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Six Steps to LCC@Home

Six Steps to LCC@Home

April 28, 2004

Let's review where we've been and where we're going. In January I started this new column, Hacking the Library, by talking about dijalog lifestyles ("Geeks and the Dijalog Lifestyle"), my attempt to describe the challenges facing people roughly like myself who have one foot in the purely digital lifestyle best represented by Apple's Digital Hub idea, but who have the other foot weighed down by a couple hundred CDs, a thousand odd books, and assorted piles and files of papers.

I suggested that, in addition to the kind of XML and information management geekery that XML.com is pretty good at educating folks about, we also needed to start peeking over the walls to see what our library science friends are doing. I began reporting on my peeking last month (" The Library of Congress Comes Home") by introducing LCC@Home, a project to catalog and organize your personal, non-digital media collection.

In this month's column, I describe in six easy steps how to implement LCC@Home in all its concrete detail and messy glory.

We're Off to See the Wizard

Cataloging is daunting, non-trivial work. You don't have to read the 600 pages of Wynar's Introduction to Cataloging and Classification, you just have to avoid dropping it on your foot...cataloging ain't for wimps or amateurs! So after I—not a librarian, after all—decided to teach XML.com readers how to organize their personal libraries, I realized I would have to reveal some of my amateurish tricks. These all come down to organizing a personal library by avoiding all the hard work. Remember that for computer programmers, as for customs agents, laziness is a virtue.

There are at least three kinds of hard work implied by LCC@Home: cataloging, indexing, and labeling. At some point during my interminable graduate school career in the mid-90s, about the time my personal library hit the 2,000 book mark, I figured out three things pretty much simultaneously:

  1. Most of the books I owned were already cataloged by the Library of Congress (or, as I learned much later on, by a consortium of institutions that does LC cataloging). In other words, I don't have to catalog much, if at all..
  2. All of the books cataloged by the Library of Congress could be searched—by author, title, keyword, or an odd dozen other metadata bits—over the Web, either at the Library of Congress Online Catalog or at any one of hundreds of publicly accessible university library catalog sites. In other words, I don't have to build a computerized index or database of my collection.
  3. Most of the books I owned or were likely to own in the future already contained LC cataloging information. In other words, I don't really have to label anything.

You should award yourself five bonus points if you already knew these three things and realized their implications, or if you've already figured out that they correspond to the three kinds of hard work required by LCC@Home. In other words, LCC@Home is practically possible because you probably won't have to do any cataloging or indexing, and the labeling task is very tractable.

Knowing these little tricks convinced me that LCC@Home could be done; but I still needed some way to persuade you that it should be.

From Nicholson Baker...

While conspiring with myself and with others about the shape of these columns, I finally hit upon two different strategies to persuade you that implementing LCC@Home is a worthwhile way to spend some of your time. I call the strategies "the Nicholson Baker" and "the Martha Stewart".

First, in last month's column, I tried to excite your imagination by talking about what libraries are conceptually. In this way I hoped to appeal to the information scientist and library weenie inside all of us. Among other things, I said that

Libraries are (1) chunks of physical space, (2) highly organized and regimented, which exist, in part, to facilitate (3) the navigation of a virtual space, in this case, the information space of all (ideally, anyway) recorded human knowledge...Libraries are places, sites, locations in the physical world. A library is a place that you can visit, around and in and through which you can move...Libraries aren't merely spaces: they are highly regimented, organized, controlled spaces...A library is a habitation...a human dwelling place...where human projects, goals, purposes, and ends can be acted out...Libraries...are social spaces organized to aid people's navigation of another, a non-physical space, namely, the information space made up of and by all recorded human knowledge.

I was trying to convince you to pursue LCC@Home or something similar by doing my best impersonation of Nicholson Baker—whose book, which oddly enough I haven't yet read, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, forms something like the mostly-unacknowledged backdrop of the Hacking the Library series.

To Martha Stewart

Second, in this column I've already done my best Martha Stewart impersonation—that is, I've tried to convince you to undertake some impossibly hard, impractical domestic project by attempting to persuade you that it's actually quite trivial, if only you'll use my three secret tricks. This is roughly equivalent to Martha Stewart claiming that it's easy to cook a seven-course meal for your family and 10 closest friends because; after all, she can do it within the span of a single 30 minute television fantasia program.

