Behind the scenes at the library: a glance at cataloguing librarianship

By Arouce Wasty

October is Library Month, a time to celebrate libraries and the work that librarians, library technicians and library staff do to ensure that knowledge and information resources are available and accessible to everyone. In the spirit of this month, let us look at a side of the library not normally visible to library-goers and library staff. We’ll take a behind-the-scenes look at the work of the cataloguing librarian.

A black-and-white photograph of two women in a library. One is looking through a card catalogue and the other is holding a book and looking at the work of the other.

An archival image of librarians processing books. Photograph taken March 1941 (MIKAN 3571070)

You’ll rarely, if ever, see a cataloguing librarian behind the reference desk at your local library. Often, cataloguing librarians work in a different building—though one just as packed with books as the library itself, if not more so! The cataloguing librarian, along with cataloguing technicians, prepares the various resources, such as books, CDs, DVDs, video games, etc., to be placed within the main library. Furthermore, they enter the bibliographic information from these library items into the library’s computer system. The main goal of cataloguing is to enter accurate bibliographic information for an item, making that item easy to find through the library catalogue.

Seems fairly simple, right? Actually, cataloguing can be quite complex. Essentially, there are two major steps in cataloguing: descriptive cataloguing and subject analysis.

Descriptive cataloguing involves finding and entering information describing the library item according to cataloguing standards. Descriptive information includes pieces of information such as the name of the author, the title, the name of the publisher, the number of pages, the file type, and so on. These pieces of information are entered into the bibliographic record for that item.

Next is the subject analysis of the item. Here, the cataloguing librarian determines the main topic presented by the item. This is where things can get quite tricky. Even if the librarian figures out the subject of the item, s/he has to use tools such as Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), or Canadian Subject Headings (CSH), to find the appropriate term(s) or heading(s) associated with the subject. For example, for a book about cars, the appropriate subject heading, according to LCSH, would be “Automobiles”, and not “Cars”. Sometimes multiple terms are put together to create a subject heading. For example, a book about the social conditions of African countries in the 1990s would likely have the subject heading “Africa—Social conditions—20th century”. Some items may have multiple subject headings to cover either the range of major topics they touch on or all the aspects of a topic they discuss.

Another aspect of subject analysis is assigning a call number to the item. A call number groups the item with others on the same subject. You may be familiar with the Dewey Decimal System used in public libraries; academic libraries use the Library of Congress Classification system. A cataloguing librarian assigns either one or both of these types of call numbers to an item. Call numbers and subject headings are also entered into the bibliographic record.

A colour screen capture of a cataloguing entry showing the division of descriptive and subject information.

Figure 1: Example of a bibliographic record

Remember, cataloguing is not just about describing or determining the subject of an item. The main aim of cataloguing is to allow library users to find and access library items. Descriptive cataloguing allows users to find items via the library catalogue by using keyword searches as well as advanced search options, such as title or author searches. Subject analysis allows library users to find items on a particular subject by using the “subject search” option in their local library catalogue. And, of course, call numbers allow users to find the item on the library shelves.

This is just a glimpse of the work of cataloguing librarians and technicians. Although you may never see or meet with them, the work they do has a great impact on the workings of a library and the experience of the library user.


Arouce Wasty is a cataloguing librarian in the Descriptive Division of Published Heritage.

ISBNs and ISMNs: did you know?

Did you know that Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is the national agency responsible for issuing ISBNs (for English publications only) and ISMNs to Canadian publishers?

This week, LAC is honoured to host the annual general meetings for the International ISBN Agency and the International ISMN Agency, and to welcome delegates attending from national and regional agencies around the world. Work done by these international agencies to coordinate and supervise the world-wide use of the standards ensures that they meet the present and future needs of the publishing industry.

What is an ISBN?

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. Publishers, booksellers, and libraries have used them since the early 1970s to identify each unique edition of a publication. These numbers provide an unduplicated, internationally recognized identifier used in publisher inventories, online retail systems, and library catalogues. Each different format of a publication (e.g., hardcover, softcover, MOBI, EPUB, PDF) is assigned a separate ISBN, so that the correct format can be easily ordered or retrieved.

A photo of the back cover of four books showing the ISBN and barcode of each.

ISBNs are assigned to monographic publications such as books, e-books, and maps.

What is an ISMN?

ISMN stands for International Standard Music Number. Introduced in 1993 as a unique identifier for notated music, music publishers request ISMNs for scores and sheet music collections, including digital sheet music. They are not used for recorded music or books about music. A separate ISMN is assigned to each separately available format and component (e.g. full score, vocal score).

