Meet Marc

I have to wonder, is the suicide rate higher amongst bibliographers than amongst members of other professions?

This is what people (myself not entirely excluded) tend to think of as bibliographic information:


Yup, that's what that is.

I worked as a Reference Librarian for four years, while I was an undergrad. There was one woman who worked in our branch for half a day each week and was always introduced as “The Bibliographer.” …What does that mean? I wondered. Why would someone need a Masters in Library Science just to copy imprint data?

As an untrained student, I tutored fellow students, faculty, and sometimes even my supervisors in research methodology. I was responsible for maintaining statistics on the types of books we had, which areas needed bulking up, finding bibliographic information – that stuff on the imprint page, the back of the title page – and keeping a list of the sorts of titles we should be thinking about acquiring.

I consider myself fairly well versed in library functions and acquiring bibliographic information when necessary, even though I don’t have a specialized degree.

Well. That is, I considered myself so until yesterday.

Yesterday, while working on a project at work, I put a book title through an open-source library program. What the results screen gave me was something like this:

MARC 21 somethingorother

Sweet merciful zombie dart frog!! WHAT IS THIS?!

This, my friends, this is what people with library science degrees do. And I’m telling you, here and now, that they do not get paid enough for it.

What I realized, after nearly an hour and a half with the IT guy trying to help me install updates and debug the software, is that that screen is meant to look like that. Those crazy little look-like-virus-insertion letters and symbols are coding, but not from a virus. Those little buggers are electronic card catalog information.

That’s right, all those handy dandy little subject headings and author biographies and call numbers that you can click on in a library’s virtual catalog and thereby discover additional pertinent publications or shelf locations or related topics are coded by hand by some poor sap who spent somewhere between $10000 and $45000 to learn how to put all the punctuation in the right place.

I tell you, it gives me a whole new respect for computer programmers, too.

If I go to the Library of Congress online catalog and do an author search for Kurt Vonnegut, I can see that some poor (army of) schmuck(s) coded 104 titles, all linked to his name. I can click on a title at random and find out everything I never knew I wanted to know about where that book was printed or made into a movie or the number it was assigned so that lazy/busy booksellers could locate it without half trying (otherwise known as an ISBN). That information all got there, onto that webpage, by dint of the bibliographer’s coding.

And now, because I am not only the idiot who opened Pandora’s Box but a masochist to boot, I know what that gobbledygook means. Some of it, at least.

Once I’d figured out my search results were appearing exactly as they were meant to appear, there was nothing to do but find out what the hell I was looking at. Thus I became acquainted with a bastardization of brain power data system that is widely known as MARC. Exactly what MARC coding is or where it comes from, I don’t currently care to find out. My head hurts enough as it is. What I did hunt down and devour voraciously was a down-and-dirty outline of these hieroglyphics.

I studied and deciphered and reran searches and tested myself and sought explanations for the entire day. By the time I left work I had progressed to the point where I could

  • scan the line of three-digit numbers on the left to find the one that represented the Library of Congress call number (050, as it happens)
  • see whether or not the Library of Congress actually owns a copy (denoted by a 0)
  • see whether or not the Library of Congress were the group to assign the Library of Congress Call Number (if they were it’s denoted by another 0)
  • determine what the LoC Call Number Category of the book was (preceded by $a)
  • determine what the LoC Call Number SubField of the book was (preceded by $b)
  • see the year of publication, if included (set all by itself after a nice, polite space)

[All nicely encapsulated in one little line of coding! Insert epic smiley face here!]

Now, where I keep running into problems are

  • if there is no 020 or 022 field, so that I can’t verify that my title and the title that the program found are the same printed book
  • if there is only a 082 field [Dewey Decimal can burn in the cleansing fires of Mount Belinda]
  • if there is only a 090 field, because who assigns those numbers and how do I know if they’re credible even though they might look like LoC numbers?!
  • if one of the few fields I understand has a $4aut$0 or something similarly bizarre itn it which I’ve yet to find in that supposedly comprehensive codex [okay, so this hasn’t happened yet, but that code is part of a sample record listed in the MARC outline and it’s got something to do with a Bach recording and what does it meannnnnn]

I used my brain more yesterday than I’ve used it in, oh, four years. The last time I concentrated on something so deeply for so long was when I wrote my senior thesis. The harder I work to puzzle something out, the more I talk to myself. The longer my monologue runs on, the less sense it makes to anyone else. The less sense it makes, the more things I’m trying to figure out at once, which makes me puzzle harder. Rinse, repeat, I am the bombardier.

I’m pretty sure I heard the inanimate walls of the building breathe a sigh of relief when I stepped out, yesterday evening.

And then my mother had the unfortunate idea that she should call me and see how my day went. She got a completely nonsensical earful, complete with near-hysterics and high-volume recounting of epiphanies and new frustrations. LET THIS BE A WARNING TO YOU ALL.

At long last, I (and now you!) know more about library’s catalogs than I (and now you!) ever cared to know. I know why people need MLS degrees! What I can’t suss out is why anyone would do this to themselves! […I say that, but I’m the one who has that MARC outline bookmarked.]

One of my friends pointed out to me that I’m a glutton for knowledge. This, unequivocally, is true. To be politically correct, I am a huge freaking nerd. I eat this insanity for breakfast, nomnom. I thrive on it! Everyone else wants to slit my throat and toss me in a dumpster just to get me to shut up but that’s beside the point.

The thing is, MARC is absolutely phenomenal. It allows for cross referencing and hyperlinking and lets virtual catalogs churn out legible, useful information. I owe MARC coding my talents at locating physical volumes which library patrons couldn’t unearth. I loathe it because it gives me a migraine but it. is. brilliant. Besides, I finally figured out who to blame when I get upset over library catalogs having Capitalization I DisAgree With.

I would apologize for writing a lengthy diatribe that nobody cares about but I regret nothing.


I am nerdygirl, hear me roar!


4 thoughts on “Meet Marc

  1. So I see these MARC records on a regular basis – and work with a very intelligent and newly graduated librarian (media specialist) and she doesn’t claim to know that much about how to read those dratted things. I have been able to locate the Dewey number (as that’s what we use – and I have even begun to understand that). I fear I will just be scratching the very surface of the tip of the iceburg and the I’ll retire. Library science – interesting field – but not worth a migraine. Good for you my darling somewhat nerdy niece. I do enjoy a good delve but am not sure I would have gotten so engrossed in MARC records. Bravissimo to you!!!

    • I had no idea such things existed! That is a monstrosity of tightly packed text. Do your eyes cross when you look at them? Mine sure seem to! I feel much better knowing that they don’t make much sense to other people, especially that young librarian!
      As for the delving, well, there’s that nice little “obsessive” component of OCD… 😉

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