The Labyrinth in the Library

We started the Dewey Decimal Cataloguing system last night.

I have written an (unpublished) YA fantasy novel set in vast library. The library in the book takes the form of a fractal bookcase: a bookcase made up of bookcases made up of bookcases.


The structure was inspired by the Dewey Decimal system: if you look closely, you can just see that each Shelf corresponds to a main Class in DDC. The Rows are Divisions, and the Towers are Sections.

It was a cute concept, even if my diagram doesn’t quite do it justice.

What I discovered last night though, as we dutifully clicked our way through WebDewey to practice our cataloguing skills, was that Dewey is less of a bookcase and more of a maze.

Which is to say: when you are at your destination and have the Dewey Decimal number for a work in front of you, it’s easy to work backwards and understand the rightness of why the work sits there.

But working from the outside in–starting with a text, and then trying to navigate through the Classes and Divisions and Sections to find the correct number–is an exercise in dead-ends and doubling back.

Consider, for example, Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. What number do we assign to this movie?

The main class is clearly 700 – Arts & Recreation.

The division also seems clear: 770 – Photography, computer art, film, video. But which section should we move into?

  • 700 – Arts & Recreation
    • 770 – Photography, computer art, film, video
      • 770 – Photography, computer art, cinematography, videography
      • 771 – *Techniques, procedures, apparatus, equipment, materials
      • 772-774 – Special photographic processes
      • [775] – [Unassigned]
      • 776 – Computer art (Digital art)
      • 777 – Cinematography and videography
      • 778 – Specific fields and special kinds of photography
      • 779 – Photographic images

Presumably 770, right?

  • 700 – Arts & Recreation
    • 770 -Photography, computer art, cinematography, videography
      • 770.1 – Philosophy and theory
      • 770.2 – Miscellany
      • 770.5 – Photography–serials
      • 770.74 – Photography–museums
      • 770.9 – History, geographical treatment, biography

And there it is: that feeling of being lost, of wandering into a dark dead end, where the wind howls and there may be wolves.


Backtrack. Try again. Explore other corridors, other paths. I didn’t spend my teens playing Dungeons & Dragons for nothing.

Or I can just google it.

This post on 025.431: The Dewey blog says the correct number is 791.43. Playing around with WebDewey, the right path through the Dewey maze is:

  • 700 – Arts & recreation
    • 790 – Sports, games & entertainment
      • 791 – Public performances
        • 791.4 – Motion pictures, radio, television
          • 791.43 – Motion pictures

It makes sense looking backwards, right? You can understand how Motion pictures fits under Motion pictures, radio, television, which fits under Public performances, which fits under Sports, games & entertainment, and so on.

There’s no way in hell I would have made the connection going the other way though. I would have hesitated at Sports, games & entertainment, and would have turned back at Public performances.

So this is my first impression of the Dewey Decimal Cataloguing system: a maze that can only be solved by walking it backwards.

Borges would be delighted.


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Confusion in the Library

I went to RMIT’s Swanston Library today. It confused and annoyed me.

To be fair, the library is undergoing major renovations. But still…

I tried to visit the library two weeks ago. The signs pointing me to the entrance lead me on a path through the back-alleys of RMIT, up staircases and down gangplanks, until the signs stopped in a dead-end of construction work.

I gave up and went to the State Library of Victoria instead.

Today I tried a different entrance. I followed the signs up a staircase, across a large room, and up another escalator. I walked through the anti-theft scanners. And…

…And I still wasn’t sure I was in the right place.

What I saw was a large room with desks in it, and lots of students studying. To one side was a darkened room full of students on computers, with a floor sign saying “Quiet Study Area”. Ahead of me was a scrolling LED sign above a circular desk that said “Ask a Librarian”.


There were no maps. There were no books. There were no other signs.

There are three questions I ask myself whenever I enter a new library:

  1. How do I tell where to go?
  2. Who can help me if I need help?
  3. Where are the loos?

I had no idea where to go. There was a middle-aged woman at the “Ask a Librarian” desk who might have been a librarian, but she wasn’t wearing a uniform and I couldn’t see a staff lanyard. And I had no idea even if there were loos there.

Entering a new library is intimidating. We don’t know where to find things. We don’t know what the rules are. We look around us for clues.

This library gave me nothing.

I know: I should have talked to the librarian. But by this stage I was feeling stupid and embarrassed. I’m an Information Management student, for heaven’s sake. Surely I should be able to find my way around a library?

Maybe if I had a specific goal in mind, I would have asked. But I was really only visiting to have a look around.

You can’t ask a librarian if you don’t have a question.

I pushed forward, through a doorway into the next room. More desks, more students. Still no books. The next room had Darth Vader-inspired pods for collaboration. The next room was yet more desks. Side rooms had a building numbers on the doors, but it was a different building than the one I’d entered through. Was I still in the library?

Angular staircases ran up and down, with no hint where they led to. With no clues to guide me, choices became meaningless.

I found an empty seat at a desk. I sat down and did some work.

