Library catalogs are islands of socialist sensibility in a capitalist world. They are freely available to all, and more or less constructed according to the principle: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. A remarkable uniformity governs online library catalogs in the U.S.: the information they contain about books, journals, and webpages is structured in the same way across the many different catalogs. They all follow an alphanumeric structure of coding information called MARC, which stands for machine readable cataloging. A record for a book or journal in MARC format is so daunting to behold, however, that it rarely appears to the naked eye. To find one, you must follow a link that most catalogs provide. For instance, if, in the Drew catalog you are looking at a record for the book, From Corpus Christi to Spiritus Christi: The R/Evolution of an Independent Catholic Church, by Jody Caldwell (who is Head of Reference in the Drew Library)–you are looking at what we call the public access record–and you direct your eye to the little box over to the right, labeled “Item Resources” and containing a link called “MARC Record,” and click on it, you will be taken to the alphanumerically coded MARC record for the same book. The MARC record sometimes has more information about a book in it, than its corresponding public access record, which is true in this case. From the MARC record, you learn that this is a Ph.D. dissertation written at Drew University. Just for fun (?), look this same title up in Brown University’s catalog, Josiah. When the record appears, click on the link labeled “Coded Display” at the top of the screen. That will take you to the MARC record. You’ll see it is identical to the MARC record in our own catalog. What makes the public access records look different are just the different softwares that mediate the same, identical MARC records to the users of these different catalogs.

Library cataloging is highly precise and follows the guidelines of a rule book that reads as a legal text. It is just this precision that allows for libraries to share so much of their cataloging with each other. But the precision can also complicate finding information, at the researcher’s end of things. Is it an act of hubris for libraries to erect structures in which they imagine all knowledge can be contained? Perhaps the punishment for this is the difficulty reseachers often have with library catalogs. In our efforts to make knowledge accessible, we seem to render it inaccessible, as though in realization of some tragic potential of human existence; and sometimes libraries seem to inhabit their own little byway of human tragedy. (But, is Google really the answer?)

For help searching the Drew catalog, never hesitate to click the HELP button in the upper left hand corner of the screen. But here are a few handy tricks, in sum:

1. Though the catalog does not appear to allow you to search for a book by its author and title together, it allows you to circumvent that seeming deficiency by coding your search terms with these small prefixes: au for author; ti for title; (and su for subject). Sometimes the most efficient search for a book requires both author and title together, for instance, the search for the book by the prolific author, John Updike, titled simply “S”. To find this book, enter au Updike and ti S in the search box. Click the box labeled Keyword, below the search box, and the lone record for that book will appear. Saves sorting through extraneous records.

2. Remember to browse! Click the Browse button which appears along the top of the screen. To browse in an online library catalog is to access an ordered list (usually alphabetic, but sometimes numeric) of the terms, phrases, or numbers it uses to designate the items in it. More clearly: to browse the titles in a library catalog is to access an alphabetical list of all the titles of all the books the library owns. This is often the best way to see if the library owns a particular book. For example, if you only had the title, “S” (and forgot the author was Updike), and you clicked first on Browse, along the top of the screen, then entered the letter S in the search box, and then clicked on the button labeled Title under the search box, you’d come to the precise place where that title falls in the alphabetic list of titles. (There are actually two books associated with the single letter S; click on that S, and a record for Updike’s book will appear). See what happens if you did a keyword search for the title S: Click on the button labeled Keyword along the top of the screen, enter S in the search box, and click on the button labeled Title beneath the search box. See what results. Aaugh! (as Charlie Brown would exclaim).

Browse searching is especially useful when looking for books on a given topic. Here is the problem: the library has its own way of describing topics, which it takes from the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. To see how the Library of Congress thinks about topics, go to this page. When catalogers assign subject descriptors to a book, they take them from the Library of Congress. This means that a book about the Eucharistic rite is assigned the heading “Lord’s Supper,” whether the author uses that term or not. Search results are sometimes better if you’re attentive to what we call these Library of Congress Subject Headings. On any given catalog record, these are given towards the bottom of the record in a field labeled Subject Term. But you can also browse them in an alphabetical list. Click on the Browse button along the top of the screen. Enter Eucharist in the search box, and click on the button labeled Subject, under the search box. The alphabetic list directs you from Eucharist, which the library does not recognize, to Lord’s Supper, which it does. Click on Lord’s Supper and you come to the part of the alphabetic list of terms that subdivides Lord’s Supper into seemingly endless specific aspects of it, according to history, denomination, doctrine etc. The alphabetic list of subject terms is really the mind of the Library, which can help narrow down a topic too broad (for example).

3. Many records for books in the catalog contain a listing of the table of contents. These are especially helpful in keyword searches. Click on Keyword along the top of the screen. Suppose you want essays that address Augustine’s view on sex, enter this string in the search box: su Augustine and sex. Now click on the Keyword button just below the search box (which is importantly different from the keyword button along the top of the screen). This retrieves books entirely about Augustine that contain chapters on sex. A likely prospect is James Wetzel’s brand new book, Augustine: A Guide for the Perplexed, which contains the chapter, “Sex and the Infancy of Desire.”

Note: the union catalog, Worldcat, contains many more tables of contents than our own catalog. To maximize your search of our catalog, select Worldcat from the list of library databases here. Once inside Worldcat, click on Advanced Search (along the top of the screen). Now enter Augustine in the first search box, and, from the drop down menu on the right, select Subject. In the second search box, type: sex, and leave the the drop down menu to the right at keyword. Towards the bottom of the screen, click on the box labeled: Limit Availability to Items in My Own Library. Now click search. You are in effect searching our own catalog via Worldcat. Your search in Worldcat retrieves an additional book, called Saint Augustine’s Sin, by Gary Wills, which contains a chapter entitled “Sexual Offenses.” This book did not appear when you performed this same search in our own catalog, even though we do indeed own the book. Why? Because our catalog does not contain the table of contents for this book, which includes a form of the word: sex. But Worldcat does!

Perhaps this is enough for one blog posting about the catalog, an exhausting topic whose depths are never fully plumbed. When the catalog frustrates you, never hesitate to consult a librarian.