A Librarian’s Work

“For everybody except the librarian, his position is rather a tantalizing one. In the midst of the great ocean of books, it is ‘water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink.’”

I am very frequently asked what in the world a librarian can find to do with his time, or am perhaps congratulated on my connection with Harvard College Library, on the ground that “being virtually a sinecure office (!) it must leave so much leisure for private study and work of a literary sort.” Those who put such questions, or offer such congratulations, are naturally astonished when told that the library affords enough work to employ all my own time, as well as that of twenty assistants; and astonishment is apt to rise to bewilderment when it is added that seventeen of these assistants are occupied chiefly with “cataloguing;” for generally, I find, a library catalogue is assumed to be a thing that is somehow “made” at a single stroke, as Aladdin’s palace was built, at intervals of ten or a dozen years, or whenever a new catalogue is thought to be needed. “How often do you make a catalogue?” or “When will your catalogue be completed?” are questions revealing such transcendent misapprehension of the case that little but further mystification can be got from the mere answer, “We are always making a catalogue, and it will never be finished.” The “doctrine of special creations” does not work any better in the bibliographical than in the zoölogical world. A catalogue, in the modern sense of the word, is not something that is “made” all at once, to last until the time has come for it to be superseded by a new edition, but it is something that “grows,” by slow increments, and supersedes itself only through gradual evolution from a lower degree of fullness and definiteness into a higher one. It is perhaps worth while to give some general explanation of this process of catalogue-making, thus answering once for all the question as to what may be a librarian’s work. There is no better way to begin than to describe, in the case of our own library, the career of a book from the time of its delivery by the express-man to the time when it is ready for public use.

New American books, whether bought or presented, generally come along in driblets, two or three at a time, throughout the year; large boxes of pamphlets, newspapers, broadsides, trade-catalogues, and all manner of woful rubbish (the refuse of private libraries and households) are sent in from time to time; and books from Europe arrive every few weeks in lots of from fifty to three or four hundred. It is in the case of foreign books that our process is most thoroughly systematized, and here let us take our illustrative example.

When a box containing three or four hundred foreign books has been unpacked, the volumes are placed, backs uppermost, on large tables, and are then looked over by the principal assistant, with two or three subordinates, to ascertain if the books at hand correspond with those charged in the invoice. As the titles are read from the invoice, the volumes are hunted out and arranged side by side in the order in which their titles are read, while the entry on the invoice is checked in the margin with a pencil. These pencil-checks are afterwards copied into the margins of the book in which our lists of foreign orders are registered, so that we may always be able to determine, by a reference to this book, whether any particular work has been received or not. This order-book, with its marginal checks, is the only immediate specific register of accessions kept by us, as our peculiar system entails considerable delay in bringing up the “accessions catalogue.”

After this preliminary examination and registry, the books are ready to be looked over by the “assistant librarian,” who must first decide to what “fund” each book entered on the invoice must be charged. The university never buys books with its general funds, but uses for this purpose the income of a dozen or more small funds, given, bequeathed, or subscribed expressly for the purchase of books. Sometimes the donors of such funds allow us to get whatever books we like with the money, but more often they show an inclination to favor the growth of departments in which they feel a personal interest. Thus the munificent bequest of the late Mr. Charles Sumner is appropriated to the purchase of works on politics and the fine arts, while Dr. Walker’s bequest provides more especially for theology and philosophy, and the estate of Professor Farrar still guards the interests of mathematics and physics. Under such circumstances, it is of course necessary to keep a separate account with each fund, and the data for such an account are provided by charging every new book as it arrives. On the margin of the invoice the names of the different funds are written in pencil against the entries, while the assistants separate the books into groups according to the funds to which they are charged. Five or six more assistants now arriving on the scene, the work of “collating” begins.1

Properly speaking, to “collate” is to compare two things with each other, in order to estimate or judge the one by a reference to the other taken as a standard. In our library usage, the word has very nearly this sense when duplicate copies of the same work are collated, to see whether they coincide page for page. But as we currently use the word, to collate a book is simply to examine it carefully from beginning to end, to see whether every page is in its proper place and properly numbered, whether any maps or plates are missing or misplaced, whether the back is correctly lettered, or whether any leaves are so badly torn or defaced as to need replacing. In English cloth-bound books this scrutiny involves the cutting of the leaves, a tedious job which in half-bound books from the Continent is seldom required. En revanche, however, the collating of an English book hardly ever brings to light any serious defect, while in the make-up of French and German books the grossest blunders are only too common. Figures are unaccountably skipped in numbering the pages; plates are either omitted or are so bunglingly numbered that it is hard to discover whether the quota is complete or not; title-pages are inserted in the wrong places; sheets are wrongly folded, bringing the succession of pages into dire confusion; sometimes two or three sheets are left out, and sometimes where a work in ten volumes is bound in five, you will find that the first of these contains two duplicate copies of Vol. I., while for any signs of a Vol. II. you may seek in vain. In all bungling of this kind, the Germans are worse than the French; but both are bad enough when contrasted with the English, either of the Old World or of the New. This work of collating is in general of lower grade than the work of cataloguing, and can be entrusted to the less experienced or less accomplished assistants; but to some extent it is shared by all, and where difficulties arise, or where some book with Arabic or Sanskrit numbering turns up, an appeal to head-quarters becomes necessary. When a book has been collated, the date of its reception and the name of the fund to which it has been charged are written in pencil on the back of the title-page, and: at the bottom of the title-page, to the left of the imprint, is written some modification of the letter C, C’, Ç, Cv, etc., which is equivalent to the signature of the assistant who has done the collating and is responsible for its accuracy.