An image of the first line in the sheet music for the song Oh Canada.

ISMNs are assigned to scores and sheet music.

The elements of an ISBN/ISMN

Far from being a random number, the 13-digit number is composed of four or five meaningful elements providing valuable information about an item’s publishing location or language, publisher, and publisher’s size. For example, ISBN 978-0-660-05896-2 (a Government of Canada publication) breaks down as follows:

978:       The prefix element, needed to create a 13-digit barcode, identifies the number as an ISBN. (The prefix element for ISMNs is 979-0.)

0:  The registration group element identifies the country, region, or language area. English-speaking areas are 0 or 1. French-speaking areas are 2. (ISMNs do not use the group element, since music is international.)

660:  The registrant element identifies a particular publisher. The number of digits in this element varies according to the size of a publisher’s expected output. Large publishers have short registrant elements, while small publishers have long ones.

05896:  The publication element identifies a specific publication by a publisher. A long number indicates that a publisher has published (or expects to publish) many titles, while a short number indicates the opposite.

2:  The check digit verifies that the previous digits are correct, and is calculated by an algorithm.

The ISBN 978-0-660-05896-2 has five elements: 978 is the prefix that identifies the number as an ISBN; 0 identifies a country, region or language area; 660 identifies the publisher; 05896 identifies the publication; 2 is the check digit.

Dissecting the ISBN.

Canadian publishers or self-publishers should contact the ISBN and ISMN agencies at LAC to obtain the appropriate number of ISBNs or ISMNs needed for their publications.

Contact us

Please note that French language publishers must obtain their ISBNs from the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec.

Anything to declare? Yes, it’s of Canadian interest

By Louise Tousignant

The mandate of Library and Archives Canada (LAC) includes acquiring published material that is Canadian or of Canadian interest. In collecting this material, LAC aims for a national Canadiana collection that is as comprehensive as possible. Canadian material published in Canada is received through legal deposit while material of Canadian interest is published in other countries but has a Canadian creator or subject. Creators could be authors, illustrators, translators or artists. Works of Canadian interest, being published abroad, are acquired through gifts or targeted purchases.

Of those titles of Canadian interest received recently, there are studies on, and analyses of, Canada: Canada/États-Unis : les enjeux d’une frontière, Comparative North American Studies: Transnational Approaches to American and Canadian Literature and Culture, and Canadian Perspectives on Immigration in Small Cities.

Other works are also related to Canada; for instance, Negotiations in the Indigenous World: Aboriginal Peoples and the Extractive Industry in Australia and Canada and Indian Agents: Rulers of the Reserves delve into Indigenous matters.

Famous Canadians have also been the subject of scrutiny: painter Alex Colville in The Mystery of the Real: Letters of the Canadian Artist Alex Colville and Biographer Jeffrey Meyers; journalist and author Jane Jacobs in the biography Becoming Jane Jacobs; and singer and musician Alanis Morissette, whose work is explored in The Words and Music of Alanis Morissette. Canadians who made their names in Hollywood have also been featured in several books. William Shatner, born in Montréal and an ambassador for his hometown’s 375th anniversary celebrations and best known for his role as Captain James T. Kirk in the “Star Trek” television series, recently released Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man. Acclaimed Hamilton-born actor Martin Short, who became a star on the “Saturday Night Live” TV show, authored the memoir I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend.

A black-and-white photo of a woman with long hair leaning against a wrought iron fence.

Portrait of Alanis Morissette by Bryan Adams. Photo signed by Alanis Morissette. 1999 (MIKAN 3614421)

Here at home, Canadians have also had their works published in other countries: Quebec’s Guy Delisle, with the comic book S’enfuir : récit d’un otage, published by Dargaud; illustrator Yanick Paquette, the man behind Wonder Woman, with his Wonder Woman, Earth One. Volume 1 comic book; and Louise Penny, with The Long Way Home, which was published by Minotaur Books and became a New York Times number 1 bestseller.

Finally, some titles of Canadian interest in the national collection are directly linked to LAC’s archival fonds. These holdings allow for greater in-depth study of authors and their international profiles, and support research into Canadian literature. Examples include translations of works by children’s writer and illustrator Marie-Louise Gay, and by Sri Lankan–born Canadian poet, novelist and filmmaker Michael Ondaatje. Regarding Marie-Louise Gay, ¿Alguna pregunta?, a Spanish translation of Any Questions?, was published in Mexico in 2015; Angela en de ijsbeer is a Dutch version of Angel and the Polar Bear; and Bolle-Bertils sirkus is Fat Charlie’s Circus translated into Norwegian. As for Michael Ondaatje, LAC holds no fewer than 20 translations of his best-known novel, The English Patient, including versions in Bulgarian, Japanese and Italian. His novel won the Booker Prize and the Governor General’s Award in 1992, while the film adaptation received nine Oscars at the Academy Awards in 1997.

