02 October 2008


Thing I love about Cambridge No. 5,766:

The Cambridge University Library is what you might call a unique building.  That means you look at it and think, Why would anyone who wasn't Albert Speer design that 
building, and why would anyone build it?  It's very wackiness, however, gives it a curious charm.
This has nothing, though, on the charm of what is housed within.  For Cambridge has what is definitely a unique book cataloguing system.  The books are arranged by year.  That's right: although given subject areas are separated (so that science is not with English), after that the books are filed according to year of publication.  And by size:  all the small books go in one area; all the regular books in another; all the oversized in another.  And they're not filed by title, or sub-topic, or author's name, after that.  To be honest, I can't quite figure out how they're filed after that.  My theory is that it's by month of publication, but I don't think that can be it, because when you get up to the new century (i.e., now) books from 2006 will often be next to books from 2003.  So at some stage the month theory stops working, and apparently the year system breaks down, too.  

Even this system, though, pales in the face of the cataloguing for the English faculty library (which is a kind of sub-library, located in the faculty building, filled with books only about English and American literature).  There, the books are arranged first alphabetically by area, and then by period, with the alphabet line and the timeline rising from the basement to the top floor.  So all the books on American literature are in the basement (because they are A), and all the books on British literature (which includes all literature that isn't American) are on the first floor and above, with books on contemporary literature located in the heavens on the top floor.

I love both these cataloguing systems.  Each of them has its own logic.  Divide it into American and British, then divide it by period, then subdivide within each period by author.  That makes sense. Divide by year.  That way, if you can't remember what a book is called, or who its author is, but you can remember its year, or vaguely its year (and I do frequently remember this), you can just go to the year bay and look till you find it.  Sure - why not?  (although my theory about the year system is that it was started back when 25 books were published per year and that seemed an astronomical amount - no one could conceive that it would ever rise to 2,000, and by the time it did the cataloguing system was "the way we do it.")

And I think I may also like these systems because they force me just to open my heart to them. Apparently one of the last people my university sent on a fellowship to Cambridge was quite snotty and horrible because she thought the way things were done was often foolish - and, more importantly, was irritated by the supposed foolishness.  But my feeling is rather that if you're able to work with it, just accept it. You want to catalogue your books by year?  Well, that's just as plausible as by author name, I guess.  More importantly, once I know they're catalogued by year, I can work with it.  Sure, why not?

So I am enchanted by the Cambridge book cataloguing system.

I'd have to say there are two things that my Sure, why not?-ness doesn't work with, though.  The first is bicycle helmets.  Almost no one here wears a helmet, so I spend all my time thinking, "Put on a helmet!"  I want to hand them all copies of the awful, awful court transcript my dad sent me of the "testimony" of a man brain-damaged after falling off his bike without a helmet, which convinced me to wear one.  And in a university town!  Of course, I feel that way in America, too, so perhaps that doesn't count.  That leaves me with one thing:  popcorn.  The cinemas do salty popcorn (as well as sweet, which I think is gross, so I don't eat it), but there's none of the warm grease Americans know as popcorn butter. Let me tell ya, people, popcorn unclothed is dryyyy. So I do wish they would bring over the buttered-popcorn concept.

Having said that, I'll also say that this week I did some rare-book-buying.  The town seems to have two rare book stores, but I've only been into one so far.  That one has good stuff in the window, which is mostly why I go in.  Anyway, last week they had in the window what is now in my room:  a tiny 1847 Book of Common Prayer, and its accompanying book of lessons.  I would estimate them at about 3.5 inches by 2 inches (roughly quadragesimo-octavo, for my textual studies-loving friends).  Here is a picture of them next to my mouse:

Is it me, or are those books mighty cute?

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