After this is all over, the books, still remaining grouped according to their “funds,” are ready to have the “seals” put in. The seal is the label of ownership, bearing the seal of the university and the name of the fund or other source from which the book has been procured, and is pasted on the inside of the front cover. Above it, in the left corner, is pasted a little blank corner-piece, on which is to be marked in pencil the number of the alcove and shelf where the book is to be placed, or “set up.”

To set up a book on a shelf is no doubt a very simple matter, yet it involves something more than the mere placing of the volume on the shelf. Each alcove in the library has a “shelf-catalogue,” or list of all the books in the alcove, arranged by shelves. Such a catalogue is indispensable in determining whether each shelf has its proper complement of volumes, and whether, at the end of the year, all the books are in their proper places. When the book is duly entered on this shelf-catalogue, and has its corner-piece marked, it is at last ready to be “catalogued.” After our lot of three or four hundred books have been treated in this way, they are delivered to the principal assistant, who parcels them out among various subordinate assistants, for cataloguing.

Here we enter upon a very wide subject, and one that is not altogether easy to expound to the uninitiated. A brief historical note is needed, to begin with. In 1830 Harvard University published a printed catalogue (in two volumes, octavo) of all the works contained in its library at that date. In 1833 a supplement was published, containing all the accessions since 1830, and these made a moderate-sized volume. Here is the essential vice of printed catalogues. Where the number of books is fixed once for all, — as in the case of a private library, the owner of which has just died, and which is to be sold at auction, — nothing is easier than to make a perfect catalogue, whether of authors or of subjects. It is very different when your library is continually growing. By the time your printed catalogue is completed and published, it is already somewhat antiquated. Several hundred books have come in which are not comprised in it, and among these new books is very likely to be the one you wish to consult, concerning which the printed catalogue can give you no information. If you publish an annual supplement, as the Library of Congress does, then your catalogue will become desperately cumbrous within five or six years. When you are in a hurry to consult a book, it is very disheartening to have to look through half a dozen alphabets, besides depending after all on the ready memory of some library official as to the books which have come in since the last supplement was published. This inconvenience is so great that printed catalogues have gone into discredit in all the principal libraries of Europe. Catalogues are indeed printed, from time to time, by way of publishing the treasures of the library, and as bibliographical helps to other institutions; but for the use of those who daily consult the library, manuscript titles have quite superseded the printed catalogue. In European libraries this is done in what seems to us a rather crude way. Their catalogues are enormous brown paper blank-books or scrap-books, on the leaves of which are pasted thin paper slips bearing the titles of the books in the library. Large spaces are left for the insertion of subsequent titles in their alphabetical order; and as a result of this method, the admirable catalogue of the library of the British Museum fills more than a thousand elephant folios! An athletic man, who has served his time at base-ball and rowing, may think little of lifting these gigantic tomes, but for a lady who wishes to look up some subject one would think it desirable to employ a pair of oxen and a windlass. All the libraries of Western Europe which I have visited seem. to have taken their cue from the British Museum. But in this country we have hit upon a less ponderous method. To accomplish this end of keeping our titles in their proper alphabetical order, we write them on separate cards, of stiff paper, and arrange these cards in little drawers, in such a way that any one, by opening the drawer and tilting the cards therein, can easily find the title for which he is seeking. Our new catalogue is a marvel of practical convenience in this respect. At each end the row of stiff cards is supported by beveled blocks, in such a way that some title lies always open to view; and by simply tilting the cards with the forefinger, any given title is quickly found, without raising the card from its place in the drawer.

