Volunteer Ingenuity Solves Biography Problem

By Toni Massari McPherson

Your public library is constant flux developing ways to connect you with the materials currently on the shelves and introduce the vast array of new items being added continuously. As in book stores, we create themed displays to catch your attention and offer specialized book lists. The card catalog is constantly updated and will soon include photos of book covers to pique your interest.

Now, thanks to the ingenuity of staff and help of volunteers, Anchorage Public Library is just completing a customer service project that re-defines the way biographies are classified. This project, in the works since January 2010, greatly increases the efficiency of reference desk staff, as well as, simplifying a patron’s ability to peruse our biographies.


Or, more simply put – finding biographies used to be a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack. Now, the hay is gone and all you have is needles. But don’t be fooled into thinking this was an easy process. Creating the “B” (biography) classification involved going through hundreds of thousands of volumes in the APL collection.

Librarian Nancy Tileston, director of APL Technical Services, initiated the project to address the difficulty both staff and patrons had finding biographies. She had noticed that when they were in the “new books” section, bios had a high checkout rate, but when they were put into the general collection, their numbers reduced to almost nothing. The Dewey Decimal Classification system seemed to be the barrier.

Conceived by Melvil Dewey in 1873, the DDC is the most widely used, general knowledge organization tool in the world. The system is continuously developed and maintained by the Library of Congress where specialists assign more than 110,000 DDC numbers every year.

The DDC is divided into ten main numerical classes (000-900), which together, cover the entire world of knowledge. Each main class is further divided into ten divisions, and each division into ten sections.

One of the downsides of DDC is that the same subject can show up in different places in the collection. Take “clothing.” According to a library information website: “The psychological influence of clothing belongs in 155.95 as part of the discipline of psychology; customs associated with clothing belong in 391 as part of the discipline of customs; and clothing in the sense of fashion design belongs in 746.92 as part of the discipline of the arts.”

Same with biographies. The biography of, say, a U.S. female scientist who won the Nobel Prize, could end up under “famous women,” “Nobel Prize winners,” “American scientists” or the subject she researched. And you might find one of her biographies in one area and another in a totally different place. Not so user friendly.

After much discussion, a staff committee decided to establish a separate biography collection for all new material and to start the process of reclassifying books already on the shelves. The timeline for the project was five years since staff would have to have to work on the project during rare spare time.

Enter the volunteers. It started with a couple of young women who needed something to do in 2010, before heading off to library school, and was continued by four other dedicated women. Lists of potential biographies were generated.

The volunteers pulled them from the shelves and, then, ran each through a matrix that determined whether or not they fit the new classification. Altogether, the six of them have spent hundreds of hours asking the question: biography or not biography?

“Thanks to the amazing support of these six volunteers, we have been able to cut the project timeline in half,” Nancy said. “We should finish up the last of the evaluation processing in April.”

After preliminary culling by volunteers, the TS staff confirmed their selections, revised the call numbers in the catalog and issued a new spine label for each book: first line “B”; second line, the first five letters of the biographee’s last name and the first initial: third line, the first letters of the author’s last name.

Increasing circulation numbers reflect the success of the one-stop shopping approach. In 2011, bio circulation was 14,667; in 2012, it jumped to 16,107. And, given the current numbers of bios being checked out, the 2013 figure should be nearly 19,000.

Come peruse our collection of 16,371 biographies. Now, you can see in a glance all the biographies each neighborhood library has of a particular person.

Toni Massari McPherson is the APL Community Relations Coordinator. Keep up with what is going on at your library at www.anchoragelibrary.org and “like” us on FaceBook.