Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians

#84, January 19, 2001


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Guru Interviews

  1. Tara Calishain
  2. Jenny Levine, part I
  3. Jenny Levine, Part II
  4. Reva Basch
  5. Sue Feldman
  6. Jessamyn West
  7. Debbie Abilock
  8. Kathy Schrock
  9. Greg Notess
  10. William Hann
  11. Chris Sherman
  12. Gary Price
  13. Barbara Quint

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Visit My Other Sites

My page on all things book-related. NEW STUFF ADDED in August

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Best Information on the Net
The directory I built for O'Keefe Library, St. Ambrose University, still my favorite pit stop on the information highway.

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My Word's Worth
a weekly column on books, words, libraries, American culture, and whatever happens to interest me.

Subject Index to My Word's Worth at

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My personal page

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SUBJECT INDEX to Past Issues

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Neat New Stuff I Found This Week
January 19: new area codes, good questions, the American west, how we used to do things, and more.

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My resume
Or why you might want to hire me for speaking engagements or workshops.

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What IS Ex Libris?

The purpose and intended scope of this e-zine -- always keeping in mind that in response to readers, I may add, subtract, and change features.

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Highlights from Previous Issues:

My Rules of Information

  1. Go where it is
  2. The answer depends on the question
  3. Research is a multi-stage process
  4. Ask a Librarian
  5. Information is meaningless until queried by human intelligence


I'm not sure there's anything akin to this in public or special libraries, but in academic libraries there's a strong imperative from the accrediting bodies of various disciplines to separate our collections and build special Education libraries or Chemistry libraries or whatever. I'm not entirely sure of the reasons behind this.

Perhaps they're looking at the model -- and the prestige -- of separate medical libraries and law libraries. They may see separate libraries as a potent symbol of a university's commitment to a program, since such libraries assert special claims on over-all library acquisitions budgets. They also often attract donations that benefit just that one departmental collection. Furthermore, their librarians, who can spend all their time learning more about the specialized tools and resources of just one discipline, become ever more adept at meeting the needs of students and faculty of that one specialized field. Its students and faculty can meet most of their needs in that one building, often located near the department's offices and classrooms, and need never be troubled by mixing with the rest of the campus, need never be bothered with extraneous knowledge.

There are drawbacks to this arrangement, of course, including cost: departmental libraries in separate buildings require heating and lighting, equipment, and additional staff just to be able to keep the buildings open on evenings and weekends (which often means their hours of service are shorter than those of the main library). Since a specialized library cannot possibly meet the need for a comprehensive book and journal collection that crosses disciplinary lines, students and faculty will have to make special trips to the main library anyway.

It is also true that students and faculty in other departments will need to use resources horded away in those special libraries; an arrangement that is cozy for faculty and students with their own departmental library will be exceedingly inconvenient for everybody else. When students in my reference class at the University of Iowa provided the back-up reference service for Iowa residents, we had to trek all over campus to answer them, to the Biology/Chemistry Library, the Ed-Psych Library, Law Library, Medical Library, etc., all of which had different, and limited, hours of service.

When my own small university began to offer graduate programs, we began to get requests to build separate collections just for students in those programs. We resisted. Passionately. Let me tell you why.

When I first came to that university, the library's collection and arrangement were chaotic. The library had outgrown the original second and third floor levels allotted to it, and had been forced to use whatever bits of space became available. When it was given an additional large room in the basement, that became the Browsing Room, home to current periodicals on display shelving, a fiction collection (separate and distinct from cataloged literature), a collection of engineering materials somebody had donated, and various other odds and ends. Another cubbyhole room housed all our Shakespeare books. We also had a storage room in another building for little-used material. Bound periodicals were spread over the balcony of the reference room and the north and south walls of two floors of stacks.

Add to that the fact that the library was in the middle of a reclass project, so that half the collection was in Dewey, half in LC, and the books not yet reclassed included B for biography, F for fiction, Ge for German, Fr for French, etc., and you will understand why nobody but the librarians could find anything. I once tried to make up a list for student workers of places to look when they couldn't find a given item, and realized that we had to check 26 different places to be sure it was not accounted for.

Things may be organized by dolts so that only geniuses can find things; or they can be organized by geniuses so that even dolts can find things. I prefer the latter.

My boss and I were driven by one simple imperative during the first five years we were there: arranging things so that people needed no more than five organizational rules to find anything in the building. We moved all the special little collections out of the Browsing Room and moved bound volumes of periodicals back down there so that eventually (once we bought compact shelving), students could be sure that any periodical would be in the basement. We temporarily halted the reclass of the regular Deweys in order to reclass immediately the biography and fiction and language subcollections whose call numbers were continually mistaken for LC numbers and misshelved.

At last we achieved a reasonable degree of order, so that people didn't need to look more than two places for periodicals, depending on their date, or more than two places for books -- the only separate collection was reference books.

Then the accrediting teams came and asked us to create special libraries just for their programs. They wanted us to have a business library, and a medical library and a social work library.

They didn't tell us where we might find the space for this -- the collection was already bulging at the seams, and we were pleading for a new building. They didn't tell us how we'd staff a separate library -- with only three librarians at that time, we were hardput as it was to offer evening and weekend service. And they certainly didn't explain how this could possibly be convenient for nonmajors who needed to use collections from the new special libraries.

We did other things to accommodate them instead. We prepared accreditation reports in which we itemized all the things that supported that program: our periodical holdings in that area, the size of our book collection both for the program and for related subject areas, the full-text databases that covered its literature, the web pages we created for each discipline, the tutorials we developed, and all the other instruction we offered its students.

What we refused to do was once again balkanize our collection and our staff. Never again were we going to create legions of the lost, wandering around in hopeless confusion trying to find something. Though our staffing and budget had increased, and we had built a new library, we still felt the best use of limited resources was to keep it all in one building, where the same staff could meet the needs of all our students. That's not to say that we librarians didn't develop subject specialties, but we remained general, all-purpose reference librarians, serving undegrads, grad students, community residents, and faculty working on their dissertations with equal aplomb.

Perhaps I'd feel differently had my first work experience been in one of those departmental libraries -- our philosophies are, after all, shaped by our experiences. But my training in American studies taught me that knowledge leaks across the arbitrary boundaries of our disciplines, and those leakages matter because it's at these boundaries that fementation occurs. I think we risk artificially limiting students' understanding of their disciplines by segregating their collections from other disciplines that inform them. It's my belief that, especially in smaller institutions, students and faculty are best served by one single comprehensive library, with an integrated collection whose organization is easy to understand, and a single staff that's not spread too thin to offer the maximum possible hours of service.

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Alice in Orchestralia [a parody by Ernest LaPrade] gave me the idea that there was an entire world of books, in which one book could have a conversation with another... And it wasn't just that books talked to each other, or tried to. It was as if all books ever written knew one another and made references to this one's outfit, that one's way of talking, the other one's family. I still have this idea ... {There can be] no Wide Sargasso Sea without Jane Eyre.

Susanna Kaysen, in For the Love of Books. Grosset/Putnam, 1999

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Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.