123 ABC | Newberry

123 ABC

Everybody thinks managing a book fair is the easiest thing in the world. “Just put an outrageous price on it and sell it,” a volunteer once told me, as she was donating books, “That’s what you do anyhow.”

It’s true: I do very little all day but read cheap paperbacks and eat bonbons. Nothing about the Book Fair is as complicated as I try to make people believe. Let’s take alphabetizing. Easy as ABC, right? (All those of you who started humming have just dated yourselves. For the Millennials, that was a Jackson Five joke. This was Michael Jack…go ask your grandmother.)

We have certain books which we put up for sale online. A lot of the genealogical books donated go there, on the principle that more people whose last name is L’Hommedieu are using the Internet than will come through the Newberry at the end of July and see we have their family history for sale. Recently, I have been able to put these on shelves again (I have been keeping them out of the way in cardboard boxes), and I put them on the shelves in alphabetical order by title. (Because not every book has an author, but ALMOST every book has a title.) And it looks pretty random that way.

Here, for example, is a book with a spine which declares that its title is “Richard Mowry of Uxbridge, Mass.” Why has the ridiculous Book Fair Manager put this on the F shelf? No, stop that. I do NOT have any grudge against Mr. Mowry: this book was printed before even I was born.

The book is on the F shelf because, if you look at the cover and the title page, the full title of the book is “A Family History: Richard Knowles of Uxbridge, Mass.” A, An, and The are not used in alphabetizing things (except by computers which have not been taught about this rule), so it must go on the F shelf. The true title of a book is whatever is on the title page, NOT what somebody with an eye to marketing put on the spine.

It’s not a new problem. Most of us, putting Shakespeare’s plays on a shelf in alphabetical order, would probably put Hamlet ahead of King Lear. But this would be a sorry mistake to fanatic librarians. See, the original titles of these two plays, even correcting Elizabethan spelling, are “The Tragedy of King Lear” and “The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.”

Some books make it even worse. A number of these genealogical tomes are what we in the trade call “ex lib”, meaning that they have at some point belonged to a library which marked them up in some way. A goodly percentage of these were rebound by one of the libraries (some of these have been through four institutions before they reached me). This was either because they got used so much or because they were paperbacks, and the library wanted a more durable cover.

Whichever library did this liked to keep its genealogical books in alphabetical by the families involved. So, for THEIR purposes, when they rebound this book, they put “Winchell Genealogy” on the spine. This makes your poor old Uncle Blogsy look like a real dope if someone sees it on the shelf just below that Richard Knowles book. Because the actual title of “Winchell Genealogy” is “A Genealogy of the Family of Winchell”. It needs to be on the G shelf.

Is Uncle Blogsy just being devious, or, worse, pedantic? Uncle Blogsy doesn’t think so, but he’s prejudiced. However, it so happens that when you list a book online, you want customers to be able to FIND it in your listings. And customers, who have probably found out about the book through a footnote or a bibliography, do not know what your copy has on the spine. Bibliographers are going to list the book by its true title, which, as noted, is the one on the title page. And when I sell a book, I want to find it right away, not try to guess what’s on the spine.

Of course, alphabetizing by author presents no such problems. (Remind me to tell you about the shock wave that went through libraries when it was decided you didn’t have to list Mark Twain under C any more.)

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