Where’s My Book?

Imagine having to go to Weldon library and find one specific book. But imagine doing it without the library catalogue to help you. How to find and keep track of books is a problem that has plagued readers and institutions alike forever.

There’s a Mark on My Shelf!

If you have ever been in a library, you have undoubtedly noticed that the spines of books all have stickers with some variation of numbers and/or letters. This is what’s called a ‘shelfmark’, and is what enables the book to be found easily – assuming it was shelved in the right spot that is. pexels-photo-147635.jpegIn the Middle Ages, the tagging system for books could be as simple as a single letter denoting the books place in the shelf, or for larger collections the use of numbers. Chained libraries added to that system when they used double-sided lecterns. To indicate which side of the lectern the manuscript could be found on, libraries included colors in the shelfmarks – red to refer to the right side, and black for the left side.

Is it a bird? A plane? No! It’s a Catalogue!

These systems are all well and good, but they don’t tell a person much unless there is a way in which to consolidate all the shelfmarks in a searchable fashion. Enter: THE LIBRARY CATALOGUE!! Prior to the Middle Ages, the catalogues kept of large collections amounted to mainly just an inventory list. You knew you had the book but you didn’t know exactly where it was necessarily.  People in the Later Middle Ages realized that this was a small problem, and here we see the arrival of proper catalogues. While some were written out in books themselves, others could be posted on the walls of the library itself. pexels-photo-256559.jpegWhile you may be rejoicing thinking that an efficient system has finally begun, you will be a little disappointed to learn that they weren’t. While it could tell you where a book was located in a certain section of the library, it didn’t tell you where the section was. It would be like being told that a copy Wheelock’s Latin was in the Languages and Literature section of Weldon, but not knowing that it’s the fourth floor and you spend a good couple hours looking around just to find the section, let alone the book itself. That is a lot of walking time that could have been put towards your Latin homework…. As if you were going to do that ahead of time anyways.

Medieval Smartphones??

But as times moves on, so does evolution. Library catalogues evolved to be more detailed in telling the users where the section was, as well as the location of the book in that section. Libraries also developed ways that the library patron could carry around the catalogue with them in their search. Kind of like Middle-Aged smartphones! Their battery never dies! But they don’t have internet… or the ability to do anything besides be paper with columns of books and locations on it… So not at all like smartphones really. pexels-photo-209137.jpegBased on the small size of these papers, historians know that these slips of paper were meant to be carried around. They also resembled inventory slips that would be at the end of a shelving unit. The columns would be split up similarly to the chained books. The red books would again be on the right of the shelf, the black books on the left. They would even be split up by shelf, the books on the top of the list would be on top of the shelves, while the books on the bottom of the list would be found underneath the shelves.

Thank goodness for that, otherwise it would be even harder to get books worms like me to leave the library… But you would have to find me first 😉
What do you think? Do you have a way that the current system could be better? What about cataloging home libraries that aren’t as extensive? How could we use systems like this in other parts of our lives? I wanna hear from you in the comments!

Learn more by checking out the original article!

Written by: Victoria Burnett

6 thoughts on “Where’s My Book?

  1. Great post, Victoria! You did a really good job of summarizing the article and adding a lot of humor to your analysis as well 🙂

    One of the things I find interesting about libraries–and personal libraries in particular–is how people organize their books. In public libraries, books are usually organized by categories and subcategories or alphabetically by genre, but personal libraries often have really varied cataloging systems. I know some people who just organize alphabetically, but a lot of them have alternative systems; Hank Green, for instance, organizes his books by color. I personally just organize like with like and series with series in a way that really makes no sense, and I know several people who do the same thing. It’s not really an easy thing to make a standardized cataloging system for personal use, but it is a small hindrance to finding things in personal libraries.


    1. So, does your personal system *really* make “no sense”? Presumably there is a logic to it that is personal and subjective, and that allows you to find a book you’re looking for, even if no one else can?

      Maybe one of the points of this approach — which makes it somewhat like Bush’s “Memex” — is that the way we organize subjectively reflects the associations and connections that we, individually, make between bodies of information. To use a standardized system is to have a particular way of organizing knowledge and information imposed upon one. There may be a kind of “logic” to it (as there is, for instance, in the Library of Congress System that most research libraries use), but need that be the only logic?

      One of the cool things, potentially, about digital libraries is that one can simultaneously use different ordering and organizing principles. A little difficult to do, obviously, when you’re working with physical volumes that can only be in one place at a time, but can we make electronic catalogues work better, so that they provide a kind of virtual re-ordering, and maybe even subjective categorization, of books?


      1. What you describe with the example of digital libraries is actually similar to how the museums that I have worked in organize their artifact collections in their database. They just input every little bit of information about the artifact as possible, then can access it in very different ways, constantly being able to change how they are organized but also still be able to find them – especially when the artifact storage room is an ACTUAL mess


  2. Wonderful post Victoria! It truly is amazing that even in the Middle Ages they still had effective ways of organizing books and tagging them, similarly to how we do today! I can only imagine the issues that could arise if one or two books were misplaced, finding it would have been quite the task back then. I was surprised to learn that they used colours as a way to further organize and tag books even back then, I guess you learn something new everyday!

    Jordan Sharpe


    1. The mis-shelving of books is a personal nightmare scenario. For all intents and purposes, a book that is placed in the wrong place no longer exists: it’s gone because it’s inaccessible.

      There must be some kind of metaphor there: when a particular body of knowledge is swamped in an unrelated subject area, it is extinguished?


  3. So, CAN you imagine a different way of organizing a library? Can we think outside of the box, and imagine a system that doesn’t rigidly produce hierarchies (Art > Visual Art > Painting > Flemish Painting > Flemish Painting of the 17th century > Flemish Landscape Painting of the 17th century, etc.), and that maybe traces connections instead between bodies of knowledge and theoretical perspectives that currently seem walled off from each other?

    How can we, maybe, perhaps, use digital resources — catalogues, databases, etc. — to do that? They “liberate” us from the constraints of physical space that currently dictate the structures we must use, after all.

    Or, alternately, how important is physical presence? Most scholars that I know don’t just rely on a catalogue: they scan the stacks in places they think they might make accidental and serendipitous discoveries.

    Possibly, we can combine the digital and the physical by using Augmented Reality (AR) on, say, a phone app. Imagine going to a stack, and your phone’s GPS, or something similar, prompting you, depending on where you are standing, with additional ideas, places to look, and so forth. What if each volume were “linked” electronically with other works on similar or related subjects, or dating from the same time period, or by the same author, or from the same theoretical perspective, or . . . well, you get the idea.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s