s Thoughts from the Physics Chick: Cat. & Reference: In which the librarian uses her powers for good

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Cat. & Reference: In which the librarian uses her powers for good

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Jenn sent me an email asking for help tracking down a reference for a Russian journal article. (Jenn was a fellow student in my MLS program and is nothing if not a kindred spirit. We used to sit in the back of our advanced cataloging class and ask questions about cataloging materials in Elvish*.)

She sent me the reference because I'd offered to help her out the last time she'd been stumped on a Russian article. In that instance, the citation itself had been relatively straightforward, but it had come from a supplemental volume for a serial and all of the libraries which carried the serial staunchly maintained that they had no such supplement for that year. As far as I know, we never tracked down the article. This time, I was determined to do better.

Russian transliteration is a tricky thing. If you do a phonetic transcription, you end up leaving letters out or transcribing them inconsistently, but if you try to transliterate each letter individually, you can end up with a lot of phonetic redundancy and other oddities. And even when people can agree on a transliteration philosophy, they don't necessarily agree on an actual system. So I wasn't terribly surprised when Jenn gave me a couple of different variations on the same title:

Izvestija Obsch. Liub. IEst. Antrop. i Etnogr., Moskva

Izvestija Imp. Obsch. Ljub. Jest., Antro., i Etnogr., Moskva.

I was also pretty sure that neither one would correspond with ALA-LC† transcription, which is what I would need in order to search for the record in an online catalog‡. So it was a matter of starting with the current citations, recreating the original Russian from those, then turning that into the "industry standard" transliterated form and searching for matches in a union catalog§.

Problem #1: The citation is abbreviated.

I'm pretty confident that I can re-Cyrilicize what I've got to work with, but I sort of need the rest of the word if I'm going to do any keyword searches.

Problem #2: Russian word endings vary according to the prepositions that precede them.

This means that not only do I have to reconstruct the lemma (= dictionary form) of the word, but then I have to decline it in the proper case. This is enough of a task if you know the proper case, but I'm just guessing, here, since I don't really know if this is going to be The Journal of Science or The Journal about Science and it actually makes a difference in terms of word endings. And, again, I can't do a keyword search if I don't have the correct word.

I could still guess about some of it, though. "Antro." and "Etnogr." were pretty obvious cognates for "anthropology" and "ethnography," so I just had to double check the Russian spellings for those in an online dictionary. I did have a bit of trouble when I insisted on spelling "anthropology" the French way (or, rather, this way). It still looks wrong to me. ("Anthropo-logy". Can that possibly be right?)

"Izvestija" (or rather "известия"), means "journals" or "reports" or "bulletins," which seemed like a promising start for a serial title. I had no idea what "Obsch." (oбщ.) meant but it was sounding vaguely familiar. "Obsches—" . . . "obschest—" "obschestvo," perhaps?
Happy day! "Obschestvo" (общество) means "society" or "association." ("The Journal of the Society of . . . " is pretty much the most generic way you could possibly start a periodical title, but at least I was on the right track.)

I tried doing some searches on "известия" and "общество," but I didn't get much back. Then I tried declining "общество" (because this is, after all, The Journal of the Society of Blah Blah Blah, so "society" has to be in the genetive case). Still no luck.

I really had no idea what "Liub." or "IEst." could be, so I decided to skip ahead to "Antrop." and "Etnogr." (Actually, I recognized that "Ljub." could be the beginning of "Liubov" (любовь), meaning "love," but since it could also be the beginning of related words like "to love" or "beloved," I couldn't really narrow it down.) I guessed that "Antrop." and "Etnogr." would also be in the genitive case ("The Journal of the Society of Something Something Anthropology and Ethnography").

I did a transliterated keyword search on those words in the catalog, but I still came up empty handed. Then I decided to do a general Google search on the Cyrillic forms of those words and after a few tries — success! — I found a match on a page from a Russian library website. At this point, I had the entire unabbreviated title, so I was able to learn that "Liub." and "IEst." were short for "Liubitelei" (любителей) and "estestvoznaniia" (естествознания) or "lovers of natural history."

Having the entire title at hand, I returned once more to the catalog to search for it, but once more failed to find a match. At this point, I had to consider the possibility that perhaps there simply weren't any matches for this title in WorldCat. From my internet search, I knew that at least one library in Russia owned the title, but since WorldCat is the main engine for long-distance inter-library loans, it was unlikely that Jenn's library would be able to request a copy if I couldn't find a WorldCat library to furnish it.

All but despairing, I was about to email Jenn with my results, both good and bad, when an vague idea started to form in my mind. Since taking my current position, I've had a chance to learn a lot more about serials cataloging, but I can still be tripped up by relatively simple things. However, I was slowly remembering a strange practice in serials cataloging where you take a title like "Annual Report of the Association of Bibliophiles" and move "Association of Bibliophiles" to the author area, leaving only "Annual Report" in the title. (This also means that you get about a bazillion catalog records for serials called "annual report," or "proceedings," or "collected papers.")

If this pattern had been followed with my mystery Russian record, then the title was probably as simple as "Journals," with all the rest of the information in the author field (and with "общество" back in the nominative case, again). With only this last chance before I gave up, entirely, I re-entered my search terms into WorldCat, this time splitting them between the title and author and . . . Bingo! I found this match which showed holdings in five American research libraries. I sent the information on to Jenn, who promptely replied "Woah. I'd give you a hug if you were here."

No trouble, ma'am. I was in the area and I'm just glad I could be of service.

*Just to be clear, that's

ask questions about cataloging [materials in Elvish]


ask questions [about cataloging materials] in Elvish

because there's nerdy and then there's nerdy . . .

†American Library Association / Library of Congress

‡Although modern computers are usually capable of supporting Cyrillic characters, most library catalogs don't include them in catalog records, even though they could be automatically generated from the transliterated characters, in theory.

§A union catalog is a catalog which combines the holdings of several libraries. WorldCat is the largest such catalog in the world. Other examples include catalogs shared by several campuses of the same state college, or catalogs shared by multiple branches of the same county library system.


At January 22, 2008 12:23 PM, Blogger ambrosia ananas said...

Wow. That's impressive. Katya = Super Librarian Woman.

Also, thanks for clarifying. I was wondering. (I did know a girl who was translating the Bible into Klingon. . . .)

At January 22, 2008 6:50 PM, Blogger Petra said...

Holy cow. You have a cool job.

At January 27, 2008 2:06 AM, Blogger Robin said...

Hi - I just came across your blog. I'm working on my MLIS right now...and I'm an aspiring cataloger so I was interested/impressed to read your recent posts :)

At February 02, 2008 1:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You might have been referring to cataloguing items written in Elvish... ;)

There ought to be rewards for the best reference find.


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