A Catalog Record for My Book?

by Nancy Humphreys on December 26, 2011

Let me answer the question, Does my book need a catalog record? with another question: Why do libraries need classification?

If you’ve ever taken biology in school, you’ve learned about the classes used to classify all living beings. These are called kingdoms (Animalia, Plantae, Fungi, Protista, Archaea and Bacteria).

Classification is the science of breaking things down into “classes,” i.e., very broad subjects, then arranging those classes into some kind of order, and then — subdividing each class into narrower and narrower categories within each class.

Say, does this sound familiar? Isn’t that what indexers do? You bet it is!

Indexers “chunk” the content of a book into broad classes of information that we call “main headings”. These main headings can be specific names of people, places, things, or concepts. Main headings are the main “subjects” of discussion in a book.

In a book index, the broad classes, i.e., the  “subjects,” are arranged in alphabetical order. Then these classes (subjects) are subdivided into smaller “subclasses” that fall within the topic of the main heading. The smaller chunks of information, the indented terms under the main headings in a book index, are called the “subheadings.”

In short: indexing is a form of classification of all human knowledge

Difference between a book index and library catalog?

Obviously a book contains a smaller “domain” of knowledge! That’s a big difference. A library catalog is a much bigger project than a book index. The librarians’ domain is all of the human knowledge that exists anywhere at any time.

In addition, human knowledge exists outside of the medium by which it is transmitted. A book is just one way to transmit knowledge.

For example, in an article titled, “The worlds oldest profession: indexing?,” published in the December 2011 issue of  the Society of Indexers’ journal, The Indexer, I talk about the oldest index in the world. This index is said to have been inspired in ancient, prehistoric China by markings on the backs of turtles!

There are many other ways of transmitting knowledge besides what we call a book. Now we are creating new ways of sharing information with all kinds of “digital” books, i.e., app books, audiobooks, ebooks, enhanced ebooks, illustrated (fixed-format) ebooks, and instant-download PDF books.

Similarity between a book index and library catalog?

Yet, there is a parallel between book indexing and what librarians call “cataloging” of books. Cataloging is the process by which a book is described and listed in a library catalog. Cataloging takes place because librarians have developed systems of classifying and organizing large amounts of data in diverse kinds of materials.

Here’s the similarity: classification is a part of the of cataloging library books.

Classification is what is behind the “call numbers” you see on a library book. It’s also behind  the “subject headings” attached to each book that you can search for in a library catalog. Classification is used by both indexers and librarians in organizing human knowledge so that we all can find things in a book or in a library.

This is a very close connection, and it goes back as far as we can see. The first preserved index in the world, the Chinese book of changes, or I Ching, was also the first classification system. The I Ching was a systematic analysis of human society for the purpose of governing in times of war and peace.

Modern library classification systems arose when human knowledge expanded beyond the point where a few scrolls, clay tablets, or books sufficed to encompass all of human knowledge.

In the United States, for example, Harvard University was the first library in what became the United States. Harvard’s initial collection of 400 books arrived on our shores in 1638. Today Harvard has the fourth largest library in the world; Harvard’s libraries now house 15.6 million volumes.

Why get a catalog record for my book?

If you want to sell your book to libraries, getting a catalog record is vital! The key question is not why get a catalog record, but how to get a catalog record. That’s because there are four different ways to get a catalog record for your book.

I examine these  four ways in Chapter five of my new book, Marketing Your Book to Libraries: An Insider’s Guide for Librarians. Depending on how you publish your book and market it, you may decide to choose one method over another to get a catalog record for your book.

Just be aware that cataloging, processing, shelving, circulating, and re-shelving and occasionally repairing a book, costs libraries far more than the book itself! And be aware that a librarian or staff member supervised by a qualified librarian is the only one who can create a catalog record that will be accepted by other librarians for use in their libraries.

What does a catalog record do?

A reason that cataloging of books is so important to librarians is because the classification of books is what enables librarians, library staff, and patrons to actually identify what book titles are in the library. Classification is also what empowers librarians, library staff, and patrons to quickly find where those books are in the library when they want to use the book, show the book to others, and/or borrow it.

