Friday, 14 September 2012

As easy as ABC

At one time, alphabetical order was something we were all used to using. When I was at primary school, we even lined up in the yard in alphabetical order of surname (an early lesson for me in alphabetical discrimination!) At secondary school we sat in that order in class: the friends I still have from school days mainly had surnames beginning with "P".  If you wanted somebody's phone number, you went to the phone book, which in those simple nationalised days contained most people's numbers in one sequence, and you used your knowledge of the alphabet to find the right page. You were used to the idea that a page headed Allen-Atkins would include names such as Andrews and Ash. (All right, some people didn't get it even then, but it worked pretty well).

Times have changed. The phone book which popped through our door last week is a shadow of its former self. (It's still in alphabetical order, but it's not so useful now that so many people are not in it!)

Students give the impression that they are not used to alphabetical order, but as a parent I know that children do still get taught the alphabet. Younger children's classrooms still have colourful letters with pictures of things beginning with the appropriate letter round the walls in alphabetical order, just as we had. (You can even practise getting the order right here !) Perhaps it is more that students have already forgotten something they used to know, because it is no longer needed to the same extent in daily life.

The library catalogue is now in its death throes, with the new discovery platforms jettisoning the idea of linear lists arranged by alphabetical order. Internet searching has given us so many more ways of finding what we are looking for. We can't get rid of the concept that easily, though. Our books are classified using LC, which is based on the alphabet. P is a section, PR is another section, PS is another one again, and that is the order in which those sections are shelved. That second letter seems to cause a lot of confusion. Use the index to any book, and you are back with the same "phone book" principle. In an e-book you may be able to search for the term you want and find information without it, but the physical object still requires you to be able to use one.

Print periodicals, the actual hard copy physical objects (of which we still do have many, especially in humanities subjects) have to be arranged on the shelf, and traditionally that is in alphabetical order. Very often I have found people looking bewildered and saying things like "it's complete chaos", "it's not in any order" and even "why aren't they in alphabetical order?" They are, of course, in alphabetical order, but this sequence includes a further element, a large number of Welsh language titles, which throws people. "W" and "Y" are vowels, but they look strange to the uninitiated (which might include casual shelvers).

Then there is that nasty habit they have of changing their titles. Keep them together on the shelf in one sequence, say the academics - it's the same thing, it may have changed its title but everyone in the academic community knows it is the same thing. Well, fine on the shelves in your own study, perhaps, but if you try this in a large library it will soon come undone - every student and shelver would also have to be able to recognise it, and the only way round that is to complicate your acquisition process and add a whole lot of extra manual labelling (and it probably wouldn't work even then). (There's one glorious exception to this - Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies became Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies when its editorial team moved from Cambridge to Aberystwyth, apparently with a view to keeping it together on the shelf. Strictly speaking, the new title should come before the older one, but it really is close enough to work!)

Finally, there's that old problem of recognising that signage tends to refer to either end of the sequence but not to everything in between. In the card catalogue days, this meant knowing that a drawer which was labelled A-C would include B even if it didn't say so. Our end-of-shelf signs do much the same at the moment. I am toying with the idea of having a full shelf list at the ends of the shelves instead, for more clarity (in alphabetical order, of course!)

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Judging (Welsh) books by their covers

If the death of the physical book ever does happen, I suppose the question of book covers may become redundant. For now, however, they are still really important, and don't let anyone persuade you otherwise!

In academic libraries they mean little: the one where I work actually throws the paper covers away (this is a bit upsetting when they are particularly attractive!) A recent technological innovation borrowed from the world of bookselling, the facility to display images of the covers next to the catalogue records, has caused some confusion - the image is meant to help the user locate the book easily, but that doesn't work if the pretty cover has been chucked out. On the whole, though, users in academic libraries are more interested in the contents than the superficial appearance of books.

