Ambiguous library records

How to make your library catalog as frustrating as possible: avoid consistency. That seems to be the situation with the library consortium in Anchorage, anyway. They have a wonderful collection of books in and about Alaska Native languages, but they’re not well organized in the catalog.

The biggest problem is that the catalog doesn’t identify specific languages. That in itself isn’t too surprising, but the fact that the catalog uses at least five different subject headings for Eskimo-Aleut language materials is less than helpful. “Eskimo reader” is not all that helpful when you’re trying to find Yup’ik, Iñupiaq, Siberian Yupik, etc., in the library catalog. “Inuit language readers” is only slightly better – are they conflating all Eskimo-Aleut languages (minus Aleut) or just the Inuit subfamily? (Based on the items I’ve pulled out of the stacks, the answer is that they’re just very inconsistent with the subject headings. “Eskimo reader” might be any Eskimo-Aleut language except Aleut, and the same goes for “Inuit language readers” as well.)

Of all places, I think a library in Alaska, with several Eskimo languages, would want to be careful to identify which one. Instead, an Iñupiaq book, for example, might be listed as Inuit language, Eskimo language, Eskimo reader, Inuit language reader, or Inupiaq (no diacritics in the library catalog). In that case, all are accurate, and it’s simply a matter of taking more time to find materials (because you have to try all search terms to find all the Iñupiaq materials). In the case of a Central Alaskan Yup’ik book, however, it might be categorized as Inuit language, Eskimo language, Eskimo reader, Inuit language reader, Yupik, or Yup’ik. Here the library catalog is not just inconsistent, it’s wrong: Yupik languages (and the people who speak them) are not Inuit. I could point this out to the librarians, of course, but I have a feeling I’d just be chided for being too nitpicky. Who knows, though? Maybe I should just ask.

Then there’s a popular local independent bookstore, which has an entire section called “Alaskan languages” separate from the “world languages” section. It’s refreshing to see that they haven’t put the Alaskan languages in the foreign language section – something Barnes & Noble and Borders could stand to learn from – but lately they’ve been putting all Eskimo-Aleut and Native American language books in that section whether they’re Alaskan or not. So if you want a book about Choctaw or Inuktitut, it’s in the Alaskan languages section rather than the world languages section. I asked a manager about this recently and she said, “Well, they don’t fit anywhere else. We can’t put them in the world languages section!” At this point, I didn’t want to argue with her, but my first thought was, “Why not?” What’s wrong with Native American and other indigenous languages as world languages? Aside from that, if you were looking for a Choctaw book, would it occur to you to look in the Alaskan languages section? I’m guessing not.

And that’s probably enough frustrated ranting for one evening.