The mysteries of cataloguing

Cataloguing: an arcane art, where each piece of punctuation is significant, and commas and semi colons are all-powerful.

Well, they are in “proper” libraries, where in-depth research of esoteric points goes on, and the precise spelling of Christian names, and information such as when a person lived and died can be crucial in pinpointing obscure facts.
Here, we have our own catalogue system. It doesn’t have a name, but if it did, it would probably be something along the lines of “I need this book NOW, no I don’t care about the precise spelling of the authors middle name, or their date of birth.” I know, I know, it’s not snappy, but it’s accurate. Cataloguing demands are different in a commercial law firm: we don’t care about much more than what it’s about, who wrote, when, and what jurisdiction it covers. And what we really, really care about is “where the hell is it”. Law books are amazing: they have the power to move themselves from the library shelves onto desks, into folders, drawers, bags…all without anyone ever having touched them, or having any knowledge of the books existence. The same magic is happening in law library shelves all round the country, right now…
Yes: this was all triggered by seeing a catalogue record here. I remember when I did “proper” cataloguing like that at a previous workplace. I slowly worked my way through the shelves of superseded law book stock, adding them to the online catalogue. Occasionally I found little vellum covered and nail-studded gems of books secreted amongst the “newer” old editions: a low-tech way of securing the volumes that there was no space for in the safe…
Here, there’s no space for outdated information: we need it to be current, and in a hardwearing* format. When it’s too out of date, it goes to the big recycling machine in the sky (and no, I don’t feel guilty about destroying books: I do it with wild abandon, while laughing gleefully). We catalogue books as fast as we can, and have them grabbed out of our hands by lawyers keen to learn more about dilapidations (apparently, that’s not actually a term to be used with regard to faded pop stars) and delicts (also, apparently not a delicious sounding spread).
*As an aside: Butterworths – WHY do you insist on creating Handbooks whose covers appear to be made from floppy papier mache? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but libraries do a crazy thing with their books: they shelve them. Which means standing them up on end. A book which has a spine and cover with the strength of damp kitchen towel does not tend to cope too well with the outrageous demands we put on it, like expecting them not to collapse instantly when you attempt to shelve them, causing a domino effect with surrounding books. Sure, watching a dozen books cascade off a shelf together is pretty, but when it’s happened for the umpteenth time, it gets kinda wearing. Make. Stiff. Covers. Kthxbai.

Author: Jennie

Law, libraries, books, crafts, and general geekery.

12 thoughts on “The mysteries of cataloguing”

  1. If your Butterworths Handbook is on a shelf its not working the way it should. They are meant to be on lawyers desks and so need covers to be as light as possible


  2. What a fantastic article; I really enjoyed reading it and I didn't know you blogged!

    This certainly brings back memories of my old university library. More precisely having to share it with lawyers (Yes. I am in denial).

    These individuals were a breed of their own. If you were lucky enough to get a seat at the computerised catalogue (usually closely guarded by a Chinese Exchange student who had cleverly managed to hack in to the intranet to watch international TV stations on it), you then had to find said law book in the system.

    That part was beautiful. Everything was bagged and tagged, clipped and chipped, a masterpice of librarian know-how coupled with geek chic. It was horticultural heaven for the browsing student who wished to cultivate their factual garden.

    Locating the book physically was where the entire problem began. Usually, the law book you wanted would be reserved: by ten different law students, none of whom ever genuinely intended to read the damn thing but reserved on the off chance that they may need to at a later date.

    Problem numero uno. What do you do? Well, like any self respecting, irritated human being, you dash up to the floor, section, shelf and row the book should be on and you scower. You scower with all your might. Then, if you're lucky, you find a copy of the book, which hasn't been taken out at all. No, sir.

    Problemo numero two. You need, to be precise, the information contained on page 133. It is vital. It is going to make your essay. Is it there? You would think so. After all, what kind of heathen rips pages out of library books, nay, any book? I shall tell you. Lawyers. That's who.

    So, you find the book, but you discover it's been attacked by a tome raider.

    Tome raiders, as I liked to call them, were another category of lawyer altogether. They were the mercenaries of the legal student body, the un-apologetic illiterati who simply *had* to have the page and deny everyone else the privilege. It was hard surviving in the urban jungle but there was always one place where you were guaranteed to find your book.

    The 'to be returned' trolleys. Yes, those good hearted students, who did read and return, who did not rip and ride, would leave the books there for ordinary students like me to find.

    The behaviour of law students in university libraries will always remain a mystery to me. But I shall catalogue it away as something of comedic value and be implicitly grateful that libraries still exist.

    Thank you again for sharing your article; I had a lot of fun reading it!


  3. Ah, but we retain the previous edition for reference…and the soft covers mean they get ripped to hell in bags. Plus, when the lawyers have them on their desk, they have them in mini desktop bookshelf arrangements (they're not generally allowed their “own” copy of books, but some do like to stockpile), so they then inherit the problem of finding a way to store them without collapsing everything balanced on their desks!


  4. Ah, thankfully I've not had to deal with the feral law students found in academic libraries: by the time they get to me, such terrible habits have been beaten out of them by a combination of lecturers, librarians, and their ability to prevent their graduation if they have any fines to the library outstanding… 😉


  5. “and no, I don't feel guilty about destroying books: I do it with wild abandon, while laughing gleefully” – Ditto! Probably makes me a bad librarian… There's not really much drama in dropping books into the recycling bin though, so I like to imagine I'm actually dropping them onto an enormous, roaring bonfire, which I can then dance around, cackling like a maniac 😉


  6. Yeah, the only good place for a badly outdated law book is in the recycling…to liven it up, I tend to rip their covers off ostentatiously, and pull the pages out in big chunks. I'd like to say that was because I wanted to, but mainly it's because the drop slot for the recycling bin is kinda small…


  7. Hahaha. Yep, there is an evolution that does take place, for all the reasons you mentioned.

    There's also an inverse relationship there somewhere too. I'm sure I remember burning several Trust Law and Property Law books post graduating…..



  8. Ohhh, a nice little bonfire of the textbooks? Perhaps I should send you some old textbooks, so you can relive your (just finished being a) student days? 🙂


  9. I was wondering where you were going with the cataloguing blog, the practice being close to my heart 'n all. It is always interesting to hear views about OPAC searching and points of access.

    I ripped up a book for recycling once at the Library. Then, as many sadly do, I was taken by the Pulp Lust. Like a tag line from a Van Damme straight to VHS film: I had to be stopped – at any cost.


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