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From Phyllida's Desk

Likes Spiders and Snakes, Hates Art

I’m thinking of the Jim Stafford song from 1974: “She said, "I don't like spiders and snakes, And that ain't what it takes to love me, You fool, you fool.”

Gorgeous, inspiring art, from Oceania to Dutch Masters, from Neolithic cave paintings to Picasso? Hate it, hate it hate it! I hate it all.

Snakes, frogs, scorpions, centipedes and spiders? Love ‘em! Can’t get enough hairy-legged, slimy or scaly creepy-crawlies.

I’m speaking, of course, solely from the perspective of cataloging. After more than ten years working as a cataloger in a natural history library, I can definitely say that the experience has affected my likes and dislikes.
And it’s nothing to do with the things themselves, only the way the cataloging “schedules” are formulated. I work with the Library of Congress cataloging system, used in higher academic and institutional libraries (like museums). (The other major system is the Dewey Decimal system, used in public libraries and school libraries.)

LC uses a combination of letters and numbers to form the call numbers of books, with the major subjects assigned a letter of the alphabet in “schedules,” tables of letters and numbers used to classify individual works on a specific topic. Philosophy and Religion are in B, for example, and History is in D. The system was originally designed in 1897, a more innocent time, and some of the letter combinations send unintended messages. In the Religion schedule, works on the Christian Bible are under BS; in the History schedule, Africa is in the DTs—very Heart of Darkness.

Over the intervening long century, the schedules have been expanded and subdivided as our concepts of knowledge itself have changed. G is a catchall mishmash of Geography, Anthropology, and Sports and Recreation, reflecting the relative newness of those three last disciplines. The Q schedule, covering the “hard” sciences, from Mathematics (QA) and Astronomy (QB), through Physiology (QP) and Microbiology (QR), is a model of clarity and ease of use, as befits its subject.

Some schedules retain their old-school flavor from a time when “decimal” systems were all the rage. The P schedule, Language and Literature, is one; another is Art, in the dreaded N schedule. These schedules break down the main subject into various systems of subdivisions, layer beneath layer, with instructions redirecting the hapless cataloger to a new place in the schedule to find yet another message: “Subdivided like NA1000.A1-NA2000.Z.” Ultimately one is sent to consult a “table” in the back to add a long decimal for a country to the root number. You end up with four or five scraps of paper marking your stops along the way in the printed schedule, and a scribbled sheet to show your “work,” like a junior high algebra quiz. It’s like a scavenger hunt without a prize.

But, ah, the pleasure of the Q schedule! Zoology (QL) is a breeze, with the entirety of living things arranged in order from the smallest of invertebrates in the 300s, through Crustacea, Arthropoda and Arachnida in the 400s; with Insects in their staggering variety colonizing the 500s; up through the vertebrates: Fishes, Amphibians and Reptiles, and Birds in the 600s; mammals in the 700s. Each order or family gets its own “class,” such as dragonflies (Odonata) in QL513.O2, or eels (Anguillidae) in QL638.A55. Within these larger families there’s little hierarchy. Most of the class numbers are arranged alphabetically. That pinnacle of mammalian evolution, Primates (apes and monkeys—and us), comes in at QL737.P9, between Pinnipedia (Seals) at QL737.P6 and before Rodents, QL737.R6.

There’s so much work going on these days in taxonomy, especially of frogs and spiders, with new species being discovered, that these schedules are constantly revised and updated as genus and family names are added. Spiders are such a hot field that LC recently interpolated a whole new section into the schedule so that spiders could be classified by region or country. Now a checklist of the spiders of Africa (QL458.416.A1) doesn’t have to share a call number with one covering the Czech Republic (QL458.414.C94). (Whew! That’s a relief!) But the point is, there are such books, with more coming in every day. What ornithology was to the 19th century, so arachnology is to the 21st—the fashionable scientific pursuit.

Each Monday, when I eyeball the new books awaiting my classifying expertise, I wince at every glossy cover showcasing Chinese porcelain, Korean stone carving, African masks or Polynesian sculpture, all things I would pay money to see at a gallery or museum. And I smile at the books on snakes, frogs, spiders, and naked mole rats. Even big hairy water bugs are a pleasure compared to that cataloging monster…Art. Things I’d call the exterminator for at home are a pleasant morning’s work.

And don’t get me started on how the way cataloging programs like OCLC handle diacritics has soured me on “foreign” languages. As a cataloger, I’m more xenophobic than any Tea Partier—but that’s for another day’s diatribe.
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