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

C-SPAN Documentary on the Library of Congress

   July 28th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Library of Congress signIf you've already seen the new Harry Potter and Captain America movies and thus have run out of things to watch, never fear - C-SPAN to the rescue!

C-SPAN has a new documentary on the Library of Congress, which is definitely worth watching (if you're interested in the history and function of the LoC, that is). I think it originally aired on Monday, July 18, 2011, and it kept me interested for the full hour and thirty minutes.

I've toured the LoC twice, and yet almost everything in this documentary was new to me. My favorite parts were the murals depicting good and bad forms of government (as a result of embracing or rejecting knowledge), and the tour of the preservation area, including the "document bath."

Not that you need it, but here are more teasers from their website:

“The Library of Congress” reveals details of:

  • The Great Hall, Reading Room , and exterior of the Jefferson Building
  • Some of the treasures among its books, maps, photos, and presidential papers
  • The History of the Library of Congress and its Jefferson Building
  • The Jefferson Library and other treasures of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division
  • The painstaking care of the Library’s collections
  • The use of technology to reveal new information about historical documents

About the Library of Congress:

The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world with nearly 150 million items. It was started in 1800. Its first books were bought from England with a $5,000 appropriation from Congress. Housed in the U.S. Capitol, the library was destroyed in 1814 when British soldiers burned the building. Hearing of the fire, Thomas Jefferson offered to sell Congress his book collection. After much debate, Congress agreed to buy the collection for just under $24,000. In 1851, another fire destroyed 2/3 of the library’s holdings. In 1870, Congress passed copyright legislation that required two copies of every book published be sent to the Library of Congress. Subsequently, the holdings of the library grew extensively. Congress debated whether to give the library its own building. That didn’t happen until much later. The library moved out of the Capitol building and into the Jefferson building in 1897. Today, the Library of Congress spans over a total of 8 buildings.

Something I just noticed: The Jefferson building of the Library of Congress was built in 1897, and the Chelmsford Library was built in 1894 - that was a good decade for libraries.

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LCSH: Fallery–Sky

   October 1st, 2009 Brian Herzog

cookery signThis announcement was making the rounds yesterday on Twitter, and it seems to qualify as the-sky-is-falling type news:

The Library of Congress is revising their "Cookery" subject heading [pdf], saying:

The use of the term “cookery” will be discontinued in these categories of headings. The term “cooking” will be used instead in most cases.

The "Cookery" example was always the go-to citation for demonstrating how traditional library institutions were out of date, and how Web 2.0 tagging filled a need by linking together books and information based on the way people actually think and speak.

LibraryThing.com has led the way in much of this innovation and development, showing the old timers better ways to serve library patrons. This Cookery change shows that the powers that be are paying attention. So does Ebsco's release of NoveList Select, which mimics LibraryThing for Libraries' functionality by putting NoveList data right into the library catalog (where our patrons already are), instead of making them go somewhere else for it.

People often refer to these traditional library vendors and institutions as dinosaurs, but they seem to be learning from and closing the gap with the inflatable rhino.

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Reference Question of the Week – 3/15/09

   March 21st, 2009 Brian Herzog

Thomas JeffersonSince Obama became President, we've had a new regular patron at the Reference Desk.

I don't remember ever helping her before the Inauguration, but since then we get a couple questions from her a week - all relating to government actions or political news. Often they're questions like "how many Democrats are in the House of Representatives, and how many are Republicans" (254 [D], 178 [R]) or "can you print the text of Obama's Inagural speech" (text from NYT, text & video from the White House blog).

But sometimes her questions require a bit more work. In early February, she wanted copies of both the House and Senate versions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus bill so she could compare them to see the differences. And more recently, she asked what were Barack Obama's accomplishments while he was in the Senate.

For these types of questions, I always turn to the Library of Congress' THOMAS database ("In the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, legislative information from the Library of Congress").

Searching it is always a bit daunting, just from the sheer amount of information it contains. But the flip side is how much you can learn when you start sifting through it.

When researching the stimulus bill, a search for "HR1" found a record that includes the bill's history in Congress, detailing each vote at each stage (since researching this question, I notice the LOC put a nice link to another handy schedule overview on the THOMAS homepage).

But as far as comparing the two bills, I'm not entirely sure what the patron was expecting. The House version of the bill was 679 pages [pdf] and the Senate's amended version was 736 pages [pdf]. That is certainly beyond printing, and this particular patron will not use a computer, so she just gave up on that quest.

As for Obama's legislative record, THOMAS also offers an Advanced Search for every Congress. It allows searching by Member of Congress, and can be limited to role and bill status. Since Obama served in both the 109th and 110th Congresses, I search both for the number of total bills he sponsored or cosponsored, and then also filtered to see how many of those bills have become law (sponsored 282 bills, with 2 becoming law; cosponsored 977 bills, with 29 becoming law).

The patron was happy with this, and I am still fascinated with THOMAS. The oldest records seem to be from the 93rd Congress (1973-1974), and a search on "impeachment Nixon" yields 36 various resolutions and bills. A search in the 107th Congress (2001-2002) for "USA PATRIOT Act" shows that H.R.3162 (132 pages [pdf]) was introduced into Congress on 10/23/01 and became law on 10/26/01.

Good stuff.

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The Right Way To Organize Books

   July 12th, 2007 Brian Herzog

cover of Sewer, Gas and ElectricI finished Matt Ruff's Sewer, Gas and Electric last night, and found one more good library-related quote. This one pretty much speaks for itself; especially with libraries trying alternatives.

"The call number was the hard part," Kite said. "The call number we got from the video tape was in Dewey Decimal classification code; this library uses the Library of Congress code."

"What did you have to do, translate it?"...

"It's not that simple," Kite said. "You know I never appreciated it before this afternoon, but library filing systems are remarkably arbitrary."

"There's no one right way to organize books, huh?"


classification, classification system, classification systems, ddc, dewey, dewey decimal, electric, gas, libraries, library, library of congress, loc, matt ruff, sewer, sewer gas and electric

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