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28 June 2008 @ 10:06 pm
Zombie Librarian Returns to the Daylight World  
Like many writers, I have a day job to help me pay the rent: in my case, as a cataloger in a library that specializes in natural history. I don’t talk about it much because there’s not much interesting one can say about sitting in front of a computer all day looking stuff up. But last week, after a long leave of absence so that I could finish my second novel, I went back, and I thought I’d describe what it’s like to see my writing from the other side.

My job goes like this: every week the library gets new books. The first thing I do is check the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) WorldCat database for a record for each book. Thousands of libraries all over the world have joined together (OCLC) to share their records online (WorldCat). When a member library acquires a book, rather than having to catalog it (create a new bibliographic record) from scratch, we can look it up in WorldCat and use the master record. Modified to reflect our individual library’s system, these records are added into our online catalog so that users can identify books of interest and find them on the shelves.

The records tell many things about a book: obvious ones like title, author, publisher and number of pages; more specialized info like the ISBN (International Standard Book Number, useful for ordering if the title and author are difficult), subject headings and the call number; and stuff that only a librarian will care about, but can mess you up if they’re wrong and you’re trying to find a book. Things like whether the book is part of a series, and the correct form of any “corporate bodies” involved in producing the book, (examples: World Wildlife Fund; the University of Tokyo’s natural history museum, which turns out to be Tōkyō Daigaku. Sōgō Kenkyū Shiryōkan).

While I was out writing my second book, staying up until 4 in the morning and sleeping till noon, my first book, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander, had her debut and has been on the market for several weeks. After I had looked up all of this week’s new books, I figured I’d look up Phyllida, just for the fun of it. No, the library where I work isn’t going to buy it: it’s a natural history collection. As a coworker pointed out, “you should have written a dinosaur or two into the story.” It costs something like 64 cents for each search on OCLC, but hey, I thought, after promotional postcards at $95 for 250 and Authors Guild membership at $90, I’ll reimburse them.

This is what I found: Phyllida has been purchased by 222 libraries across the country. Compared to some of our more obscure titles, with one or two other holdings if we’re lucky, this sounds like a bestseller! (It’s actually at the level of “not bad” for fiction).

I have an Authority Record for my name. What this means is that, should I write more books and be careless enough to have my name appear in different ways on the different books (Ann W. Herendeen, A. W. Herendeen), or start using a pseudonym (Phyllida Carrington?) all of my works will be listed under the “authorized form” of my name, so that searchers can find them. The authority record is also useful should another Ann Herendeen start writing and publishing. This person will need to provide a middle initial or a year of birth to distinguish her works from mine. Obviously, with a name like mine, this sounds like much ado about very little, but authority records are invaluable when you’re cataloging a book by J. Smith (84 different authors with a total of 198 works, just in my library’s catalog).

Authority records are established mainly by the Library of Congress and are hyperlinked in a bibliographic record. Seeing that clickable underline made me feel as if I’d really arrived.

Most fun of all, I have a Library of Congress call number: PS3608.E735 P59 2008. Whew! Why is it so huge? Simply because there are so many American authors writing fiction in the 21st century. (That’s the PS3600+ part.) We’re grouped by last name, and the first letter of the last name is incorporated into the number, putting all the Hs into PS3608. (H is the 8th letter of the alphabet—3608.) The next part, E735, is based on the “Cutter table” (named for the guy who thought it up). It’s just like the keypad on a phone, where letters are assigned a number from 1-9. E is the second letter of my name and 735 reflects where Herendeen fits in with all the other He… authors alphabetically. It makes sure that in a large collection I’ll be shelved after Heredia and before Herndon. Finally, the title (Phyllida …) is reflected in the last part of the number, P59, and the year of publication, 2008.

I’m thinking about having it made into a gold-plated charm that I can wear on a necklace. How’s that for a conversation killer?

Well, none of this is a substitute for becoming a bestselling author (not likely), winning the Nobel Prize (not until they create a category for high class trash) or having my work made into a blockbuster movie (Clive Owen, Kate Winslet, Emma Thompson—are you reading this?) But as a zombie librarian returning to the daylight world, it sure felt good.