Afterwards, I tried exploring again. The building still didn’t make sense. The rooms were all completely different styles and colours. The Quiet Study Area was still plunged into darkness except for the glow of computer screens. I did finally glimpse some books: they were in a sealed-off area with a note in front of it explaining that it would open soon.

I left feeling confused and annoyed.

I get that the Swanston Library is being renovated. But there’s still things they could do to help patrons orientate themselves.

Maps not only tell us where to go, they reassure us we’re in the right place to begin with.

Signage helps us find our way around, and answer basic questions: what’s down those stairs? What’s this room for? They had a floor sign for the quiet study area. Why didn’t they have them for the staircases and each room?

And toilets. Clearly mark your toilets. If I’m going to sit down and study for hours without a break, I need to go to the loo first.

On a happier note, here’s an article about Transforming Norwegian Public Libraries. I particularly like the idea of dividing libraries into four spaces:

  • the inspiration space
  • the learning space
  • the meeting space
  • the performance space


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Information Organisation


I’m back at uni. Two subjects this semester: Information Organisation and Information Provision.

A friend recently asked if she could borrow my lecture notes. And I realised I didn’t really have any. I’ve got the slides from the class, but no personal notes.

So I thought I’d start blogging some.

Last night’s class was Information Organisation. And we got thrown into the deep end, working with AACR2 and RDA and MARC 21. It was lots of fiddly detail and unfamiliar standards, made more confusing because I didn’t have a conceptual model of how these standards fit together.

So this is less my notes on the lecture than me trying to sort out the underlying concepts.


So people can find and use the information they need.

S. R. Ranganathan’s Fourth Law of Library Science: Save the time of the reader.



Physically, books and other items are stored in an order. The order is determined by a CLASSIFICATION SYSTEM – the two most common ones in use are the Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress system.

Browsing physical storage is slow and inefficient. To speed up searches, we create a CATALOGUE – a guide to the items in the collection.

Each item gets a RECORD. In the old days, this would be a physical card in the card catalogue. Each record contains FIELDS, and each field contains a VALUE.

(I may be imposing my Computer Science terminology on cataloguing here.)

In order to keep records consistent, there are CATALOGUING RULES (i.e. standards). These specify which fields to include and what format the values should be recorded in. This format is sometimes called the “punctuation”, as special punctuation is used to separate sub-fields.

With the move from card catalogues to computers, there was a need to create TRANSMISSION STANDARDS that make cataloguing standards machine-readable.

Diagram of the Cataloguing model

The Cataloguing Conceptual Model

(EDIT: The arrows here can be thought of a meaning “creates a need for…”. This is a conceptual relationship. The actual workflow for creating a record is:



AACR2 – Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, 2nd edition

An international standard for many years. Superseded by RDA, because AACR2 doesn’t handle the new type of electronic resources well. But still in wide-spread use, because old standards never die.

RDA – Resource Description and Access

A new standard developed in 1997, and adopted in 2013.

Based on the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR), the set of takss that a record should support.

RDA uses a hierarchical model of a resource:

  • Work: the distinct intellectual or artistic creation
    • Expression: the intellectual or artistic realisation of a work
      • Manifestation: the physical embodiment of a work (the version)
        • Item: a single, specific instance of the manifestation.


In the 1960s, there was a push to move cataloguing from cards to computers. As part of that, new cataloguing standards were created that were computer-friendly. These standards were called MARC (MAchine Readable Cataloguing).

There have been lots of different MARC standards, but we’ve settled on MARC 21.

MARC 21 is a TRANSMISSION STANDARD, since it’s a way of encoding the data from other standards into a machine-readable format.

A MARC 21 record is a series of lines, where each line contains the format:

  • TAG: a three digit number identifying the field
  • INDICATOR: two character code that contain field-specific special instructions
  • SUBFIELDS: multiple values that might be within a field
  • DELIMITERS: a special character that marks the start of a sub-field (usually | or $), followed by a single letter identifying the sub-field



Don’t try to remember all these values or formats. Look them up. Double-check.

“The needs of the user must come before the ease of the cataloguer.”- Sandford Berman, Radical Cataloguing (2000)



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I finished my job at the Student Union yesterday. That’s an 18 year chapter of my life closed.

It’s a strange feeling, packing up such a long period of your life. But that’s what I’ve spent the last 8 months doing. The University made the strategic decision to centralise all corporate services, which included the IT department of which I was, until yesterday, the manager.

It was big task. The University originally scheduled three months to shut us down, based on the fact the the Student Union only had around 150 staff. I pointed out how many different departments we supported, and how many different computer systems. The university panicked slightly, and extended the project by another six months.

One of the proudest moments I’ve had lately was when the project manager described our IT environment as “more complex than the Medical faculty.”

My other proudest moment isn’t a moment: it’s been the entire 8 month period whenever I reflect on the performance of my team. After you’ve been told to pack up your job and walk out the door, it would be very easy to disengage, to do the bare minimum. Or to do nothing at all. But my team have worked diligently until the very end.

(Literally the very end: my sysadmin got a phone call asking question as we were walking down to our farewell drinks.)

They did an excellent job. They were widely thanked, and they got to walk out of there with their heads held high.

