Library Secrets and Myths (The Top Ten)

Most of us had a class in school on libraries resulting in vague memories of terms like fiction and non-fiction, the Dewey decimal system and card catalogs. But even if you are a regular library user, there may still be gaps in your knowledge. Here are the most common areas of confusion:

#1 If I know the author, I can find the book without looking it up.

Not necessarily. While fiction books are shelved by the author’s name, non-fiction books are shelved by Dewey decimal number. So even if you know the name of the author who wrote the latest diet guide, political book or cookbook, that knowledge won’t help you find it on the shelf, although knowing the author’s name will help you look it up in the catalog.

#2 But if the book is fiction, I can find it by author in fiction, right?

Maybe. If the fiction book is shelved in the Fiction section and not the Mystery, Sci-Fi/Fantasy or Western sections. That’s right, you have to know the genre of the book to be certain where to look. And there aren’t clear cut cataloging rules for a lot of genres. Many people expect to find thrillers like those written by James Patterson or John Grisham in Mystery, but we shelve most thrillers in the Fiction section. And the lines between genres get blurrier all the time. There are recent books that could be cataloged as Fiction, Mystery or Sci Fi fantasy since they contain elements of all three genres.

#3 How does the library decide where to put a book?

First, we look to see if the author has written other books and where they are shelved. For the most part, we try to keep an author’s books in one area. But sometimes the books truly belong in different genres, so some authors have books in up to three areas.

The second thing we consider when cataloging hard-to-define books, is where the readers who might enjoy that book would be most likely to find it. Dystopian fiction is a very popular genre; we shelve some of it in Fiction and some in Sci-Fi fantasy. If a dystopian fiction book focuses on philosophical or literary themes, we will probably catalog it as Fiction. If the focus is on action/adventure or if it has a lot of fantastical elements, we’ll probably catalog the dystopian book in the Sci Fi/Fantasy section, where readers who like that sort of book usually “shop”.

Clear as mud? Exactly. Which is why when searching for a specific book, it’s usually best to look it up in the card catalog, or ask a staff member to look it up for you.

#4 If something is made up, it’s in fiction. If it’s true, it’s in non-fiction.

Not necessarily. A lot of historical novels are based on true events but because they’re novels, they are shelved in Fiction. On the other hand, poetry and plays (which are clearly “made-up”) are almost always shelved in Non-fiction. As are books on mythology, religion and spiritually, subjects we could have endless debates about whether they are true or not.

# 5 Although cataloging fiction is complicated, when it comes to cataloging non-fiction, everything is clear cut.

Not always. The Dewey decimal system uses numbers to organize books by subject. But the subject categories are quite broad. Which means some books could potentially be shelved in several different areas. For example, books that are clearly autobiographical (based on the author’s life) are sometimes shelved in biography and sometimes shelved in the section for memoirs (929). Or say a book is about World War II army tanks. It could be cataloged in the military section (500’s) or the World War II section (940.54).

#6 All the materials in the library are cataloged by either author or Dewey number.

This is almost always true for books, although adult graphic novels are shelved by title. Another exception is the DVD/Blue-Ray collection. These items are also shelved by title within their genre category.

Which brings us to… #7 Audio-Visual items have a different cataloging system, so you always have to look them up in the catalog.

In fact, books-on-CD (we call them BOCDs) are shelved exactly like books. So, if you have the call number for a book, you can find the audio version under the same call number. Music CDs are shelved like fiction, under the artist’s last name and then alphabetically by title. There are genre categories for both fiction BOCD and music CDs, so you need to pay attention to the heading before the author/artist’s last name. (Mystery, Western, Sci Fi or Popular, Country, Rock, etc).

#8 MP3s are different than regular BOCDs and you need a special player to listen to them.

The difference between BOCDs and MP3s is that while the data is stored on discs in both formats, a MP3’s data is stored in several layers on one disc. So instead of a book being recorded on eight or ten or more discs, the whole book is contained on one or two discs. Most newer CD players (in cars since 2010-12) are able to play MP3s.

#9 You ask us: Where are your books on tape?

You mean: Where are your audiobooks? Books on tape are recorded on cassettes. Only a few patrons still listen to audiobooks in this format. The vast majority of people who ask for books on tape, really want books on CD. But don’t feel bad. One of our major vendors for books on CD has “books on tape” in the company name. There are a lot of outdated terms like this that spring to our lips. I still call the catalog search computers the card catalog, even though we haven’t had actual cards in the catalog for over twenty-five years.

And finally… #10 If a library staff person is doing work at the desk, I shouldn’t bother them because they’re busy.

False! False! False! Although we do a lot of things while on the public desks (ordering books, inspecting AV materials, doing research, booking meeting rooms, writing blogs) none of those tasks are more important than helping you. That’s the primary purpose of our jobs. We’re here for you.