In September, 1833, our library began its second supplement, consisting of two alphabetical manuscript catalogues. Volumes received after that date were catalogued upon stiff cards arranged in drawers, while pamphlets were catalogued, after the European fashion, on slips of paper pasted into great folio scrap-books. This distinction between pamphlets and volumes was a most unhappy one. To a librarian the only practical difference between these two kinds of book is that the latter can generally be made to stand on a shelf, while the former generally tumbles down when unsupported. This physical fact makes it necessary to keep pamphlets in files by themselves until it is thought worth while to bind them. But for the purposes of cataloguing it makes no difference whether a book consists of twenty panes between paper covers or of five hundred pages bound in full calf. If you wish to find M. Léon de Rosny’s Aperçu général des langues sémitiques, you do not care, and very likely do not know, whether it is a “pamphlet” of fifty pages or a “volume” of three hundred, and you naturally grumble at a system which sends you to a second alphabet in order to maintain a purely arbitrary and useless distinction. In practice this double catalogue was found to be so inconvenient that in 1850, after the pamphlet titles had come to fill eight cumbrous volumes, it was abandoned, and henceforth pamphlets, as well as maps and engravings, were placed on the same alphabet with bound volumes.

Before long, however, it began to be felt necessary to reform this whole cumbrous system. To ascertain whether a given work was contained in the library, one had now to consult four different alphabets, — the old printed catalogue, the first or printed supplement, the second or card supplement, and the eight ugly folios of pamphlet titles. These later supplements, moreover, being accessible only to the librarian and his assistants, were of no use to the general public, who, for the 135,000 titles added since 1833, were obliged to get their information from some of the officials. To remedy this state of things, a new card catalogue, freely accessible to the public, and destined to embrace in a single alphabet all the titles in the library without distinction, was begun in 1861 by my predecessor, Prof. Ezra Abbot. This catalogue was not intended to supersede the private card supplement begun in 1833, which for many reasons it is found desirable to keep up. But for the use of the public it will, when finished, supersede everything else and become the sole authoritative catalogue of the library. Since 1861 all new accessions have been put into this catalogue, while the work of adding to it the older titles has gone on with varying speed: in 1869 it came nearly to a stand-still, but was resumed in 1874, and is now proceeding with great rapidity. About fifty thousand titles of volumes, and as many more of pamphlets, still remain to be added before this new catalogue can become the index to all the treasures of the library.2

Another great undertaking was begun simultaneously in 1861. The object of an alphabetical catalogue like those above described is “to enable a person to determine readily whether any particular work belongs to the library, and, if it does, where it is placed.” If you are in search of Lloyd’s Lectures on the Wave-Theory of Light, you will look in the alphabetical catalogue under “LLOYD, Humphrey.” Now this alphabetical arrangement is the only one practicable in a public library, because it is the only one on which all catalogues can be made to agree, and it is the only one sufficiently simple to be generally understood. For the purpose here required, of finding a particular work, an arrangement according to subject-matter would be entirely chimerical. Nothing short of omniscience could ever be sure of finding a given title amid such a heterogeneous multitude. Every man who can read knows the order of the alphabet, but not one in a thousand can be expected to master all the points that determine the arrangement of a catalogue of subjects, — as, for example, why one of three kindred treatises should be classed under the rubric of Philosophy, another under Natural Religion, and a third under Dogmatic Theology. But while it would thus be impracticable to place our final reliance on any other arrangement than an alphabetical one, it by no means follows that a subsidiary subject-catalogue is not extremely useful. He who knows that he wants Lloyd’s book on the undulatory theory is somewhat more learned in the literature of optics than the majority of those who consult libraries. For one who knows as much as this, there are twenty who know only that they want to get some book about the undulatory theory. Now a subject-catalogue is preëminently useful in instructing such people in the literature of the subject they are studying. They have only to open a drawer that is labeled “OPTICS,” and run along the cards until they come to a division marked “OPTICSWave-Theory,” and there they will find perhaps a dozen or fifty titles of books, pamphlets, review articles, and memoirs of learned societies, all bearing on their subject, and enabling them to look it up with a minimum of bibliographical trouble. Such a classified catalogue immeasurably increases the usefulness of a library to the general public. At the same time, the skillful classification of books presents so many difficulties and requires so much scientific and literary training that it adds greatly to the labor of catalogue-making. For this reason great libraries rarely attempt to make subject-catalogues. At every library which I visited in England, France, Germany, and Italy, I received the same answer: “We do not keep any subject-catalogue, for we shrink from so formidable an undertaking.” With a boldness justified by the result, however, Professor Abbot began such a catalogue of the Harvard library in 1861, and carried out the work with the success that might have been expected from his prodigious knowledge and consummate ingenuity.