I’ve been thinking about farewells a lot this past month. What does it mean to say good bye and move on? What does it look like?

And this is where my nerdiness shows through again. Because my answer, my personal answer, is that it looks a lot like Doctor Who.

We’ve had twelve different actors play the Doctor now, thirteen if you count dear John Hurt. All execpt Capaldi have said their goodbyes, one way or another. I’m a big fan of Christopher Ecclestone’s parting lines: “Rose… before I go, I just wanna tell you, you were fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. And do you know what? So was I!”

Great lines. A bit final, though.

The parting word I kept coming back to were Sylvester McCoy’s, delivered at the end of the “classic” series.

“There are worlds out there where the sky is burning. And the sea’s asleep, and the rivers dream. People made of smoke, and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger. Somewhere there’s injustice.  And somewhere else, the tea’s getting cold. Come on, Ace — we’ve got work to do!”

Yes. Exactly.




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Smaller, cheaper fan conventions

I haven’t blogged here for ages because I’ve been at Reading Matters, then Continuum, then down to Hobart for Dark Mofo.

Continuum is a fan convention – a convention organised and paid for by fans. Memberships cost $200 for a three day convention held in a functions venue in the centre of town. That’s half the price of Reading Matters, but it’s still steep, especially once fans include food and accommodation.

The always excellent No Award blog has a post up about the con-runners confab that was held at Continuum, in which convention organisers explored different ideas for conventions, and different venues, as a way of getting the price down.

Australian cons, Emilly argues, are based on a Northern Hemisphere model that just doesn’t work for us: hiring conference space in a hotel, in a city, over a long weekend. This is viable in the US and UK, because they have larger small cities, and larger numbers of people can travel shorter geographic distances. Whereas, in Australia, our smaller cities like Newcastle and Geelong are sort of out of the way, people will have to travel further to get there, and it’s a harder sell — so we’re constantly holding events in capital cities at peak tourism times. Accordingly, ticket prices are higher and there’s a much greater barrier to attending.

This is something that Continuum has grappled with for a few years, and we were very excited to be able to offer needs-based memberships in 2017, but Emilly is considering a different model all together: smaller single-day events held in library meeting rooms and similar spaces.

(Some libraries have better facilities than others, of course — Melbourne’s Library at the Dock wouldn’t suit, but Kathleen Syme Library in Carlton is almost designed for this purpose.)

With shorter time commitments and lower costs, mini-cons like this would be more accessible to the people currently excluded from big cons like Continuum — teenagers, students, the unwaged.

I’ve had similar idle thoughts, that you could run a half-day or one day conference in library spaces. The NSW Writers Centre runs a one day Speculative Fiction Festival, for example.

I’d love to run a Readers Festival like this, where of the four panellists in any session, one is a writer and the other three are readers talking about the pleasures of reading.

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Reading Matters: some quick thoughts

I spent the last two days at the Reading Matters conference.

It’s a professional conference about YA aimed at teachers and librarians. As a student librarian, and an aspiring YA author, that’s the intersection of my two interests.

I’ll write a proper report later. But I was up early this morning, and I tweeted some thoughts. They might as well go here on the blog too.

The graph comes from Deakin University’s pilot study Teen Reading in the Digital Era.

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What could libraries look like in 30 years?

I’m slightly drunk and blogging. Dangerous, I know. We had our last lecture for The Digital Information Environment tonight, and then we went to the pub.

The lecture was on digital disruption, and how technology will change our worklives in the future. There’s been a rather enjoyable dynamic in these subject, where the lecturer is excited about the possibilities of new technology, and I played the curmudgeonly sceptic.

It’s a fun role, and a useful one, but it misrepresents my position. I am excited by technology; I plan to build my career around Making Things Better With IT.

On train home, I was reading Twitter, and saw this tweet:

It felt like synchronicity. What would I love the world to be like in 30 years? What would I like libraries to be like? I replied:

You know. Basic lefty idealist stuff.

And then, because I was drunk, I started playing a game: What could libraries look like in 30 years?

Libraries could look like Facebook:

  • a place to share and comment
  • you go there because your friends are there

Libraries could look like forests:

  • green and renewable
  • a place of rest and contemplation
  • always growing, always changing

Libraries could look like hospitals:

  • general services and specialist services
  • 24 hour emergency assistance
  • you come out better than when you went in

Libraries could look like churches:

  • the heart of the community
  • a place to feed our need to be part of something bigger than ourselves
  • the first libraries were temples

That’s as far as I got. I was drunk, and the train ride is short. But Brie Code had replied to me. She said:

In class, we had been discussing the digital readiness gap – the gap between those who are confident and skilled at using IT, and those who aren’t. We’d talked very broadly about whether libraries might have a role in closing that gap (my hero Jessamyn West has a few things to say about that).

That discussion combined with Brie’s tweet to give me an idea: PLAYTIME FOR GROWN-UPS. A one hour session once a month at the local library where adults can come and just play with gadgets, to overcome their fear and their reluctance and get comfortable with the tech.

This is something you could run for staff as professional development, as a way of staying on top of technological change.

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