Thursday, October 22, 2009

A tale of two creators

In an earlier post, I expressed frustration that some libraries have shelved Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman in the 740s (drawing and decorative arts). I feel it is a biography of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and should be shelved with other picture book biographies.

First of all, Jerry was a writer, not an artist! Superman was written before he was drawn! The 740s classification applies to only half of the team!

I will stop shouting. After all, we are in a library.

If people regularly checked library catalogs for books on Siegel and Shuster, there'd be no issue.

However, the reality is that the majority will come across a book on such a topic by chance, not intention. Even people who would enjoy a book on Siegel and Shuster may never look for one because it seems unlikely to exist.

And it seems to me that the greatest chance for a browser to make this unexpected discovery is if the book is in biography.

Why? At one time or another, most school kids go to the picture book biographies section…because they have to. They are assigned a report on a historical figure. So they browse, looking for a subject that grabs them. But mine can’t from several shelves over.

Here are excerpts from e-mails a librarian and I exchanged on the subject; the way I pulled out key comments may make it read as clipped, but the full dialogue was harmonious, an honest sharing of concerns and constraints. I learned a lot from her. And I could not convince her to move my book to biography.

patient librarian: Your book contains biographical information, but is not a biography, per se. It contains biographical info about the two men as it specifically relates to the subject of their cartoon, but not a great amount about other parts of their lives.

pushy author: No picture book biography—no biography period—ever tells the “full” story of a person. It is an art form that typically examines a life through the lens of what that life became famous for. This is especially true with picture book bios since their format limits how much info they can include.

patient librarian: It is also about two men, so if we wanted to classify it as a biography, we would classify it as a “collective biography” and shelve it in 920. Our biography section contains mainly single-subject biographies, with a few exceptions (the Wright brothers, for example, have the same last name and we’ve decided to shelve books about them in the biography section under Biography/Wright).

pushy author: If Siegel or Shuster had individually done something else noteworthy, my argument might not hold up. However, Superman was the sole lasting achievement of either one. They are forever linked and almost always discussed as a unit, whereas most other people who star in picture books are known for solo achievements—presidents, athletes, composers, etc.

In any event, I disagree that it does not include enough biographical material to be reshelved. Unlike many other biographical picture books, mine includes a three-page afterword about the rest of their lives, including info that has not been published before. This afterword alone uses more words than most picture book biographies have total!

As you’ve seen, the book is classified as a biography on the copyright page. And because it’s the first book in any format on Siegel and Shuster, it is (for the time being, anyway) the biography on them.

patient librarian: I agree that your book has enough biographical material to include in our “Easy Biography” (E/Bio) section (picture book biographies aimed at 4-8-year-olds). The reason we did not shelve it there is because it is about two people, unrelated, with different last names.

pushy author: [I listed a handful of nonfiction picture books and wrote if any of those were shelved in biography, I feel mine should be, too.]

patient librarian: With a couple of exceptions, they are shelved in the E/Bio section, but they are all single-subject bios (except the Astaire one, and they were related, with the same last name). Biographies are shelved by their subject’s last name, so this does matter.

pushy author: If this were a book about the parallels between Lincoln and Kennedy, for example, I would understand how it might be problematic to shelve under one or the other. Yet this is a unique (or at least rare) case of a duo that history treats as a single individual for their singular creation.

A book with multiple authors is shelved by the last name of the first author listed, not in a special section for books with multiple authors. It seems to me that the same should apply for book with multiple subjects. As it stands, semantics, not content, determined where my book was shelved, and that doesn’t make sense to me.

When the first illustrated picture book bio of the Beatles comes out (hard to believe it hasn’t already), will you shelve it with music, collective biography, or biography? I am guessing the latter, under “B.” But that is again semantics, because those four musicians happen to have a name for their collective. (Same would hold true for, say, a musical act whose name is simply the names of the musicians, such as Simon and Garfunkel.)

And this is the same situation as Siegel and Shuster—a bio of multiple individuals’ joint achievement. Since Siegel and Shuster have no name for the collective, I would argue it makes sense to shelve under “Siegel” (he originated the concept and is always listed first in the partnership). Alphabetically, Shuster is right there next to him anyway!

patient librarian: We shelved Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Beatles, Beatlemania, and the Music that Changed the World by Bob Spitz in the music section. A few libraries have it shelved in Biography (under “Beatles”), but as you pointed out, those four individuals share a collective name.

Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends by Pete Fornatale is owned by four libraries in CT, all of whom have it shelved in music, likely for similar reasons as your book being shelved in the 740s in the majority of libraries in CT.

The multiple-authors point is an apples-and-oranges thing; it doesn’t really apply to subject classification. I know this all seems like semantics, but there are guidelines behind the semantics. When you catalog 400+ books a month, these guidelines are crucial to keeping your collection consistent.

the last word from the patient librarian: I think we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on this one!

Where do you think the book should be shelved?


Jennifer said...

My specific library put it in the 741s - in our consortium, we're in the minority, most put it in the 920s. We don't put collective biographies in our biography section and srsly you don't want to be stuck there anyways - it's way at the back and kids only go there when they have an assignment. The 900s are pretty remote too, and it's a small section so you'd be stuck in with a bunch of outdated history stuff. Whereas, lots of kids go to the 741s b/c all the drawing and craft books are there (you are practically next to the You Can Draw Star Wars - prime real estate!). So I think it will do fine there. I think it depends on the library - where the librarian thinks it will circ best. Also, it's got an attractive cover so it's something I'd pull out frequently to go on the nonfiction display shelves.

Jennifer said...

My comments continued - I've worked both as a cataloguer and youth services librarian and the main deal as a cataloguer (imho) is not to get hung up on where things "should" go. Sure, maybe according to the rules it should be in the 920s or biography. But we've got tons of sports figures that technically should go in biography - but we put them in the 790s b/c that's where kids look for them. It's all about circulation - or it should be.