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Young Librarians

December 5, 2013

Learning how to find Library of Congress numbers inside books.

While Americans were throwing elbows in celebration of Black Friday, in Liberia I was throwing a library workshop.  A few weeks ago I received a call from the head librarian at Cuttington.  The conversation can be summarized as: Help!  I’m a sucker for people who can admit they don’t know everything so when he asked me to hold a workshop I said, “tell me when.”

I’ve been writing a lot about my soil science class, but the truth is that is barely half my job.  The rest of it revolves around the resource room at the College of Agriculture.  In my ‘free time’ I’m charged with keeping it organized and running smoothly.  So when I’m not in class or on the field I’m sitting at a desk processing annual reports from NGOs and animal science textbooks discarded from American libraries.

We have just over 1,000 books and when I arrived things were pretty upside down.  For inventory, I was given one sheet that basically said “1,000 books, 3 air conditioners, 15 laptops.”  I found myself sitting at my desk staring at piles of books and wondering “is this horticulture, plant science or botany?  …or crop science??”  Neither an agriculturist nor a librarian I was pretty lost.  For the sake of my sanity something drastic had to be done.

Enter the Library of Congress.  One fateful day my boss gave me a box of new books and, as I was trying to decide if they were about food security, agricultural economics, or gender I made a discovery.  The library of congress call number is printed inside the cover of many books! 

About a third of the library’s books had been labeled with call numbers, but I had no idea where they came from or, really, what they meant.  I couldn’t even use them to organize the books because most books didn’t have call numbers.  Well the day I saw a call number inside a book was the day I decided to label and catalog all the books.  (It’s probably a day my assistant wishes he’d quit his previously cushy job.)

I spent weeks scouring the internet for call numbers and printing tiny labels.  I trained my volunteers how to read the numbers and properly shelve the books.  I trained the students NOT to just chunk books on the shelf when they finished reading.  “I beg you leave it on the table.  Really.  I will pack it for you.  REALLY.

Well, word of this made it up to the main library and when the new librarian took over he wanted to talk to me.  I came to his office and suddenly all my problems seemed small.  Books were stacked everywhere.  Old books.  New books.  An old paper catalog that had been ransacked during the war.


He asked me to hold the workshop on a national holiday (my day off) but I agreed because it was the only time the library would be closed and all staff members could participate.  I was skeptical, though, whether they would agree to come on their day off.

To my delight, I showed up Friday morning and so did almost everyone else.  I’d written a fifteen-page pamphlet and we walked through it, talking about how to understand call numbers, use them to shelve books, and assign them to unlabeled books.  I opened the workshop by telling them I was a mathematician, not a librarian, and I had learned everything I was about to teach them since coming to Cuttington.  “I say that to make you feel strong,” I said.  “If I can learn this you can learn this.”  Several of the older people coughed and raised their eyebrows, but by the end they were clapping and thanking me.  They even asked me to go to Kakata and repeat the workshop at the junior college.

It never ceases to amaze me the twists and turns life will take when you let go of the wheel.  Who knew there was a job that involved soil science and library science and that they would employ me?  I am grateful for all the people along the way who have agreed to let me try.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Suzanne Hequet permalink
    December 11, 2013 4:16 pm

    You go, library-soil science girl!!!
    Count your blessings that you have library of congress numbers. This spring I will be scouring the internet to speed cataloging of 16th century publications held at the Reformation Research program. Only 3 hours or so per week, as I am teaching full-time, too. So–let me know if you have found any tricks to catalog 400-500 year old pubs!
    Be well!

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