A colour photo of a seated, smiling woman. Blurred pencil crayons can be seen in the foreground.

Marie-Louise Gay. Canadian children’s writer and illustrator. @Groundwood Books

Colour photograph of a book open at the title page written in Bulgarian.

The English Patient published in Bulgarian by Delfi in 2000 (AMICUS 32172817)

Colour photograph of a book open at the title page written in Japanese.

The English Patient published in Japanese by Shinch⁻osha in 1996 (AMICUS 15875585)

Colour photograph of a book open at the title page: Michael Ondaatje Il Paziente Inglese.

The English Patient published in Italian by Garzanti in 2004 (AMICUS 32785464)

This brief overview is just a sampling of the variety of publications about Canada and of Canadian interest. The painstaking work of sorting through published material continues to ensure the growth of Canada’s documentary heritage and the development of the collections, and to make the national Canadiana collection the most extensive in the world.


Louise Tousignant is an acquisitions librarian in the Published Heritage Branch of Library and Archives Canada.

Government of Canada Publications: On your MARCs… Get set… Go!

A new MARC21 bibliographic record service from Library and Archives Canada for Canadian libraries

Every year, the Government of Canada publishes numerous publications, including research reports, conference proceedings, and much more. Many of these publications are available through the Depository Services Program (DSP) managed by Public Services and Procurement Canada. Since 1927, the DSP has gathered and distributed government publications every year to Canadian libraries. With the transition from print material to electronic publications, the DSP has now evolved into a centralized, online weekly distribution service that provides access to electronic government publications.

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has a legislated mandate to be “the permanent repository of publications for the Government of Canada” (Library and Archives Canada Act, S.C. 2004, c. 11). Thousands of government publications are acquired through various means—such as the DSP, donations, and gifts—and in various formats.

With the increasing volume of electronic content being published by the Government of Canada, the need for timely, efficient and accurate cataloguing of government publications becomes even more necessary to ensure access and discoverability not only for LAC and its users, but also for all Canadian libraries and their users.

A black-and-white photograph of young woman giving a pile of books to a seaman. They are both standing on the deck of a boat with the harbor in the background.

Leading Wren Ruth Church, Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS) delivering a supply of library books to Able Seaman Bill Swetman of HMCS PETROLIA, Londonderry, Northern Ireland, November 1944. (MIKAN 3519918)

Continue reading

New additions to Rare Books album now on Flickr

 

A colour photograph of an open book on a blue background showing a very well dressed man on the verso and an elaborately illustrated frontispiece on the recto.

Walton’s Polyglot Bible, Volume 1, 1654. Left: engraved portrait of Brian Walton. Right: engraved title page (AMICUS 940077)

The Rare Book Collection at Library and Archives Canada is one of the largest collections of rare Canadiana in the world. Canadiana is defined as works printed in Canada or printed outside of Canada but concerning Canada, written or illustrated by Canadians.

Visit the Flickr album now!

Superheroes of the Digital Universe: Digitizing the Bell Features Collection

By Meaghan Scanlon

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is excited to announce a new digital resource for fans of Canadian comic books. The Bell Features Collection of Second World War-era comics has been completely digitized and is now available to researchers online.

The Bell Features Collection consists of 382 comic books, most in multiple copies, published in the 1940s by the Canadian comic book publisher Bell Features. These comics showcase an astounding selection of Canadian heroes such as Nelvana of the Northern Lights, Johnny Canuck, and Dixon of the Mounted.

Between November 2015 and March 2016, LAC’s digitization staff painstakingly photographed one copy of each issue held in the collection—a total of 193 comic books. At between 50 and 60 pages per comic, that’s around 10,000 pages!

Creating electronic copies of these delicate documents from LAC’s collection involved hours of careful labour from technicians in our digitization labs, who follow rigorous standards to get the best possible images while preserving the condition of the items.

The process begins with a technician placing a comic on a flat copy stand under an overhead camera, making sure to line the comic up with the camera so that the image taken will be straight. A sheet of Plexiglas is laid over the item to keep it flat. The Plexiglas is on small risers to ensure as little contact as possible with the surface of the comic. This helps prevent damaging the item by placing too much pressure on its spine. Every superhero has an archenemy, and so, too, does the digitization specialist: dust. A single particle on the Plexiglas can create a spot that ruins an image. The technician keeps an anti-static blower on hand to defeat this threat.

