Library Usability

Recently I rejoined Queen’s University Library. No bookshop in this country seems to carry a decent selection of books, so I spend a fortune buying books online that I’ve never even had the chance to skim through first. So, as the university does a special rate for graduates, I figured that it might save me buying some books that turn out to be useless (I’ll still buy all the ones I borrow and like – I prefer having my own copy). It also gives me access to a good selection of books that are out of print, and a great archive of journals.

The library is spread around the city at about 5 or 6 locations, but so far I’ve only really been using the Main Library on the main university campus. It has most of the business books, and most of the theology and philosophy books, and I’ve had a lot of fun working my way through some of business journals that aren’t available online.

Today I decided I’d investigate the Science Library, about a mile away from the Main Library, which houses the computer books. Mainly I was trying to get a copy of Jerry Weinberg’s “Quality Software Management” series. I used the catalog to find the location (QA76.76.D47 for any library geeks amongst you), and walked down to where that location should be. I managed to find the first volume (Systems Thinking), but not vols 2 and 3, which have the same shelfmark. I scanned the surrounding shelves, in case they’d been mis-shelved, but to no avail. It’s out of term so there was only one person that I could see sitting around, and she didn’t seem to have the books, so I was stumped. The catalog had said they weren’t on loan, so where were they?

I returned the catalog just to double check, and discovered that, yes, they books were available, and yes I had the correct shelfmark, but no, I didn’t have the correct library – volumes 2 and 3 both lived in the Main Library!

I spent 5 years at QUB as an undergrad, 3 as a postgrad, and worked in both the Main Library and the Science Library for about 3 months, and never once knew that the Main Library also held computer books! I knew that some lived in the David Bates Library (a building that seems to be modelled after an Escher painting, or designed by someone on bad drugs), but it turns out that there’s a small selection (maybe about 5% of the computing books?) in the Main Library as well.

However, there seems to be no sensible reasoning behind which books go where. As well the bizarre split of the Weinberg books, the Science Library has Tom DeMarco’s Why Does Software Cost So Much? (a book I’ve been trying to get hold of for quite some time), but Peopleware lives in the Main Library. The Science Library seems to hold all the Python books (in fact, most of the specific language books), whilst the Main Library holds the Perl books! (including, interestingly, Dave Cross’s Data Munging With Perl)

As I wanted all 3 volumes of “Quality Software Management” (actually, I wanted all 4 volumes, but they only have the first 3), I had to visit both libraries. I asked at the issue desk of both how it was decided which library got which book. At the Science Library they were totally stumped. Their first answer “depending on subject matter” instantly crumbled when I explained how 3 books in the same series, by the same author, with the same shelf-mark, were in 2 different libraries. In the Main Library however, they seemed to have a more plausible answer: “it depends on which department orders them”.

I can almost see how this makes sense. Students tend to mainly use only one of the libraries, depending on their course, so if a certain department orders books for its students, it’s plausible that they’d want those books to be in the library that those students frequent (if students actually frequent libraries …)

This is fine for required reading texts (although most of those are usually held in departmental libraries), but gets really confusing really quickly for general books.

And don’t get me started on how unfriendly their on-line catalog is!

I did discover The Little MLer though, which I’ve never even heard of before. I’ve recently read The
Little Lisper
and The Seasoned Schemer, and really enjoyed the Q&A style of them, so I decided to borrow this one, which is written in the same style.

And I discovered that the Science Library has an almost complete back catalog of Byte, Joop, Proceedings of the ACM to browse at a later date…

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