It is sometimes urged that, in deference to the feebleness of human memory, an ideal library should have yet a third catalogue, arranged alphabetically, not according to authors, but according to titles. This is to accommodate the man who knows that he wants Lectures on the Wave-Theory of Light, but has forgotten the author’s name. In an “ideal” library this might perhaps be well. But in a real library, subject to the ordinary laws of nature, it is to be remembered that any serious addition to the amount of catalogue-room or to the labor of the librarian and assistants is an expense which can be justified only by the prospect of very decided advantages. In most cases, the subject-catalogue answers the purposes of those who remember the title of a work but have forgotten the author. In the very heterogeneous classes of Drama and Fiction, where this is not so likely to be the case, the exigency is provided for in Professor Abbot’s system by a full set of cross-references from titles to authors.

From this account it will be seen that any new book received to-day by our library must be entered on three catalogues, — first on the card supplement which continues the old printed catalogue, secondly on the new all-comprehensive alphabet of authors, thirdly on the classified index of subjects. In our technical slang the first of these catalogues is known under the collective name of “the long cards,” the second as “the red cards,” the third as “the blue cards,” — names referring to the shape of the cards and to certain peculiarities of the lines with which they are ruled. When our lot of three or four hundred books is portioned out among half a dozen assistants to be catalogued, the first thing in order is to write the “long cards.” Each book must have at least one long card; but most books need more than one, and some books need a great many. Suppose you have to catalogue Mr. Stuart-Glennie’s newly-published Pilgrim Memories. This is an exceedingly easy book for the cataloguer, but it requires two cards, because of the author’s compound name. The book must be entered under “Stuart-Glennie,” because that is the form in which the name appears on the title-page, and which the author is therefore supposed to prefer. It is very important, however, that a reference should be made from “Glennie” to “Stuart-Glennie,” else some one, remembering only the last half of the name, would look in vain for “Glennie,” and conclude that the book was not in the library. Suppose, again, that your book is Jevons on Money and the Mechanism of Exchange. This belongs to the International Scientific Series, and therefore needs to be entered under “Jevons,” and again on the general card which bears the superscription “International Scientific Series.” Without such a general entry, books are liable to be ordered and bought under one heading when they are already in the library and catalogued under the other heading. The risk of such a mishap is small in the case of the new and well-known series just mentioned, but it is considerable in the case of the different series of British State Papers, or the Scelta di Curiositá Italiane; and of course one rule must be followed for all such cases. Suppose, again, that your book is Grimm’s Deutsches Woerterbuch, begun by the illustrious Grimm, but continued by several other hands. Here you must obviously have a distinct entry for each collaborator, and each of these entries requires a card.

In writing the long card, the first great point is to ascertain every jot and tittle of the author’s name; and, as a general rule, title-pages are very poor helps toward settling this distressing question. For instance, you see from the title-pages of Money and Pilgrim Memories that the authors are “W. Stanley Jevons,” and “John S. Stuart-Glennie;” but your duty as an accurate cataloguer is not fulfilled until you have ascertained what names the W. and S. stand for in these cases. In the alphabetical catalogue of a great library, it is a matter of the first practical importance that every name should be given with the utmost completeness that the most extreme pedantry could suggest. No one who has not had experience in these matters can duly realize that the number of published books is so enormous as to occasion serious difficulty in keeping apart the titles of works by authors of the same name. “Stanley Jevons” and “Stuart-Glennie” are very uncommon combinations of names; yet the occurrence of two or three different authors in an alphabetical catalogue, bearing this uncommon combination of names, would not be at all surprising. Indeed—to say nothing of the immense number of accidental coincidences—I think we may lay it down as a large comprehensive sort of rule, that any man who has published a volume or pamphlet is sure to have relatives of the same name who have published volumes or pamphlets. Such a fact may have some value to people like Mr. Galton, who are interested in the subject of hereditary talent, and who have besides a keen eye for statistics. I have never tabulated the statistics of this matter, and am stating only a general impression, gathered from miscellaneous experience, when I say that the occurrence of almost any name in a list of authors affords a considerable probability of its re-occurrence, associated with some fact of blood-relationship. One would not be likely to realize this fact in collecting a large private library, because private libraries, however large, are apt to contain only the classical works of quite exceptional men and the less important works which happen to be specially interesting or useful to the owner. But in a public library the treasures and the rubbish of the literary world are alike hoarded; and the works of exceptional men whom everybody remembers are lumped in with the works of all their less distinguished cousins and great-uncles, whose names the world of readers has forgotten.

A librarian has the opportunity for observing many curious facts of this sort, but he will seldom have leisure to speculate about them. For while a great library is an excellent place for study and reflection, for everybody except the librarian, his position is rather a tantalizing one. In the midst of the great ocean of books, it is “water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink.”

