or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 4/26/09

   May 2nd, 2009

beating a dead horseI wasn't actually asked this reference question this week, but I have answered it more than once in the past. I use it here because the scenario below illustrates the point of this week's posts.

Patron: I'm remodeling a room in my house - do you have any books on that?

Why, yes, we do. Usually when people ask this question, what they're after are the interior design-type books. These are good for ideas on paint color combinations, decor, furniture, etc, and are mostly shelved at Dewey 747.

I take the patron over there, and after flipping through a couple, the patron says,

Patron: I like the ideas in these two. But neither of them actually tell you how to paint - are there books that will show a beginner like me how to do it right?

We have those books, too, but they're in a different section. I shuffle the patron over to the 645's, but I also need to show her the 698's, because there are some how-to books there, too.

While I'm pointing out these books, the patron continues,

Patron: We've already started painting a bit, and spilled paint on the carpet. Will these books tell me how to clean that up?

Well, no, I don't think so... those books will be in 640.

Patron: Oh, and we noticed some cracks in the drywall, which we'd like to try to repair. My husband is pretty handy, so he thinks he can handle it. And one of the outlets isn't working, so can you show me where those books are?

Now we're back to the 690's for the drywall books, but need to cross over to 621 for books on wiring. The patron says thank you, and is excited, because we have books on every aspect of her project. But as I turn to leave, she takes my arm and says,

Patron: Before you go... well, I'm lost. I've forgotten where the first books are you showed me, and the 'how to paint' books - can you show me where those are again?

I know her project is involved, but the basic question is fairly straight-forward: "where is the home improvement section?" My issue is that Dewey doesn't have one - it has at least four.

Patrons have difficulty finding library resources because we make it difficult. All of these books, since they are related, should be shelved more closely together than this. Why is it that books on dogs (636) are between the electrical books (621) and the home improvement books (645); and between the home improvement books (645) and the general construction books (690's) are books on writing resumes (650)? Arrgh.

Don't worry: no dead horses were beaten during the writing of this post.

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7 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 4/26/09”

  1. lesbrarian Says:

    I started to type my reply to this– your topic this week is one that reallllllly hits home– but my reply was turning into an essay, so I blogged about it on my website instead. I wasn’t content with beating the horse, I had to go and display its corpse as a warning to the peasantry.

  2. Schalken Says:

    It seems like the simplest solution would be to create a bunch of “subject guides” that contain call number ranges for books relating to a particular theme. In this case, instead of having to continuously remind the patron the patron of this or that range, you could have them all on one sheet. This is less drastic than creating the separate collections that you’ve blogged about earlier this week.

    At any rate, your command of Dewey really pays off!

  3. Jeremy Says:

    Your point is very well taken, haven experienced those same frustrations with the business numbers in particular (the 300’s are so far away from the 600’s sometimes). But I’m not sure doing away with the structure of Dewey entirely is quite the right track.

    I kind of like the work the open shelves classification project (http://www.librarything.com/groups/buildtheopenshelvesc) began to do, which kept a similar notation system while opening itself up to having more than 10 top level subjects. Sadly the project has since stumbled, but some of the early discussions may prove quite valuable to the work you’re doing if you have not seen them already.

  4. Chris Says:

    Is there any alternative to the Dewey Decimal system? Nice Office Space pic btw… 🙂

  5. Brian Herzog Says:

    @lesbrarian: I liked your post – we actually did the same thing with our computer books, too. And I’ve been thinking about the narrative non-fiction ever since you first mentioned it.

    @Schalken: pathfinders are a good idea, and we do have a couple. I don’t know if it’s possible, but my ultimate goal is for patrons to walk in the door and be able to find whatever they need – or at least the right section – without having to decode our systems first.

    @Jeremy: I have been watching LT’s progress, but I haven’t been participating. I really hope it does happen, because that’ll fix more than just shelving issues.

    @Chris: there are a few different classification systems, but none are perfect. And I think almost any system will end up with things as cryptic as “PC LOAD LETTER.”

  6. fern chasida Says:

    In the library where I intern it’s even worse – we’re a joint academic and public library that uses bothe LC and Dewey. People are always asking where are your books on x? Well some of them are on the 3rd floor in the public library non-fiction collection, some are on the 8th floor in academic collection, and some are in one of the special collections. Hm. And how about subject headings? Why are they so unuser friendly? Bad enough that cookbooks are actually called cookery but try finding the diabetes cookbooks – they’re under Diabetes — Diet therapy — Recipes.

  7. Brian Herzog Says:

    @fern: two classification systems in the same library? I’m sure there’s a reason, but… wow. I do not envy you.