Libraries: Form & Function (Part Two)

Here I am with our nice new sign at Opening Books library on Pratt Ave. in Huntsville Alabama on April 1, 1992.

This post is on the function of libraries—that’s the most important part of any library. I’m currently the head librarian at Daifukuji and prior to that, I founded Opening Books, a non-profit library (with gift shop) in Huntsville, Alabama. I learned library operations by being a library assistant during my senior year at Huntsville High School. (I sat through one class of calculus and when it was over, I went directly to the counselor’s office and said, “I’d like to drop calculus and be a library assistant instead.”) We used the two-card system and that’s the same system that Opening Books used. It’s a great system for any small library.

Opening Books Library in Hunstville, 1992

I’d like to say it’s well explained in Part of Our Lives by Wayne Wiegand, but it’s not. He botched it! I ran it by Denise Stromberg, the head librarian at the Kailua-Kona Library, and she agreed. On page 81 he has a paragraph which totally gives the wrong impression of how the two-card system works. The way it really works is this: The person checking out the book signs both cards. The library worker stamps the due date on both cards and on the pocket of the book. The library keeps both cards and they get filed in a special two-slot “charging tray” (so called because the responsibility for those books is being charged to the person who is checking them out). One of the cards is filed under the day of the month that the book is due and the other card is filed under the borrower’s last name. That way the library can tell what’s due on a certain day and what books a person has checked out at any one time.

Here I am with Will Tuttle (author and musician and friend) in front of Opening Books library in the Spring of 1990.

The proper function of any library is to not just catalog and collect books, but to make them accessible to readers and facilitate reading and spread of knowledge—and making it enjoyable, if at all possible! To this end, the way the library is designed physically and how its collection is ordered is crucial. This is central to the school of feng shui I practice, too—the form of something (or somewhere) shapes how successfully or enjoyably its function will be carried out.

I recently checked out and tried to read Irrepressible Reformer: A Biography of Melvil Dewey also by Wayne Weigand. I couldn’t finish it—Dewey (the man who created the Dewey Decimal Classification system, which is a standard cataloging system for books) was not a pleasant person. He was very anti-Semitic and racist, and he sexually harassed the women he worked with (and when he got caught he “blamed the victims of his behavior for not understanding the purity of his motives”). The cataloging system he came up with is quite lousy in my opinion. Here’s what Wiegand says about it: “The hierarchical arrangement Dewey cemented into the DDC [Dewey Decimal Classification system] had the effect of framing and solidifying a worldview and knowledge structure taught on the Amherst College campus between 1870 and 1875.” It “harnessed a mid-nineteenth century male white Western (and largely Christian) view of the world.”

This is me at the cash/wrap area inside Opening Books library on Oct. 1, 1991. Directly in front of me is the two-slot charging tray for the two-card system used for checking out books. The cash register I’m leaning on was a Sweda manual—that’s right—manual!

One of the things that shows its limitations is that it has Hinduism catalogued as a subset of Buddhism, as if Hinduism sprang from Buddhism, when what actually happened is that Buddhism sprang from Hinduism. When structuring the libraries at Opening Books and at Daifukuji, I chose the most logical system for customer browsing—the “bookstore system.” The Dewey Decimal system throws authors and subjects around helter skelter—no bookstore could survive if it used such a haywire system. Customers would stop browsing and leave the store. Both it and the Library of Congress systems are fine for information retrieval but terrible for browsing.

Those systems evolved during the time of “closed stacks” when you had to ask for library books and someone went off and got them for you. The open stack library layout, that we are all used to, is fairly new in the history of public libraries. The system that bookstores use depends heavily on shelf signage. A category has labeled subsections; Business would have Management, Publicity, and maybe more depending on the interests of the customers. Often, in a library the only signage shows the location of the numbers.

I think this article is going to have to have a Part Three. I have lots more to quote from the first Weigand book concerning integration of public libraries and the material that was selected in them. Stay tuned…

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