Before you can get lost in a book, you’ll get lost in the library

Anna-Kay Reeves

If you find yourself in the Perry-Castañeda Library, also known as “The Pickle,” looking to check out a book, you may find yourself in a pickle of a whole different sort.

I entered the PCL with confidence, undaunted by both its brutalist facade and scores of bleary eyed students that litter its floors 24 hours a day. Because I’ve checked out books many-a-time in my life, I even have a library card on my key chain, the mark of a truly expert book borrower.

Little did I know that not only does the PCL require strength of mind to check out a book but strength of spirit and body as well. My journey had begun.

After a quick search for John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” the library’s computer spit out the book’s call number, PS 3537 T3234 G8 1999, a number so long and digital I wondered if I’d crossed into the Matrix. No, only the strange realm of the Library of Congress Classification system.

Until college, most students are trained to navigate library shelves using the Dewey Decimal System, which organizes works according to author’s last names and by number according to divisions of knowledge. This was the case for mathematics freshman Claire Duffels, who found the Library of Congress Classification system disorienting at first.

“We used the Dewey Decimal System in high school, so I had no idea how to follow the labels,” Duffels said “Even after I figured out which floor it was on, it took me 10 minutes to find the shelf and then the book itself.”

In my case, it was longer. Like the fields of the Dust Bowl, my search through the shelves was fruitless.

After finding a floor map, it seemed that my journey would come to a swift conclusion, but the “PS” shelves, one of which contained the book I sought, stretched far into the horizon before me, each book as similar to the next as grains of sand blowing in the wind. I began to think to myself that I didn’t need to find “The Grapes of Wrath,” because I could experience the desperation and hopelessness of the Judd family simply by aimlessly wandering the aisles of the PCL.

But there is a method to the madness. 

According to Melanie Cofield, metadata coordinator for UT Libraries, the University of Texas library system is the eleventh largest in the country, meaning it has quite a few more volumes than your average library. With more than 10 million volumes in the UT Libraries, the Dewey Decimal System’s decimal points would run on for several lines. Cofield explained that although the Library of Congress Classification system can be difficult to maneuver for those unfamiliar with it, the system is better adapted to academic institutions.

“Academic research libraries have large collections, and the (Library of Congress Classification) system has more classes to accommodate a greater variety and number of resources than are found in school and public libraries,” Cofield said. “The (Library of Congress Classification) system includes arrangement by disciplines, which serves the academic research community’s needs better. The UT Libraries switched to (this system) in the 1970s because of these advantages in providing access to the growing collections.”

As for myself, I found time was the greatest teacher. After approximately 37 minutes muttering at shelves, wondering if graduate students nearby were judging my ignorance, I found “The Grapes of Wrath.” On the surrounding shelves were several volumes of commentary on Steinbeck and related readings — the Library of Congress at work. Although the Library of Congress Classification system can be tough to navigate, its the price we pay for access to an excellent research collection.