go quiet into that good night.  Besides, the idea that our collection might be disposed of in a dumpster or be burned without proper handling, well, it would be a literal disaster.  Class III at the least.

So why me and not someone higher up?  Well, there’s a few reasons.  First, and most importantly, it’s not like I was doing anything important.  I’m pretty sure that was at least half a joke.  Second, I’m young, hip and “with it,” which was entirely a joke, but I do know my way around these sorts of things better than most of the people in my department.  Third, my inexperience is actually a bit of an asset, as it turns out.  The public doesn’t know anything about higher dimensional shelving (great for saving on space) or universal decimal classification (as much a relic of the past as anything we catalogue) and neither do I, at least not much.

So, I hope we can all get to know the NCCO together.  I feel strongly that it plays an important part in making Canada one of the leading countries in occult knowledge and disaster prevention, and it’s more important than ever to raise public awareness of these issues.

Heck, maybe I can convince some of you to consider a career in very special libraries, and you can be working alongside me a year from now.