To make up for the extreme vagueness with which authors customarily designate themselves on their title-pages is the work of the assistants who write the long cards, and it is apt to be a very tedious and troublesome undertaking. Biographical and bibliographical dictionaries, the catalogues of our own and other libraries, university-catalogues, army-lists, clerical directories, genealogies of the British peerage, almanacs, “conversations-lexicons,” literary histories, and volumes of memoirs, — all these aids have to be consulted, and too often are consulted in vain, or give conflicting testimony which serves to raise the most curious and perplexing questions. To the outside world such anxious minuteness seems useless pedantry; but any skeptic who should serve six months in a library would become convinced that without it an alphabetical catalogue would soon prove unmanageable. “Imagine the heading ‘SMITH, J.,’ in such a catalogue!”says Professor Abbot. Where a name is very common, we are fain to add whatever distinctive epithet we can lay hold of; as in the case of six entries of “WILSON, William,” which are differenced by the addition of “Scotch Covenanter,” “poet, of London,” “M. A., of Musselburgh,” “of Poughkeepsie,” “Vicar of Walthamstow,” “Pres. of the Warrington Nat. Hist. Soc.”

New difficulties arise when the title-page leaves it doubtful whether the name upon it is that of the author, or that of an editor or compiler. The names of editors and translators are often omitted and must be sought in bibliographical dictionaries. Dedicatory epistles, biographical sketches, or introductory notices are often prefixed, signed with exasperating initials, for a clew to which you may perhaps spend an hour or two in fruitless inquiry. In accurate cataloguing, all such adjuncts to a book must be noticed, and often require distinct reference-cards, Curious difficulties are sometimes presented by the phenomena of compound or complex authorship, as in works like the Bollandist Acta Sanctorum, conducted by a group of men, some of whom are removed by death, while their places are supplied by new collaborators. Some other immense work, like Migne’s Patrologiæ Cursus Completus, will give rise to nice questions owing to the indefiniteness with which its various parts are demarcated from each other. Many German books, on the other hand, are troublesome from the excessive explicitness with which they are divided, with sub-titles and sub-sub-titles innumerable, in accordance with some subtle principle not always to be detected at the first glance. The proper mode of entry for reports of legal cases and trials, periodicals, and publications of learned societies, governments, and boards of commissioners, is sure to call for more or less technical skill and practical discrimination. Anonymous and pseudonymous works are very common, and even the best bibliographical dictionaries cannot keep pace with the issue of them. Where we can find, by hook or by crook, the real name of the author of a pseudonymous work, it is entered under the real name, with a cross-reference from the pseudonym. Otherwise it is entered provisionally under the fictitious name, as, for example, “VERITAS, pseudon.” Anonymous works are entered under the first word of the title neglecting particles; and the head-line is left blank, so that if the author is ever discovered, his name may be inserted there, inclosed within brackets. In former times it was customary for the cataloguer to enter such works under what he deemed to be the most important word of the title, or the word most likely to be remembered; but in practice this rule has been found to cause great confusion, since people are by no means sure to agree as to the most important word. To some it may seem absurd to enter an anonymous Treatise on the Best Method of preparing Adhesive Mucilage under the word “Treatise” rather than under “Mucilage;” but it should be remembered that he who consults an alphabetical catalogue is supposed to know the title for which he is looking; and, in our own library at least, any one who remembers only the subject of the work he is seeking can always refer to the catalogue of subjects.

To treat more extensively of such points as these, in which none but cataloguers are likely to feel a strong interest, would not be consistent with the purpose of this article. For those who wonder what a librarian can find to do with his time, enough hints have been given to show that the task of “just cataloguing a book” is not, perhaps, quite so simple as they may have supposed. These hints have nevertheless been chosen with reference to the easier portions of a librarian’s work, for a description of the more intricate problems of cataloguing could hardly fail to be both tedious and unintelligible to the uninitiated reader. Enough has been said to show that a cataloguer’s work requires at the outset considerable judgment and discrimination, and a great deal of slow, plodding research. The facts which we take such pains to ascertain may seem petty when contrasted with the dazzling facts which are elicited by scientific researches. But in reality the grandest scientific truths are reached only after the minute scrutiny of facts which often seem very trivial. And though the little details which encumber a librarian’s mind do not minister to grand or striking generalizations, though their destiny is in the main an obscure one, yet if they were not duly taken care of, the usefulness of libraries as aids to high culture and profound investigation would be fatally impaired. To the student’s unaided faculties a great library is simply a trackless wilderness; the catalogue of such a library is itself a kind of wilderness, albeit much more readily penetrated and explored; but unless a book be entered with extreme accuracy and fullness on the catalogue, it is practically lost to the investigator who needs it, and might almost as well not be in the library at all.