This is not so in bookshops, where a good cover judiciously displayed can make a difference to sales. In my public library past we were well aware that the same thing applies to the lending of books. Face-on displays of books made a big difference to borrowing figures. You could more or less manipulate what got borrowed by your choice of items for display, and that choice was I fear very often determined by the quality of the covers. However well-written and interesting a book is, it will not be borrowed by casual library users if it has a plain or boring cover. Sad, but true.

Living in a part of Wales where Welsh-speakers are not well represented among library staff, I tended to keep an eye out for the Welsh books arriving in my branch when I worked in the public library; I don't work there now, but I do use a different branch as a regular borrower, and one thing that caused problems then still seems to now. I would often find myself trying to persuade my colleagues that a particular book, despite its bright jolly cover, was actually a novel for adults; and now as the parent of a Welsh-speaking child in primary school I equally often find racy adult fiction categorised as children's stories, again probably because of the covers. I can only really comment on the Welsh ones, but of course the library has a collection of books in other languages which the staff also don't speak, so the same may be true of those too.

I wonder whether the artwork on Welsh book covers is different enough to be confusing? There are quite a few adult novels concerned with childhood (but from an adult perspective), and these are the ones which are most likely to have illustrations reminiscent of children's books on their covers. Thus, books retrieved from the children's section include Lleucu Roberts' Iesu Tirion and Angharad Tomos' Si hei lwli (both of which have the titles of children's songs - a hymn and a lullaby respectively - as their titles).  These books are not meant for young children!

How do we judge what the content of a book may be, especially when we have no plans to read it ourselves? and, moreover, do not speak the language? The artwork on the cover is not always the best way - but perhaps we are so used to judging by image that we have forgotten this.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Living within our means: or, Queen Mary goes shopping

Ever since the banking crash we have been subjected to a lot of propaganda aimed at persuading us to lower our expectations. We have been living beyond our means, we must not have things we can't afford, the deficit (I think this is what we used to call the National Debt - it's not new, by the way!) is all our fault. We must close libraries and children's playgrounds, must work for nothing, must work forever (for nothing, presumably), and must listen to our betters.

Anyone would think that in the past people always lived within their means. To be fair, most of us did. In the 1960s, HP (hire purchase), an early form of credit, was looked down on by many who continued to go without the consumer goods which were being heavily advertised. It's a vicious circle: businesses can't expand if nobody can afford their goods, so if everybody lives within their means it is difficult to expand business.

An acquaintance whose father was a GP before and during the transition to the NHS mentioned that he, like many doctors at the time, feared that the NHS would have a detrimental effect on his income, but that he soon realised that this was not the case: whereas in the past he had treated poor people for nothing, he now got paid for it; slightly less poor people who had very little used to try to pay even if it meant great sacrifices, or if they had no money would pay in kind (the doctor was never short of eggs); but rich people, I quote, "didn't pay their bills anyway". The doctor's bill was treated like the bills of other tradesmen and, largely, ignored.

This reminded me of some of the stories I'd heard from elderly relatives and acquaintances. Queen Victoria, for instance, would (according to my great grandmother) descend on a hotel on the French Riviera and occupy it for the summer with her retinue. Great for business? Not exactly - she never paid the bill. Everything free, essentially, for the whole summer - which would just about bankrupt the unfortunate hotelier.

Rumours abound - too many to mention - of the visits of Queen Mary to antique shops, stately homes, country houses, all culminating with the owners parting company with their possessions. I would love to know whether any of this can be verified: I have heard stories about it from so many unconnected people that it is hard to imagine that it is all untrue. I have even been told that shops in Union Street, Ryde (Isle of Wight) had an unofficial Queen Mary insurance scheme, with boys keeping a lookout and running up the street to warn shopkeepers if the Queen was on her way, so that by the time she landed the shutters would be up and the shops shut.

Only little people pay taxes - or, indeed, pay for anything. Something to bear in mind, when you are being lectured by people telling you to live wthin your means.