Despite the conceptual complexity of the Nicholson Baker strategy, the Martha Stewart strategy suggests that LCC@Home isn't nearly as complex or daunting as it may seem. It's not that it's trivial. It's anything but trivial. The reason the Martha Stewart strategy works is because we're successfully offloading almost all of the complexity onto large public institutions, in the same way that Martha successfully offloaded almost all of the chopping, slicing, dicing, mixing, stirring, baking onto her army of underemployed culinary school graduates production staff. As I wrote last month, it doesn't make sense to undertake such a domestic improvement project by oneself. It's too hard, too expensive, too complex.

Six Easy Pieces

Without any further delay, here's the simple recipe for LCC@Home. Only six steps!

1. Survey

Summary: Form an initial impression of the distribution of your collection in terms of LCC top-level categories and major subcategories.

The idea here is to get started with something that's relatively easy. You're trying to form an overall impression of two things: how your books are distributed across LCC top-level category space, and how that distribution might map onto your domestic space. Recall from last month's column that the LCC top-level categories look like this:

K -- LAW

If you're a geek there's a good chance you have a considerable cluster of T and Q items. If you did American history as an undergrad, your library may bulge in the E and F sections. Law degree? Consider having a large K section. Avid fiction reader? P. And so on.

Why is this important? Well, it's easy, won't take long, and you'll only have five steps left when you're done. But, also, remember that we're arranging physical spaces; in this case, your domestic space. Home libraries and library projects need to play well with the dog's bed, the kids' collection of dinosaur toys, and Aunt Annie's herb garden. It's especially important to survey your collection if any special conditions apply in your case:

  1. A large collection, say, more than 1,000 books
  2. A collection with many irregularly shaped items. For example, many art and art history books are oversized. You need to plan for that earlier rather than later.
  3. A collection that will be distributed among several discontinuous physical spaces.

Let's consider (a) briefly. When I organized my personal library a few years ago, I started by making a diagram of my living space like the diagram in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Diagram of Living Space

The hatched black rectangles represent bookshelves. In my case I don't have enough living space to keep all of my bookshelves together, and I actually like having books in every room. But it's handy not to have to go from one room to another when looking for a book in a particular top-level category. So you will increase the usability of your personal library if you can avoid splitting top-level categories, but especially very crowded ones, across multiple rooms.

2. Allocate

Summary: Allocate physical and storage space (bookshelves, primarily) in a way that corresponds roughly with (1), taking into consideration your present and expected future interests.

So (2) is the physical counterpart to the conceptual work of (1). Once you've formed an impression of the lay of your collection's land, you need to begin reconfiguring the relevant chunks of your living space to take account of that impression. One crucial thing to recognize here is that, just as in institutional libraries, the LCC top-level categories do not have to be arranged in physical space in any specific way. In other words, just because the top-level categories are named for most of the letters in the Latin alphabet, that obligates no one to make, say, A and B sections adjacent to each other.

Thinking back to the five or six university libraries that I know very well, and to the 10 or 20 I have visited, I cannot recall a single one in which the alphabetic nature of the LCC top-level categories had anything whatever to do with how they were mapped onto physical space. In a big library the thing one does before heading off to the stacks to find an item is to grab a copy of the layout map, which is typically a diagram conceptually akin to the diagram in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Top-level Category Layout Map

This "layout map" (my term, not a libsci term of art) corresponds very roughly to the one I made as a result of completing (2) during my LCC@Home project. Because I have very many books falling within the B top-level category, I allocated roughly one-third of my available shelf space to books in that section. I also did this because I know that in the future I will continue to acquire books reflecting one of my stable, long-term interests, namely, philosophy. And philosophy books belong to the B top-level category.

Another consideration at this stage is to allocate shelf space to top-level categories depending on where in your living space you may want to use those items. It improves the usability of your collection if, all other things being equal, your technology and science books are near to your computer or study, that your culinary arts books are near the kitchen, and your oversized art books are in a commons area for use by and enjoyment of your guests.

But that way of arranging a collection reflects my interests and tastes. Your way of arranging your collection should reflect yours.

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