In the task of entering a book properly on the alphabetical catalogue, the needful researches are for the most part made by the assistants; but the questionable points are so numerous, and so unlike each other, that none of them can be considered as finally settled until approved at head-quarters. After the proper entry has been decided on, the work of transcribing the title is comparatively simple in most cases. The general rule is to copy the whole of the title with strict accuracy, in its own language and without translation, including even abbreviations and mistakes or oddities in spelling. Mottoes and other really superfluous matters on the title-page are usually omitted, the omission being scrupulously indicated by points. As regards the use of capital letters, title-pages do not afford any consistent guidance, being usually printed in capitals throughout. Our own practice is to follow in capitalizing tile usage of the language in which the title is written; but many libraries adopt the much simpler rule of rejecting capitals altogether except in the case of proper names, and this I believe to be practically the better because the easier method,3 though the result may not seem quite so elegant. After the transcription of the entire title, the number of volumes, or other divisions of the book, is set down; and next in order follows the “imprint,” or designation of the place and date of publication. Finally, the size of the book (whether folio, or quarto, octavo, etc.) is designated, after an examination of the “signature marks;” the number of pages (if less than one hundred or more than six hundred) is stated;4 plates, wood-cuts, maps, plans, diagrams, photographs, etc., are counted and described in general terms. Any peculiarities relating not to the edition, but to the particular copy catalogued, are added below in a note; such as the fact that the book is one of fifty copies on large paper, or has the author’s autograph on the fly-leaf. In many cases it is found desirable to add a list of the contents of the work; and if it be a book of miscellaneous essays, each essay often has an additional entry on a card of its own.5

These details make up the sum of what is entered on the body of the long card; but in addition to all this, the left-hand margin contains the date of reception of the book, the fund to which it is charged, or the name of the donor, and the all-important “shelf-mark,” which shows where the book is to be found; while on the right-hand margin is written a concise description of the appearance of the book (i. e., “5 vol., green cloth”), and a note of its price. When all this is finished, the book is regarded as catalogued, and is sent, with its card in it, to the principal assistant for revision. From the principal assistant it is passed on to me, and it is the business of both of us to see that all the details of the work have been done correctly. A pencil-note on the mare in of the card shows the class and sub-class to which the book is to be assigned in the catalogue of subjects; and then the card is separated from the book. The book goes on to its shelf, to be used by the public; the card goes back to some one of the assistants, to be “indexed.” In our library-slang, “indexing” means the writing of the “red” and “blue” cards which answer to the “long” card; in other words, the entry of the title6 on the new alphabetical and subject catalogues begun in 1861. For the most part this is merely a matter of accurate transcription, requiring no research. When these “red” and “blue” cards have been submitted to a special assistant for proof-reading, they are returned to me, and after due inspection are ready to be distributed into their catalogues. But for the original “long card” one further preliminary is required before it can be put into its catalogue.

Besides the various catalogues above described, our library keeps a “record-book” or catalogue of accessions arranged according to dates of reception. This accessions-catalogue was begun October 1, 1827, and records an accession for that year of one volume, price ten shillings and sixpence! In 1828, according to this record, the library received twenty-one volumes, of which eighteen were gifts, while three were bought at a total cost of $14.50! But either these were exceptionally unfruitful years, or—what is more likely—the record was not carefully kept, for the ordinary rate of increase in those days was by no means so small as this, though small enough when compared with the present rate. The accessions-catalogue has grown until it now fills twenty-one large folio volumes. The entries in it are made with considerable fullness by transcription from the long cards. Usually a month’s accessions are entered at once, and when this has been done the long card is ready to take its place in the catalogue.

In this account of the career of a book, from its reception to the time when it is duly entered on all the catalogues, we find some explanation of the way in which a librarian employs his time. For while the work of cataloguing is done almost entirely by assistants, yet unless every detail of it passes under the librarian’s eye, there is no adequate security for systematic unity in the results. The librarian must not indeed spend his time in proof-reading or in verifying authors’ names; it is essential that there should be some assistants who can be depended upon for absolute accuracy in such matters. Nevertheless, the complexity of the questions involved requires that appeal should often be made to him, and that he should always review the work for the correctness of which he is ultimately responsible. As for the designation of the proper entry on the subject-catalogue, the cases are rare in which this can be entrusted to any assistant. To classify the subject-matter of a book is not always in itself easy, even when the reference is only to general principles of classification; but a subject-catalogue, when once in existence, affords a vast mass of precedents which, while they may lighten the problem to one who has mastered the theory on which the catalogue is constructed, at the same time make it the more unmanageable to any one who has not done so. To assign to any title its proper position, you must not merely know what the book is about, but you must understand the reasons, philosophical and practical, which have determined the place to which such titles have already been assigned. It is a case in which no mere mechanical following of tradition is of any avail. No general rules can be laid down which a corps of assistants can follow; for in general each case presents new features of its own, so that to follow any rule securely would require a mental training almost as great as that needed for making the rule. Hence when different people work independently at a classified catalogue, they are sure to get into a muddle.

