Friday, February 15, 2013

The Power of Tradition

I recently was handed “Notes used on catalog cards”, compiled by Olive Swain, from 1963, when I was having trouble remembering how to word a certain turn of phrase related to a translation. This is a fantastic little book, a second edition to an earlier compilation that I don’t have at hand. It gives examples of all the notes that you might want to use in cataloging a book (not scores or sound recordings), in an attempt to provide “good examples of notes for use on catalog cards.” Ms. Swain said that it would “help catalogers phrase quickly and keep relative consistency in expression.”

There are several chapters, from Abridgements and Abstracts to Works Superseding and Replacing Others. There’s even a chapter that remains a mystery to me called “Habilitationsschriften,” “Rektoratsreden”, etc.—and I’m almost afraid to go look at what the “et cetera” is going to be.

Swain, who was the head of cataloging at the California State Library when she began working on this second edition, made very thorough work of researching the different types of notes, using the Library of Congress copy that they had at hand, as well as the National Union Catalog, and the “Rules for Descriptive Cataloging in the Library of Congress” (precursor to AACR).

So, what I like about this little volume is that I still use it today when my mind goes blank on how a note should read (even if I never realized I was using it). Because even though there are no “set” rules on how you note translations in the 546 or editions in the 250 or bibliographies in the 504, there are definitely turns of phrase which are more acceptable than others. This little book, compiled 50 years ago, was probably the definer of those guidelines that I still use today. And it’s funny, isn’t it? That there are no rules as to phrasing, yet any cataloger can tell you that “Latin and French side-by-side” is wrong, and “Parallel texts in Latin and French” is correct, even though they do say the same thing, and even though probably very few catalogers actually consult Olive Swain’s “Notes used on catalog cards” anymore. It’s become tradition, something that is passed down from cataloger to cataloger by the acknowledgement of the need for consistency.

What a profession we inhabit.

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"Wicked people never have time for reading. It's one of the reasons for their wickedness." —Lemony Snicket, The Penultimate Peril.