The Precision of Equus - Barbara Rush
My job these days is getting new media and books into the library system and ready for circulation. Despite the repetitive aspect of physically stickering and RFIDing the individual item (A title often comes in 6 to 200 item batches) doing the final proof-read of the catalogue entry is an interestingly complex task.
Book and media cataloguing starts with the Library of Congress and follows the AACR2 rules published in 1978. This set of criteria defines the information used to catalogue an item in a standard way across all libraries. This is a wonderful thing because you can go to any library and the same book will be described in about the same manner. This is particularly important when looking for a specific edition or format of a title.
Consider Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. Published in the early 14th century it consists of 3 books, really; Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Most folk are familiar only with the Inferno portion as it deals with his tour of Hades with Virgil and any exploration of hell promises all sorts of creepy settings and naked tortured souls. Standard Hollywood copy, but it stills sells. The great thing about Inferno, however, is that it’s really old and not merely written in poetic form, but it’s Italian poetry! So basically you can read a horror story and feel all literary while doing so. Unless, of course, you get a translation that ties your cerebellum in knots. (not that that’s hardly difficult to do, but I digress…)
And there be the rub, so to speak. In the most basic of cataloguing one should define the edition, to add the half-somersault to the dive we now can add audio and e-book editions, and can further define that into format and access device. The level of precision must follow the path of the item while not neglecting the trail behind it.
Those of us that were early computer nerds and programmed in BASIC will think they recognize a MARC record. MAchine-Readable Cataloguing has been around for decades. It’s a system of numbered fields holding defined data subject to AACR2.
This framework is what I find most engaging and the ability to specify to such a deep level I find fascinating. In previous incarnations I’ve had some ability to play in such an environment. But in, say, the site/forum permission structure I set up for NoN, while complex, it was small (less than 2000 users), I built it, and only a half dozen or so folks were admin. Here was a structure already under the load of millions of items, in active use globally, and growing.
I had no idea that there could be so much art to this precision.
In my 4 years in technical services, so far, that art has been the absolute most difficult aspect for me to come to proper terms with. As with rhetoric, where does the artistry begin to cloud or even obfuscate the subject? When does “Because we can” begin to outweigh “Because we should”? Even if it’s correct to allow poor definition to pass, is it right? Is there a responsibility to the system to minimize or mitigate that point where artistry (or sloppiness, or laziness, perhaps) hinders or ignores precision?
I can assure you, I’m not hostile to artistry within a precise environment, in fact I think it’s a requirement to both a better understanding of an environment and the improvement of it. You should see some of the hacks I had to do to BBS software I ran years ago – pure art, if I do say so myself… I also have always enjoyed testing the limits of systems. No, never been a cracker, but I do like to poke into all the corners and open every cupboard – a version of playing with it until you can figure out how to break it.
Time and again I come back to Mandelbrot’s fractal equation to make a point; this one being that there can be a native beauty in precision and that exactitude does not necessarily line things up in bare rows.
Fortunately for me, my boss is beginning to understand this quirk of mine and lets me poke, prod, question, and even challenge a tad, the way things are catalogued as they go by me.
And in the end of it all comes balance, that elusive quality I strive for, the elusive middle path where understanding meets practice amid circumstance. And there is where the greatest of my fortunes lies; the pursuit of that balance.