(Note: I once worked in an big city library where we had no access to a library catalog that we could use for finding any of the thousands of books in our reference area! We had to rely on our own knowledge of library classification instead.)

As  with an index, classification empowers readers in a library to “browse” among many discussions on the same topic. Classification will let a reader browse virtual shelves in a library as well as actual ones.

For example, here is the Library of Congress’ online catalog. You can input  a call number for a book into one of the “Call Number Browse” boxes, hit the search button, and see all of the other books “shelved” alongside that book. The Library of Congress began with 3,000 books, and it now houses 33 million volumes. That’s the the largest library collection in the world!

Most libraries in the US are responsible for too large a domain of human knowledge to use either the alphabetical order that indexers use for subjects in book indexes or the keyword order that bookstores use for arranging books on their shelves.

This means that if you want your book to “fit in” to the complex classification systems that libraries use for finding and shelving books, you need a library catalog record for your book!

Can’t I sell my book to libraries without a catalog record?

Yes, indeed, you can! There are small libraries that do not use either of the two traditional library classification systems most American libraries use. They will take and house a book without a catalog record. And there are special collections within all kinds of libraries in this country that will buy and keep non-cataloged books too.

The problem is that these non-cataloged materials will be housed separately from the cataloged ones. They may be put in boxes kept on an out-of-the-way shelf or room. Or they may be put in file cabinets. And the only person who knows they are there is the librarian or library staff member who curates those books.

A recent survey of public library patrons showed that 50% of regular patrons will buy other books by an author that they discover at the library. In addition, word of mouth is the best way to publicize your book.

This is why you need a catalog record! If you want many libraries to acquire your book and make it possible for a lot of library patrons to read it and spread the word about it, get your book cataloged!

Now up on Authormaps.com: “Does Your Book Need PCIP?” [a prepublication catalog record]

NOTE: If you would like to get this blog by email, sign up for Wordmaps Tips, my free newsletter. The sign-up box is at the upper right of each page on my site, WordmapsIndexing.com. For current news about indexing and book publishing, follow me and see who I follow on Twitter @Wordmaps.

To learn more about Marketing Your Book to Libraries: An Insider’s Guide for Authors please click here.


Marketing Your Book to Libraries Marketing Your Books to Libraries: An Insider's Guide for Authors by former librarian Nancy K. Humphreys includes: 
  • How to tell what kind of library to target
  • Types of librarians and books they order
  • Strategies to get past the "gatekeepers" who influence librarians
  • Right ways to approach librarians most likely to order your book

Learn more »

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

DerekPadula June 26, 2012 at 12:18 am

This was helpful. Thank you. What I’d like to know next is what type of categories are available to be put into. How can we choose? Or does the Library of Congress choose for us?

Also, if I have a book that is genre defining or doesn’t fit into a single category, what’s the best way to go? Multiple categories? And if so, what’s the limit? Or just pick one and stick with it?

Nancy Humphreys June 26, 2012 at 2:06 pm

Derek, the official categories (subject headings) that are used for a library book have to be created by a librarian. Librarians called “catalogers” are allowed to assign a certain number of subject headings to describe a book. The headings must be from a list of headings approved for use in libraries. The subject headings may indicate the genre too. For example, “Cookery” is an official subject heading used for cookbooks.

You may be using a POD company to print your book? They will offer to let you choose categories or genres, but this means nothing to librarians. Most likely librarians will view your amateur efforts as an indication your book is self-published and may not be a quality book. That is why I recommended paying a small fee to get a private catalog record by an accredited librarian. (Click the link at the end of the article to learn about one of these companies).

An additional benefit of the private catalog record is that this company sends an electronic catalog record to the OCLC central cataloging group in Ohio. This center is used by a lot of libraries to get a copy of an official catalog record when they buy a book. They don’t have to make a catalog record for it. That means your book will be available to library patrons a lot faster, and patrons can spread the word about it to family, friends, and coworkers. This kind of word-of-mouth “advertising” is the most effective way to sell your book.

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