Suppose, for example, you have to classify a book on the constitution of Massachusetts. I put such books under the heading “LAWMass. —Const.,” but another person would prefer “LAWConst. —Mass.,” a third would rank them under “LAWU. S.—Const. & Mass.,” a fourth under “LAWU. S. (Separate States), & Mass.—Const.,” a fifth under “LAWConst. & U. S.—Mass.,” and so on, through all the permutations and combinations of which these terms are susceptible. Yet each of these arrangements would bring the title into a different part of the catalogue, so that it would be quite impossible to discover, by simple inspection, what the library contained on the subject of constitutional law in Massachusetts; and to this extent the catalogue would become useless. Many such defects are now to be found in our subject-catalogue, greatly to the impairment of its usefulness; and they prove conclusively that the work of classifying must always be left to a single superintendent who knows well the idiosyncrasies of the catalogue. This work consumes no little time. The titles of books are by no means a safe index to their subject-matter. To treat one properly you must first peer into its contents; and then, no matter how excellent your memory, you will often have to run to the catalogue for precedents.

As a rule, comparatively few cards are written by the librarian or the principal assistant. Only the most difficult books, which no one else can catalogue, are brought to the superintendent’s desk. Under this class come old manuscripts, early printed books without title-pages, books with Greek titles, and books in Slavonic, or Oriental, or barbarous languages. Early printed books require special and varying kinds of treatment, and need to be carefully described with the aid of such dictionaries as those of Ham, Panzer, and Graesse. One such book may afford work for a whole day. An old manuscript is likely to give even more trouble. There is nothing especially difficult in Greek titles, save for the fact that our assistants are all women, who for the most part know little or nothing of the language.7 In general these assistants are acquainted with French, and with practice can make their way through titles in Latin and German. There are some who can deal with any Romanic or Teutonic language, though more or less advice is usually needed for this. But all languages east of the Roman-German boundary require the eye of a practiced linguist. To decipher a title, or part of a preface, in a strange language, it is necessary that one should understand the character in which it is printed, and should be able to consult some dictionary either of the language in question or of some closely related dialect. One day I had to catalogue a book of Croatian ballads, and, not finding any Croatian dictionary in the library, set up a cross-fire on it with the help of a Servian and a Slovenian dictionary. This served the purpose admirably, for where a cognate word did not happen to occur in the one language it was pretty sure to turn up in the other. Sometimes—in the case, say, of a hundred Finnish pamphlets—the labor is greater than it is worth while to undertake; or somebody may give us a volume in Chinese or Tamil, which is practically undecipherable. In such cases we consider discretion the better part of valor, and under the heading “FINNISH” or “CHINESE” write “One hundred Finnish pamphlets,” or “A Chinese book,” trusting to the future for better information. Sometimes a polyglot visitor from Asia happens in, and is kind enough to settle a dozen such knotty questions at once.

Another part of a librarian’s work is the ordering of new books, and this is something which cannot be done carelessly. Once a year a council of professors, after learning the amount of money that can be expended during the year, decides upon the amounts that may be severally appropriated to the various departments of literature. Long lists of desiderata are then prepared by different professors, and handed in to the library. Besides this a considerable sum is placed under the control of the librarian, for miscellaneous purchases, and any one who wishes a book bought at any time is expected to leave a written request for it at my desk. As often as we get materials for a list of two or three hundred titles, the list is given, before it is sent off, to one of our most trustworthy assistants, to be compared with the various catalogues as well as with the record of outstanding orders. To ascertain whether a particular work is in the library, or on its way thither, may seem to be a very simple matter; but it requires careful and intelligent research, and on such a point no one’s opinion is worth a groat, who is not versed in all the dark and crooked ways of cataloguing. The fact that a card-title is not to be found in the catalogue proves nothing of itself, for very likely the card may be “out” in the hands of some assistant. Nothing is more common than for a professor to order some well-known work in his own department of study which has been in the library for several years, and so long as the art of cataloguing is as complicated as it now is, such misunderstandings cannot be altogether avoided. Very often this is due to the variety of ways in which one and the same book may be described, and cannot be ascribed to any special cumbrousness or complexity of our system. All this necessitates a thorough scrutiny of every title that is ordered, for to waste the library’s money in buying duplicates is a blunder of the first magnitude. Yet in spite of the utmost vigilance, it is seldom that a case of two or three hundred books arrives which does not contain two or three duplicates. One per cent. is perhaps not an extravagant allowance to make for human perversity, in any of the affairs of life in which the ideal standard is that of complete intelligence and efficiency.