A comic book is placed on a flat black surface underneath a sheet of Plexiglas. A woman leans over the surface, using an anti-static blower to remove dust from the Plexiglas. The lens of a camera is visible above the table.

A digitization technician uses an anti-static blower to remove dust from the sheet of Plexiglas covering the comic book she is about to photograph. The camera lens can be seen suspended above the copy stand.

Once the comic book is in place, the technician uses an overhead camera to take a photograph. For the Bell Features Collection, a Phase One 645DF+ camera body with an IQ260 digital back and an 80-mm lens was used, with an F11 focus and a shutter speed of 1/13th of a second. The image taken with the camera is automatically uploaded to the technician’s computer, where she checks for imperfections. If she is satisfied with the image quality, she crops it in Photoshop and moves on to the next page.

A woman faces a computer monitor showing an image of a page from a comic book.

A digitization technician checks for imperfections in the digitized image of a page from Slam-Bang Comics no. 7 (AMICUS 42623987), with art by Adrian Dingle.

This entire process is repeated for each page of each comic book. Once all the pages of an issue have been photographed and the images corrected, a PDF version is created. Finally, this PDF is uploaded to LAC’s servers and a link is added to the relevant record in LAC’s online library catalogue.

If you’re interested in checking out a few of these newly digitized old Canadian comics, you can find a small sample on our website. Hungry for more? The finding aid attached to the catalogue record for the Bell Features Collection (AMICUS 43122013) includes links to all of the digitized comics. You can also access them via the catalogue records for each of the individual titles in the Bell Features Collection; see for example the record for Active Comics (AMICUS 16526991).

In the Ottawa area? Encounter some of Bell Features’ characters on a bigger scale when you visit LAC’s exhibition Alter Ego: Comics and Canadian Identity. It runs at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa until September 14th. Admission is free.

Additional resources


Meaghan Scanlon is the Special Collections Librarian in the Published Heritage Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Anne in the library: introducing the Cohen Collection

By Meaghan Scanlon

In five accessions between 1999 and 2003, Canadian lawyer, film producer, and bibliographer Ronald I. Cohen donated his extensive Lucy Maud Montgomery collection to Library and Archives Canada. (See AMICUS 44572655 for a description of the collection.) The collection contains materials related to adaptations of Montgomery’s work, as well as anthologies and periodicals in which Montgomery is featured. But the bulk of the collection consists of various editions of Montgomery’s published novels, including, of course, her most famous book, Anne of Green Gables.

Among the approximately 420 items in the Cohen Collection are no fewer than 46 copies of Anne of Green Gables. Three of these are in Japanese, two in French, and one each in Korean, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish. The other 37 are in English.

Why, you might ask, would anyone need 37 English-language copies of Anne of Green Gables? Isn’t the story the same every time? The answer is that for book collectors, it’s often not about the story told in the text. Rather, collecting is an opportunity to discover the story of the book itself, its publication, and the way it has been marketed and received. Many book collectors set out to document the history of an author or title as completely as possible through their collections. For some, this means amassing many copies of the same title.

The Cohen Collection traces the spread of Anne of Green Gables across the English-speaking world through its inclusion of early American, British, Australian, and Canadian editions. The novel was originally published in Boston in April 1908 (AMICUS 9802890). This first edition was extraordinarily popular and Montgomery’s publisher, L. C. Page, reprinted it at least 12 times before the end of 1909. The Cohen Collection contains copies of the sixth (November 1908) and eleventh (August 1909) printings.

Copyright page of the Cohen Collection copy of the sixth printing of the first edition of Anne of Green Gables

Copyright page of the Cohen Collection copy of the sixth printing of the first edition of Anne of Green Gables (AMICUS 9802890, copy 5). “Impression” is another word for printing.

The first British edition of Anne of Green Gables was also published in 1908 (AMICUS 21173240). Anne then made her way to Australia in 1925 (AMICUS 26942864). Interestingly, despite the iconic status of Montgomery and her work in Canada, the first Canadian edition of Anne of Green Gables (AMICUS 1706899) did not appear until 1942. This edition, too, went through several printings; the earliest copy in the Cohen Collection dates from 1948.

Although the story remains the same in each edition, the depiction of its heroine, Anne Shirley, on the books’ covers does not. Audiences in different places and time periods have encountered different representations of Anne, from the mature-looking woman on the first edition to the sometimes cartoonish drawings on later versions. The Cohen Collection’s copies of Anne of Green Gables document the visual history of the character through their illustrations, cover art, and dust jackets.

