Friday, October 20, 2006

Torn between two numbers: Library of Congress, or Dewey?

I am experiencing something of a crisis of faithfulness this morning regarding my preferred system of book-cataloguing. As with all metaphysical dilemmas and matters of the heart, this one requires a bit of backstory, so get some (more) coffee and be patient.

Travel back in time with me to 1983, I believe it was. My college advisor invited me to join him on a weekend research trip up to Austin to the U. of Texas' (Hook 'em!) Perry-Castañeda Library, a building of 6 floors, each of which held far more books than my college's entire library held. This was the sort of place that already held over a million books and still had a couple of floors that had rows and rows and ROWS of completely empty shelves. My job was to go up into the stacks of this place and pull volumes that my advisor wanted to look at. Pure go-fer work, but I didn't care: my advisor had by that time become a surrogate father to me, and hey--what better intellectual aphrodisiac is there than the smell of slowly-decaying paper?


The glare of the lights of this academic Paree was blinding that day, let me tell you. But I think what permanently turned my head was that it was also my first exposure to a library that used Library of Congress call numbers and not the Dewey Decimal system to catalogue its books. All those books, and all those LOC letters and numbers on the spine . . . I thought to myself that I'd need to take provisions in there lest I starve to death while looking for books. But how wrong I was. Let me put it this way: it was not until I'd looked up a couple of books this new way that I began to realize just how clunky Dewey was to use.

Dewey became Old School (in the uncomplimentary sense) to me that day, and in more ways than one: after all, Dewey was my various grade schools' libraries' system. LOC just felt, well, grown up, mature, sophisticated. Sexy, even. But then I became a man and I put away childish things, and all that (though I'm relatively certain Paul didn't quite have this precise issue in mind when he wrote that).

More below the fold, if you dare.

Skip ahead to my Ph.D. days at Rice, where, one day, one of my profs once told us that C. Vann Woodward, one of the great scholars of Southern history, would not direct the dissertations of students who were married or seriously involved with someone. Something to do with his believing that sex was an impediment to serious scholarship. All of us in that class that day were either married or seriously involved with someone and yet thought of ourselves as serious students, so of course we looked bemusedly askance at this. We chuckled, secure in the knowledge that celibacy, not being listed in the Graduate Catalog of Rice University as a prerequisite for being admitted to candidacy for the doctorate, would be a non-issue (heh--no pun intended) as we pursued our various (academic) pursuits.

And then this morning I had (via Clusterflock) a chance encounter with Ms. Dewey. It is a (certainly) sad and (probably) unhealthy commentary on my morning that I found myself just sorta, you know, staring at this Tyra Banks lookalike for a while, noting that her surname was becoming more and more licentious in its connotations in ways that it never had back in my earlier, considerably-more-naïve Dewey days, and thinking, "Who cares about that text box? YOU are what I've been searching for, Ma'am." Were they around these days, Prof. Woodward's students' resolve to remain celibate would have been sternly tested by Ms. Dewey.

So now I'm conflicted. I originally became infatuated with and grew to love, in very short order, LOC because it was so easy. Dewey was so, like, hard. But in the things of love, hard isn't always bad, either. The easy answers and results are sometimes satisfying, but oftentimes not, no? The good things are worth the time and the effort, aren't they? Compare the speed with which Ms. Dewey posts search results with that of Google: Google is all white (chaste) backgrounds and blink-of-an-eye results; Ms. Dewey takes between 5 and 10 seconds--the Internet's equivalent of a Great Calendar, I know. But, um, you know something? I didn't find myself minding all that much. And the 400,000-odd hits for "William Faulkner" I got via Ms. Dewey were more than enough--how many hits, after all, does one really need--or, for that matter, have the time to look at?

Well. My current employer's main campus's library uses the Dewey system. It might be worth a visit to see if that is an old flame worth rekindling.

UPDATE: Sigh. This article reveals who is Ms. Dewey's keeper; you may be disappointed to learn that she doesn't do what she does for fun. Meanwhile, I think we need a Meridian's World Wide Web Corollary to Warhol's Dictum: In the future, everyone will have his/her own Wikipedia entry.

(Hat-tip: "benedict" of the House of Leaves forum)


Camille said...

Too funny. My first exposure to the LOC was in the hallowed halls of the Academe, as well. Even the damn art library was using LOC.

meg said...

Oh. my. God.

As a heterosexual female, *I* get all worked up here. WOW.

The only problem is that the engine must only work for males. Anything I tried searching for returned ZERO results. I even tried "William Faulkner."


Oh, and she doesn't look like Tyra Banks.

John B. said...

Thanks for stopping by and reminiscing. Speaking of academic libraries, the oddest one I've ever visited was LSU's back in 1992: the floor that had the literature books had its collection divided in half; half were Deweys, half were LOCs.

I tried to tell you, didn't I?
As for why your search didn't work, I think it helps if you have a brandy sniffer sitting on the desk in front of you.

Andrew Simone said...

John, you do good work.

Aunty Marianne said...

I had the opposite experience with footnoting. The first four years of my degree, I was expected to footnote à l'européenne, with all little numbers and a big wodge of references at the bottom of the page.

In my fifth year, for some bizarre reason, it all went Harvard end-notes. Mass confusion.

I'm still not sure which I prefer, but I wish my university would make up its mind.