The classical librarian

Five years ago (really? goodness, it hardly seems possible) I gave a preconference session at the Extreme Markup Languages conference (which is now Balisage) entitled "Classification, Cataloguing, and Categorization Systems: Past, Present, and Future."

I have learned to write better talk titles since then. However. The talk was actually a runthrough of library standards and practices for an audience of markup wonks. Like any field, librarianship has its share of jargon and history that legitimately seems impenetrable to outsiders.

I'm going to try to reprise some of that talk here in blog form, over time, on the belief that a few more folks understanding how library data operates cannot possibly be a bad thing.

So, then. We start with Robert Graves's I, Claudius, in which Livy says to Pollio

It seems, then, that we may as well abandon all hope of finding it, unless perhaps… why, there's Sulpicius! He'll know if anyone does. Good morning, Sulpicius. I want you to do a favour for Asinius Pollio and myself. There's a book we want to look at, a commentary by a Greek called Polemocles on Polybius's Military Tactics. I seem to remember coming across it here once, but the catalogue does not mention it and the librarians here are perfectly useless.

As you can see, librarians don't get no respect. We're used to it.

Let's look at the problem here. The librarians of the Apollo Library have built some sort of catalogue of their holdings. Graves doesn't tell us how he thinks they organized it—by author? author's ethnicity? language of work? title? if title, title of the commentary, or are commentaries organized under the work commented upon? In any case, however they organized it, Livy expected to find a particular item but didn't, and the librarians couldn't help him for some reason. Maybe the catalogue was incomplete?

Sulpicius's response is utterly delightful.

Sulpicius gnawed his beard for awhile and then said: "You've got the name wrong. Polemocrates was the name and he wasn't a Greek, in spite of his name, but a Jew. Fifteen years ago I remember seeing it on that top shelf, the fourth from the window, right at the back, and the title tag had just 'A Dissertation on Tactics' on it. Let me get it for you. I don't expect it's been moved since then."

So let's recap. Livy had the author and author's ethnicity (and possibly language) wrong, and he couldn't remember the title—but boy, he sure as heck expected the catalogue and the librarians to turn up his book—er, scroll—anyway!

Any reference librarian will tell you that this sort of reference request happens all the time. Graves absolutely nailed it with this anecdote. Respect the reference librarian! I surely do.

How do information-seekers and reference librarians solve such problems nowadays? Answers in the comments, and while you're at it, tell me how well you think the techniques work, and when and why they fail.

(Incidentally, if you're suddenly curious about ancient libraries, I recommend the short, breezy and fun treatment in Lionel Casson's Libraries in the Ancient World.)


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Everyone's waiting for a technological answer but the people who can and *do* answer these questions are the ones who really, really know their collections and users. The people who remember all of the questions they've received (that were interesting) and remember how they answered them. That's why when we get stuck, we e-mail our listservs and get expert advice from folks who have been librarians 20-40 years.

These are the types of things that keep people like me going: the thrill of the chase and the rush of victory when you actually find the article that has a diagram identical to one scribbled on a cocktail napkin brought back from a conference :) (yep, I did that!)

One thing we have now that we didn't have then is full text searching and tools that index the image captions. Those can help.