In fact, when Ronald I. Cohen started collecting L. M. Montgomery’s books, finding copies with dust jackets was one of his main goals. Historically, dust jackets were often discarded by readers (and libraries!) and early examples can be extremely hard to find. The numerous rare dust jackets in the Cohen Collection are therefore a highly valuable resource for researchers looking at the history of one of Canada’s most beloved literary classics.

To learn more about the Ronald I. Cohen Collection of Works by L. M. Montgomery, listen to the latest episode of Library and Archives Canada’s podcast, Kindred spirits after all!


Meaghan Scanlon is the Special Collections Librarian in the Published Heritage Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Comic books at Library and Archives Canada

As the keeper of Canada’s national documentary heritage, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) collects a wide range of published Canadiana, including comic books. The collection includes not only comics published in Canada, but also comics by Canadian creators published in other countries. Comic books published in Canada are often acquired via legal deposit. But LAC has also received two important collections from private sources that greatly enhance its holdings of Canadian comics. The largest of these is the John Bell Canadian Comic Book Collection. Donated by comic book historian and former LAC archivist John Bell, the collection includes approximately 4,000 comic books, ranging from Second World War era superhero comics to 21st century zines. Currently, the collection is uncatalogued, but a complete list of all items in the first two accessions is available in AMICUS.

Colour photograph showing a filing box with folders with labels, one is pulled out half-way and a red comic book with the 10¢ price peeks out of the folder.

One box from the catalogued and housed Bell Features Collection

Second World War era Canadian comics are also well-represented in LAC’s Bell Features Collection, which consists of 382 comic books from the corporate archive of one of the major publishers of the period, Toronto-based Bell Features. These older Canadian comics are extremely rare, and the Bell Features Collection is one of the richest resources available. The collection has been fully catalogued, and a collection-level description listing all the titles is available in AMICUS. Over the last few decades, comic books and graphic novels have been increasingly recognized as a literary genre worthy of serious study. In the 1940s, however, comics were considered “throwaway” books for children, as demonstrated by the fact that many Bell Features comics include games and activities for young readers. Because of their ephemeral nature, 1940s comic books were printed on cheap, poor-quality newsprint. As a result, there are various conservation issues to consider when storing comics. Fortunately, the vaults at LAC’s state-of-the-art Preservation Centre provide optimal environmental conditions. The Bell Features Collection is stored in acid-free, closed boxes that protect the comics from harmful light exposure and dirt. Inside the boxes, each comic book is kept in a paper envelope that is open on the top and front edges allowing the comics to slide in and out of their housing with a reduced risk of catching or tearing on a tight opening. The envelopes also contain an alkaline reserve that helps slow down the harmful effects of the acid in the paper. Listen to the podcast Guardians of the North: Comic Books in Canada to learn more about Canadian comics.

Related resources

Revolutionizing cataloguing – implementing RDA!

There’s been a revolution in cataloguing! Since 2010, RDA (Resource Description and Access) has been the new international standard for description. It was developed over many years through the cooperation of institutions such as Library and Archives Canada (LAC), the Library of Congress, the British National Library, the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek, and other national and international committees (LAC employees sit on the Canadian Committee on Cataloguing, for example). Implementation of RDA began at LAC in late 2012 and is still ongoing, involving the entire cataloguing section. This has included hundreds of hours of training sessions, meetings, individual research and reading, and informal team discussions and consultations as we have to rethink a lot of our policies and practices to adapt to the new philosophies and rules for description represented in RDA.

So, what’s so different about RDA?

There have always been standards and rules for description of course. But the rules we were using were developed before the advent of the multitude of formats that are now collected by and available in modern libraries. This has forced cataloguers to try to treat everything like a printed book. You can imagine how frustrating that was at times! On top of that, the old rules were designed to help cataloguers fit all the essential information on a 3” by 5” card that was filed in a card catalogue drawer. This meant abbreviating words, omitting non-essential information, and making decisions based on the placement of information on the physical card. Now with online catalogues, linked data, and international databases available with the click of a mouse, we need to rethink how we do things. Some of this involves physically changing how the information is presented in the catalogue record (for example, RDA eliminates abbreviations unless they appear on the item itself). Other changes focus on thinking differently about the relationships between the content, the physical item (what we call the “carrier”), and the people involved in creating both.

What hasn’t changed?

As always, our goal is to create a bibliographic record for an item that accurately and thoroughly describes both the physical item and the content it holds, and allows users of our catalogue the best possible access to the item and our collection. The employees in the cataloguing section are committed to creating useful, accurate, credible metadata that is used by libraries across the country, and in international databases. RDA may be changing the “how” of cataloguing, but not the “why!”

Useful links: