ASSOCIATES (2007, July, v. 14, no. 1) -

Frank Exner, Little Bear
North Carolina Central University
School of Library and Information Sciences


This column (and the next one) is about some of the assumptions that we base library practice on. Every kind of work has these assumptions: doctors are supposed to heal any sick person who presents herself and lawyers are supposed to represent any person needing legal help.

We have our assumptions too. Our assumptions make our work lives easier (because they represent solutions to basic problems) but make our work lives harder, too (because they can represent the mythical 500-lb gorilla in the room). These assumptions are rarely (maybe never) examined, so they can allow problems (or solutions) to be invisible.

In Bear Thoughts #6 we will look at:

  • Assumptions about the collection

  • Assumptions about the collection’s organization


    The first, and overarching, assumption regarding our collections is that they are a set of information-bearing objects. This is self-evident; it is obvious; what else could they be (you ask)?

    Well, they could be jokes (the humor section), tales (fiction is more than 50% of most library’s circulation), or concept picture books (in the children’s section). As far as most patron’s go, however, these sources do not focus on information. Rather they focus on fun (tales and jokes) or education (potential information for the kids, but not the parent).

    Another stock thought among those of us who work in libraries is that the collection can be separated into book vs. non-book resources. This is literally true, I suppose, but only in the sense that all information in the universe is either book or non-book. A symphony as recorded is non-book; a bound collection of Mozart’s symphonies in manuscript may be a book (it is bound and it has pages), or it may be a non-book resource (it is not a linguistic artifact). And then there are libraries that loan art or movies (video or DVDs) or toys.

    It seems to me that most libraries have several collections, not one. And any article analyzing collection development or collection management will be that much better to apply different principles to different collections resulting in a more detailed understanding of a more complex collection.

    Because of the nature of language (English at least), books (even I admit they are the iconic element of library collections), and shelves, we seem to assume that information is linear, but, in fact, it isn’t. Think of the lessons you learned in school about writing an essay. Parallelism may be linear but need not be; thoughtful writing may be circular (or even spiral); and the tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em, tell ‘em, then tell ‘em what you told ‘em formula turns back on itself twice.

    Browse any shelf in your collection. If it is in the fiction section, it is non-linear almost by definition. Even in collections where different genres are put in different places, non-linearity rules (beyond the first letter of the author’s last name anyhow). In non-fiction, that bastion of order, theories and paradigms and methodologies wage serious battles for attention and adherents.

    Then there is the last assumption about library collections that I will consider. That is that needs shift slowly and in an organized way. As my wife would say, “Can you hear the moose laughing?” (I’m a bear, she’s a moose. We have a mixed family.)

    Some of us (like me) are old enough to remember the seismic shift (metaphor intended) that geology’s acceptance of plate tectonics produced. A whole new collection had to be acquired quickly. The same can happen if you serve a community that changes demographic characteristics quickly. Suddenly you have to think about foreign language materials (not to mention staff training).

    So we now know that:

  • Collections are more than information-bearing objects.
  • The book vs non-book vision is way too narrow to understand patron needs.
  • Information is not linear.
  • Collections do not grow in any organized way.

    And good service requires us to think new thoughts.


    The over-arching assumption in this category is that the library is characterized by the catalog. If this were true, we wouldn’t need shelf lists or acquisition lists.

    What the catalog does characterize is those parts of the knowledge universe represented by the library’s collection. This is equivalent to starting with a chunk of marble (DDC or another system representing the universe of knowledge), deconstructing it into its component parts (i.e., blowing it to smithereens), and gluing together those fragments which look like a bear—like image (or moose-like image, if the collection looks like my better half).

    Another assumption built into the cataloging process is that items have a neat single purpose. I am currently reading (and listening to) The Songs of Insects (a book and CD set). Is it a book about insects or a book about musical sound? The decision affects the vision of the book (or book-CD unit, but that goes back to the collection) and, therefore, the findability (is there such a word?) and usability of its information. So, at best the catalog offers a very rough image of a library’s information set.

    Even if the catalog properly represented the collection (i.e., fully defined what the library has and collocated like with like), there would still be questions about whether alpha-numeric markings (work on the notation plane) equals a mental image for patrons. This bear doesn’t get any image from 595.7159 much less QL496.5.E45 (the DDC and LC numbers for The Songs of Insects).

    I work in a library school. And my wife (the moose) is a retired children’s librarian. And my daughter works in a university library. If there were a person who should envision a book-CD set by its call number, surely I am that person. A set of catalog numbers probably offer no information (other than finding information) to a patron.

    Finally, as with collection assumptions, we assume that information organization needs will shift slowly and in an organized way. But it isn’t true for information organization for the same reasons it is false for collections. Many of us think of switching to a new edition of DDC (or LC or whatever) as a nightmare exceeded only by switching to a new cataloging system (a horror most of us pray we never have to deal with).

    If we go from one edition to another, we are likely to confuse patrons by not collocating new books with their information sisters and brothers. Unless, of course, we do a full retrospective cataloging. (I can hear agonized screams from here.)

    So we now know that:

  • Catalogs are not effective images of the collection.
  • Books (and other parts of a collection) do not represent linear, orderly information.
  • Call numbers do not create mental images which a patron can examine.
  • Catalogs do not grow in any organized way.

    So, again, good service requires us to think new thoughts.


    This column was about some of the assumptions that undergird the operation of our libraries, specifically:

  • Assumptions about the collection.

  • Assumptions about the collection’s organization.

    Whenever you are facing what feels like an intractable problem, examine tour assumptions about the issue. It will amaze you how often your solution will be the one chosen.

    In the next column we will look at:

  • Assumptions about Services and Programs.

  • Assumptions about Management.

  • Assumptions about Patrons.

    See you then.

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