Thursday, August 07, 2008

Libraries Are AMAZING Places

I know, others have posted on this topic in the past: what wonderful places libraries are. These others have even mentioned the fact that libraries have become even more amazing with the advent of the internet and online public access catalogs ("OPACs," to those of us library-schoolers of the 1990s. Maybe they're called something different now? And, yes, it's a little sad that they replaced the old card catalogs, but they can't be beat for convenience. I can be on a business trip in Texas and look up a book blogger's recommendation at my hometown library to see if I can pick it up when I get home). Occasionally, even I've been known to refer to the "magic" of libraries. Admit it, all you biblioholics out there: was there any place much more magical or any place you'd rather be when you were a kid (well, okay, with the exception, maybe, of the ice cream parlor or the candy aisle at your favorite store)? I mean, bookstores were great, but they involved begging parents for money or having to save five weeks' worth of your allowance to get what you really wanted. At libraries, you had ALL those books, and all you needed was a card (where I grew up, that meant being able to sign your name), and you could take them home with you. Sure, you had to take them back, but then you'd get to get more, and you could always come back and get the same ones over and over again if you liked (which I most definitely did when it came to Corduroy and all the Moffatt books).

Sometimes I forget, but this is why I chose to get my MLS. I just love libraries and, for the most part, I love librarians, those who bring us all this magic. This is why, when I visit them, now that I don't work in one, I never, ever want to be one of those obnoxious patrons who says things like, "I'm a librarian, and I know you can get this book from the British Museum for me. Don't tell me you can't," or "You know, you'd better do this for me. I pay your salary." (I always found it so amusing when someone said the latter. I often felt like replying with, "Oops, sorry, but your less-than-a penny's time has already been spent making that statement.") Yes, people really do say these sorts of things (a completely unnecessary statement for me to make to any librarian reading this post, but I felt I should note it just to enlighten those of you who might be less familiar with what goes on when one stands behind a desk at a library).

Anyway, because I am this somewhat nondescript patron (or at least try to be. It's hard to do that where I now live, since we seem to have parishioners who work in branches all over the county, and those in my local branch know me by name due to two such parishioners), I am very unaware of all new advances in the library world. I try very hard to be polite and to let librarians do their jobs without interfering, which means I don't pay a lot of attention to all the new technology they are using. I just assume they're using that with which I am already familiar (absurd. I know. I haven't worked in a library since 1994).

Oh, there are some new things that weren't common practice in 1994 that I can do. For instance, I know how to access the catalog from home. I know how to access databases from home. I know how to place an ILL after looking up the ISBN number online myself. Nonetheless, today, I made a discovery that has caused me to realize I can no longer deny something I've been denying for some time now, I guess, and that is that I've been out of the library world/library publishing and deferring to those behind library desks way too long.

It's a fact (and a sad one) that I have not been keeping up with library times. Here's the proof that this fact is true: I was completely surprised (and not just a little bit thrilled) while doing an online search on a publisher with whom I'm not familiar, to discover that WorldCat is now available to everyone. Free. Without my having a clue this was the case. When did this happen? You mean, it isn't necessary for me to go through my parent company's extraordinarily complicated and unreliable online library (you know, the one that requires me to remember umpteen logins and passwords I forget the minute they're assigned) to access this site anymore? Why didn't anybody tell me?

Okay, some of you are probably thinking, "Huh? WorldCat? Is that some windsurfing company or something?" Others of you are thinking, "Emily, WorldCat has been open free to the public for three years." Still others have thought bubbles that read "WorldCat wasn't always free?" Let me answer the latter question first: no. WorldCat, which evolved from OCLC, which was the first online database to provide information for library holdings from all over the world, was not always free. In fact (back in the Dark Ages, circa 1991), it used to be so expensive -- libraries had to pay for a subscription and then had to pay for each search -- that most libraries used it solely for ILL purposes and did not let patrons have access to it. And I still remember the days when I used to beg people at my former publishing house to get us access, because I felt it would be a great way to track which libraries were buying and shelving our books. No one listened to me (surprise, surprise), because it was too expensive. Then we started getting access to our parent company's library, and it became a moot point (well, except for the fact that I've always had a helluva time accessing that library site and its links).

So, some librarian out there, please tell me: how long has this been going on? I left reference publishing over three years ago. I'm pretty sure free access didn't exist back then, but who knows? But here's the even better question: isn't it amazing that this service is provided to anyone who wants it? I can look up a book like the one in my previous post, type in my zipcode, and find out all participating libraries (not just public) in my area that have it. Leave it to libraries to give us this wonderful magic potion of book acquisition.

Now, here's the catch: I must remain a polite and nondescript library patron (and pastor's wife). I have to control the instant-gratification chamber in my brain, the one that insists it MUST HOLD THAT BOOK NOW. Thus, I would greatly appreciate any suggestions on how to keep its doors closed and locked, so I can refrain from becoming the obnoxious patron who walks into my local library, fills out the ILL request form, and says, "This book better be here by tomorrow. I looked it up on Worldcat and know that a university library that's only twelve miles away has a copy."


litlove said...

If I ever get to America again, I am going to spend some serious time in libraries because I get the impression they are much better over there than in the UK. All the libraries I know (with the exception of a couple of libraries in colleges) are dingy, shabby places with a limited stock of books. Okay, the university library has a zillion books and so I go to that one, but it's not a fabulous place to be. I feel there's a book project: Libraries Of The World, waiting to be written!

Emily Barton said...

Oh, Litlove, yes, you absolutely must visit American libraries. Libraries are definitely one of those few things that Americans do better than the English (and I have no idea why, since the English have so much more history than we do). May I recommend: New York Public, Free Library of Philadelphia, Chicago Public, and San Francisco Public. Seattle is supposed to be great, too, but I've never been there. And then there's the library to beat all libraries: The Library of Congress. I'd be happy to be locked in that one for weeks.

Anonymous said...

Emily, you're funny. OPACs is still a term in play. I don't know when WorldCat became free, but there is the free WorldCat and there is the subscription WorldCat. I use the subscription one through school. It searches loads more databases that include conference proceedings, articles, and scads of other things. And, have you heard of SFX? It's a spiffy service that allows you to get those articles right then and there in a pdf that you can save on your computer. For free (I imagine the school pays a fee but the patron doesn't). It's the coolest thing ever!

Emily Barton said...

Stef, haven't heard of SFX. I take it a new addiction is about to be born? (As if I need yet another one of those.)

Anonymous said...

Hi Emily. Thanks for your great post about library love. You're right--there are lots of us out there who do have such fond memories of going to the library as children and have made sure that the love has translated into library usage and financial support in our adults lives.

As one of the people responsible for helping librarians and library users understand more about, I wanted to provide some clarity around the "free" issue. More than 69,000 libraries around the world add their collection information--their catalog holdings--to WorldCat. Then they do still pay a subscription fee to
1. Gain access to WorldCat as a database on FirstSearch (an online database reference service), and
2. Have their holdings made visible on the open Web through

WorldCat has always been accessible to the patron/consumer/end-user at no cost, through the library. What we've tried to do with is to make sure libraries and library collections are represented on the open Web through Google, Yahoo, MSN and other search engines. So if you don't always remember that your local library has great materials available, can help you find them faster and easier.

I'm so glad you like the service!

Emily Barton said...

Alice, wow, a real Worldcat connection! Thanks for commenting and clarifying.