Most of our work occurs behind the scenes, so the activities of the Catalog Section are mysterious to many TAMIU patrons. We maintain the contents of Rio, our electronic catalog, so that you (our users) can have the best possible access to the Sue and Radcliffe Killam Library's collection.
Library users depend on the catalog to tell them what's in the library and how to get at it. It's essential for anyone who uses our library to be able to tell what works we have about a given subject, what works we have by particular authors, and whether we have the particular titles you're interested in. Also, you have to be able to find the book when you look for it. What catalogers do boils down to three main tasks: produce a description of each book so you know what you're getting, set the whole collection into a pattern so people can find material of like subject or type next to each other, and provide descriptive words to that they can be quickly called up on the computer to find the books on a particular subject. As David Eddings says, "All the books in the world won't help you if they're just piled up in a heap."
Most of our time is spent making sure that we have accurate records for each of our books. We download book descriptions from a librarians' electronic database called OCLC (Online Computer Library Catalog), when we can, and our professional cataloger develops the descriptions himself when suitable records are unavailable. He and his staff write many records for Texas school textbooks, works produced locally, and other unusual items for which records don't already exist.
Descriptive cataloging gives enough details about the book so that the user knows for sure that the book in hand is the one he was seeking. In some cases this is obvious, and sometimes distinguishing one from many similar editions or parts is very difficult. This is the part of the work that can be done be the most exacting rules. Our guide is Anglo-American Cataloging Rules , which was developed over many decades of experience, international committee work, and painstaking revision. It is now the undisputed standard for English-speaking countries, and is rapidly being adopted by the world. It is fully integrated with another standard for the same task developed by the Library of Congress called MARC (Machine Readable Cataloging), and both are integrated with a standard called International Standard Bibliographic Description. All this may seem like lot of trouble. But for academic-level bibliographic control (e.g., where is the book or journal article, and how fast can I get my hands on it, even if it comes from the Turkish National Library and must be sent electronically before my dissertation is due?), it is important.
The part of a book description that talks about the book's subject is very important (and the most challenging for the cataloger), since how else are users going to know where to find a book containing what they need? The Library of Congress has established a set of "subject headings" for many important subjects, so that all English-speaking librarians everywhere can use the same words to describe subjects. It may seem kind of weird to make a mandatory list of subject words, and insist that everybody use only words on that list to describe books with. I mean, if a book is about speech, surely everybody would naturally agree on that word without making a fuss about it? But the idea is to get all the books and other items listed under a single term so that the user can then know that all the items on the subject are in a single list - very convenient and efficient. For the many synonyms, cross-reference words are listed with the word See (for terms not used) or See also (for related words that are used but for similar but distinct subjects). There are hierarchies of words for broader and narrower subjects; see also references are used to refer users from broader to narrower terms, as well as related terms not in the hierarchy. While this system has been built on intuition as well as logic in many instances, each decision has been made by humans for humans and has some claim to working in a fashion compatible with the way people think. Innovations for headings - new terms for new things, new terms for old things, changing relationships of ideas - are incorporated continually. Finding information is often quite difficult under the best of circumstances. A well-made catalog helps you, and it helps the Reference staff to help you.
Classification -- putting books of similar subjects together -- is a task related to, but quite distinct from, assigning the descriptive subject headings. Library users experience this part as the familiar &call number.& Many years ago, libraries often had &closed stacks,& meaning only the staff could get near the books. Books could be shelved in the order they arrived from the sellers and given &accession numbers.& This system was quite efficient for the staff to quickly find a book called for by the user, who found the subject description in a hierarchically arranged subject catalog. But browsing is a far richer experience for anyone looking for books, whether information, education, or entertainment is the objective. Subject classification makes the &open-stack& policy, which means you as a user can select your books with your own hands and mind, into more than chaos and serendipity. The Library of Congress scheme used at TAMIU has been built on the experience of what books actually exist and how they relate to each other. The cataloger does his best to figure not just what one book is mainly about, but also how it relates to the ones around it. This effort is aimed at making your browsing experience rich and rewarding. Books talk to one another, and they invite you to listen, and then perhaps talk yourself. As E.M. Forster said, "Only connect ... "
Our computer system can hunt through the book descriptions and give you a list of what books we have that match your shopping list of needs.
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