The danger of buying a duplicate because a card title does not happen to be in its place is one illustration of the practical inconvenience of card-catalogues. The experience of the past fifty years has shown that on the whole such catalogues are far better than the old ones which they have superseded; but they have their short-comings, nevertheless, and here we have incidentally hit upon one of them. Besides this, a card-catalogue, even when constructed with all the ingenuity that is displayed in our own, is very much harder to consult than a catalogue that is printed in a volume. On a printed page you can glance at twenty titles at once, whereas in a drawer of cards you must plod through the titles one by one. Moreover, a card-catalogue occupies an enormous space. Professor Abbot’s twin catalogue of authors and subjects, begun fourteen years ago, is already fifty-one feet in length, and contains three hundred and thirty-six drawers! During the past six weeks some four thousand cards have been added to it. What will its dimensions be a century hence, when our books will probably have begun to be numbered by millions instead of thousands? Gore Hall is to-day too small to contain our books: will it then be large enough to hold the catalogue? Suppose, again, that our library were to be burned; it is disheartening to think of the quantity of bibliographical work that would in such an event be forever obliterated. For we should remember that while a catalogue like ours is primarily useful in enabling persons to consult our books, it would still be of great value, as a bibliographical aid to other libraries, even if all our own books were to be destroyed.8 This part of its function, moreover, it cannot properly fulfill even now, so long as it can be consulted only in Gore Hall. Our subject-catalogue, if printed to-day, would afford a noble conspectus of the literature of many great departments of human knowledge, and would have no small value to many special inquirers. Much of this usefulness is lost so long as it remains in manuscript, confined to a single locality.

For such reasons as these, I believe that the card-system is but a temporary or transitional expedient, upon which we cannot always continue to rely exclusively. By the time Professor Abbot’s great catalogue is finished (i. e., brought up to date) and thoroughly revised, it will be on all accounts desirable to print it. The huge mass of cards up to that date will then be superseded, and might be destroyed without detriment to any one. But the card-catalogue, kept up in accordance with the present system, would continue as a supplement to the printed catalogue. The cumbrousness of consulting a number of alphabets would be reduced to a minimum, for there would be only two to consult: the printed catalogue and its card-supplement. Then, instead of issuing numberless printed supplements, there might be published, at stated intervals (say of ten years), a new edition of the main catalogue, with all the added titles inserted in their proper places. On this plan there would never be more than two alphabets to consult; and of these the more voluminous one would be contained in easily manageable printed volumes, while the smaller supplement only would remain in card-form.

It is an obvious objection that the frequent printing of new editions of the catalogue, according to this plan, would be attended with enormous expense. This objection would at first sight seem to be removed if we were to adopt Professor Jewett’s suggestion, and stereotype each title on a separate plate. Let there be a separate stereotype-plate for each card, so that in every new edition new plates may be inserted for the added titles; and then the ruinous expense of fresh composition for every new edition would seem to be avoided. It is to be feared, however, that this show of having solved the difficulty is illusory. For to keep such a quantity of printer’s metal lying idle year after year would of itself entail great trouble and expense. The plates would take up a great deal of room and would need to be kept in a fireproof building; and the interest lost each year on the value of the metal would by and by amount to a formidable sum. It is perhaps doubtful whether, in the long run, anything would be saved by this cumbrous method. Possibly—unless some future heliographic invention should turn to our profit—the least expensive way, after all, may be to print at long intervals, without stereotyping, and to depend throughout the intervals on card-supplements. But this question, like many others suggested by the formidable modern growth of literature, is easier to ask than to answer.

In this hasty sketch many points connected with a librarian’s work remain unmentioned. But in a brief article like this, one cannot expect to give a complete account of a subject embracing so many details. As it is, I hope I have not wearied the reader in the attempt to show what a librarian finds to do with his time.

  1. We have lately fond it convenient to make the collating precede the assignment of funds, but the change is so trivial that I have not thought it worth while to alter the text.
  2. About seven thousand of these old titles were added during the year ending in July, 1876.
  3. Since this article was written, I have adopted the simpler rule, applying the French system of capitalization to all languages, with the sole concession to our English prejudices of capitalizing proper adjectives in the English titles. Much time is thereby saved, and much utterly useless vexation avoided.
  4. In order to point out books of exceptionally large or small size. I believe it would be better to state the number of pages in every case.
  5. Where the essays are by different authors, a separate entry for each is of course always necessary, though this is not always made on the long cards.
  6. The marginal portions of the long card are not transcribed in indexing.
  7. We have since, I am glad to say, found an exception to this rule, and Greek titles are now disposed of in regular course.
  8. Thus I often find valuable information in the printed catalogue of the Bodleian Library, and wish that the splendid catalogue of the million books in the British Museum were as readily accessible.