Helping to Connect Minds in the Technical Services Department

I wrote the following article for the Friends of the Guelph Public Library newsletter (Sept/Oct 2007 issue).
Helping to Connect Minds in the Technical Services Department
"The physical book is never more than an ingenious and often beautiful cipher by which the intellectual book is communicated from one mind to another, and the intellectual book is always a structure in the imagination…"
Archibald MacLeish (former Librarian of Congress), "Of the Librarian’s Profession," in the Atlantic Monthly (1940)
In public libraries books still reign supreme.
While academic libraries have seen a gradual shift to electronic text as the primary resource used by students, public libraries have to maintain support for ever popular books while at the same time provide access to an influx of new formats, such as CDs, DVDs, electronic books, digital audio books, electronic journal articles, and online music. In addition, older formats such as magazines, newspapers, video cassettes, and microfilm require ongoing support. The Technical Services Department in the Guelph Public Library processes, describes, and provides access to all these resources.
Public libraries are different from bookstores in that libraries have to ensure that book are returned and made findable again. The processing done to books such as adding labels, security tags, and barcodes (and making the occasional repair) is what makes our library system function smoothly. The Technical Services Department guarantees that books are able to be moved from suppliers to our shelves and then into the hands of the citizens of Guelph and ultimately found on the shelves again.
Technical Services is responsible for the library catalogue which lists the library’s holdings of books and other bibliographic resources.
A cataloguer goes one step further than just describing a book and providing a shelf location. The cataloguer also provides access to the intellectual or creative content contained within the books. The cataloguer’s tasks include establishing relationships between similar or identical works, assigning subject headings and classifications, and ensuring that titles are properly grouped under the terms that library patrons use to search. Identifying the content within books is necessary to construct links between editions, translations, adaptations, and the same work published in different countries, under different titles, or in different formats. A library catalogue is more than a simple inventory list.
Libraries are not just about lending books—they are about minds connecting with other minds through the content contained within books. A cataloguer facilitates those connections by allowing library users to find and identify the content they want, select the desired format, and finally obtain the item.
Exciting developments are occurring in the tools used to discover library resources, and these developments are impacting the design of library catalogues. Outside of the library world, Internet search engines, book review sites, online book stores, and social networking services are offering people more opportunities to find out about books. These new developments might explain why circulation of books has increased and not decreased with the rise of the Internet!
With more ways of finding out about books, people are then drawn to the library catalogue where a quick check, and perhaps use of the hold function if the book is checked out, completes the steps of finding, identifying, selecting, and obtaining a book or other resource. Current work in the field of catalogue design involves modeling, researching, and developing the functional requirements to meet these user tasks of finding, identifying, selecting, and obtaining bibliographic resources. The Guelph Public Library catalogue has incorporated links to cover art, book reviews, excerpts, and tables of content which help library patrons in identifying and selecting appropriate resources.
The wealth of the content in a public library is simply astounding. Somewhere in a public library there is a book that is guaranteed to enlighten you, to enthral you, and perhaps to transform you. The barrier to that one book is great—how does one really find it among the hundreds of thousands of books available?
Twenty-one years ago I was both fascinated and frustrated by libraries (with part of the frustration derived from having to do the obligatory time-consuming research in a library and complete essays and assignments on time at university). During a summer job at a government office in 1986, an IBM PC was plunked down on my desk, and I was intrigued that the ministry head office sent a librarian to train me. The connection between computers and libraries was made for me, and I saw how I could serve society by learning to use this new tool, the computer, and by providing new and better ways of letting library users access a library’s resources.
After 21 years, I am amazed that most of my initial visions and hopes for libraries have become reality. While technology has provided solutions to finding library resources, technology has also increased the diversity and complexity of those resources, and so the challenge for the future, for the Technical Services Department and the Guelph Public Library, is to strive constantly to fulfill the library’s mission in providing free and equitable access to the wealth that is our society’s intellectual and creative content.
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