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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: All Hail the Library of Congress

Thursday, June 13th, 2013 | Posted by Sarah Avery

Until the end of the summer, this will probably be my last post at Black Gate. I’m moving, and that’s a good thing. Strenuous but good. My teaching schedule is almost entirely emptied out now, and the loose ends my students and I are tying up are all about foundational stuff, grammar and vocabulary. Tomorrow the house I’ve lived in for thirteen years starts emptying out, too.

Should it have been enough to stuff all my books into boxes, number the boxes, and write the tally down on my list of household goods? For a sensible person, a non-writing person, it probably would have been. Instead, I catalogued almost all my books on LibraryThing before packing them, because the thought of losing the research materials I need for my fiction filled me with existential terror. If my books on cavalry warfare, tapestry weaving, and small sailing craft disappear in the big move and can’t be replaced, who can I possibly be when I arrive in a new house? Unless I’m writing my stories, about my characters in my own nonexistent city, requiring this particular background from the world I actually live in, I’ll be fundamentally de-personned, right? Apparently the solution to existential terror is a bar code scanner for ISBNs.

Why yes, obsessive-compulsive disorder runs in my family. Why do you ask?

Of all the book cataloguing sites, GoodReads appears to be the one with the biggest party going on. Nonetheless, I’m using LibraryThing because, as far as I can figure it, that one’s best for the big post-move library improvement project I’m dreaming of: labeling and sorting all the books I own by Library of Congress call number.

You were expecting maybe the Dewey Decimal System? No. Heck, no. Admittedly, I have a soft spot for that 90’s comedy about the party girl turned librarian who organized her dance-club friends’ lives by sticking Dewey call numbers on everything, but I don’t want my children growing up in a Dewey Decimal System household, and if I had my way, they wouldn’t have to grow up with Dewey-organized public libraries, either.

What can Dewey do with a writer who wrote fiction, poetry, drama, and non-fiction? Each of those literary forms gets its separate section, which is then subdivided by author. And what can Dewey do with the books about that writer? The biography goes with all the biographies ever written, while the literary history and literary criticism goes somewhere entirely different. If you have a dozen books by and about a major figure who had some versatility to his writing, someone like Yeats or Lord Dunsany, Dewey has no way for you to both organize those books and keep them together. And if you were nutty enough to write a doctoral dissertation about such a writer, with the result that you have over a hundred books by and about, say, Hilda Doolittle, the prospect of putting those books anywhere but together feels not just impractical but downright perverse.

I adore the Library of Congress cataloguing system. The short version: it organizes literary works by author, and authors chronologically by date of birth. The secondary sources about a single author get sorted in with that author’s own works. I don’t grok the cataloguing logic for non-literary works quite as well, but by the time I left academia, I had absorbed enough of it by osmosis that I could begin to form a not-yet-articulated question–one for which I didn’t yet know what keywords I’d want to type for an online search–and I could walk to the right range of call numbers to browse the shelves for my answer.

Maybe by the time my kids are in college, it won’t matter anymore that their college libraries use the LOC system for what print books they still keep. My kids will probably download all the research materials for their papers directly into their brainware, process it with spare cycles in their visual cortices while they’re sleeping, and spit out whatever approximation of the research paper is in academic vogue then for their professors to download into their brainware. Assuming there are still human professors in fifteen years. My current students don’t think they’ll ever need to set foot in a library once they get to college; they’re sure everything worth learning about any topic will show up, full-text and free, in the first page of hits to their Google searches. Perhaps the distinction between Dewey and LOC is a distinction between dinosaurs of the Triassic and dinosaurs of the Cretaceous. If so, I maintain that LOC has the lovelier plumage.

When next I post here, I’ll have a new crop of students in a new town, and a new–and newly ordered–cave of wonders to write in.


Sarah Avery’s short story “The War of the Wheat Berry Year” appeared in the last print issue of Black Gate. A related novella, “The Imlen Bastard,” is slated to appear in BG‘s new online incarnation. Her contemporary fantasy novella collection, Tales from Rugosa Coven, follows the adventures of some very modern Pagans in a supernatural version of New Jersey even weirder than the one you think you know. You can keep up with her at her website, sarahavery.com, and follow her on Twitter.

3 Comments »

  1. Which translation of Clausewitz? It damn well better be the Michael Howard & Peter Paret one!

    I hadn’t realized that the LOC had its own cataloging system – or that I’d actually get excited about it! Thanks, Sarah, and good luck with the move.

    Comment by Allandaros - June 13, 2013 10:38 am

  2. Myself, I’m using both GoodReads and LibraryThing — GoodReads tracks my current reading and I’ve joined several groups and participate in discussions, but LibraryThing is the book of record for my full collection (well, as much of it as I’ve entered thus far).

    Comment by Joe H. - June 13, 2013 11:01 am

  3. I’ve never liked the Library of Congress system. Always felt haughty and too good for the common man, only used in academia and such. The Dewey system! Now there’s the Common Man’s system for collating reference materials.

    Also, Melvil Dui is a more interesting historical figure. Putnam is so staid, and he went to Harvard; I wonder how he got his job?… *cough* Skull & Bones *cough*

    More seriously, back in college I started an MS Access database of all my books, and now that Goodreads and LibraryThing have come along, I doubt I have the strength to recopy all the information again. I’m going to have to though, new versions of Office won’t import my aging database anymore.

    Comment by darangrissom - June 13, 2013 9:56 pm


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