Our Fair Gardens and the Tyranny of the Catalog

If you are a reader of this blog, you probably know the origin of this post’s title. Years ago I bought myself a used copy of the 1969 edition of Margaret A. Edwards’s famous The Fair Garden and the Swarm of Beasts: The Young Adult and the Library. The cover of this edition, which I love, depicts a two-faced tree-headed creature and a … dragon, I guess? If you didn’t read this book in library school (I didn’t, at least not all of it), you’ve probably at least heard of it. Its author has two ALA Youth Media Awards named for her after all. 

Check out those beasts!

Recently I took this book off my shelf and flipped through it. Unsurprisingly given the publication year, Edwards sometimes uses language that is now dated and at worst, inappropriate by today’s standards. I can’t imagine my students in 2023 being very interested in most of the titles she suggested in 1969 (which she acknowledges is going to happen as time marches on). However, many of her anecdotes and points about serving teens in the library are just as powerful and relevant now as they were then. There are passages that knocked me over and are a great reminder, as we navigate the joys and nuisances of the progressing school year as well as the challenges to our professionalism currently present in the wider society, what our priority is – serving young people. Or, as Edwards referred to them in 1969, “teen-agers.”

On page 101 of the edition in my possession, Edwards launches into a pretty scathing criticism of “our obsession with the catalog”. Here’s one zinger of a passage that really got me: 

Our burning passion to force the adolescent to use the catalog has damaged our relations with him…Probably the most hated six words in these United States of America are ‘Look it up in the catalog.’ Here is what some teen-agers say …: ‘In general, the librarians are fairly helpful as long as you never make the mistake of asking where a book is. Do this, and the librarian ‘sweetly’ says, ‘What’s the matter, don’t you know how to use the catalog?’

(Edwards, p. 103)

She goes on to characterize this habit, which we may think of as empowering or teaching someone to fish, as it’s likely perceived by young people on the other end: either the librarian who suggests this is lazy or is exercising their authority for no reason. Edwards basically describes instruction in use of the catalog as a waste of time that could be spent promoting reading. 

Gulp. When I read this, I think I had just that day sweetly directed a student to the catalog when she asked where to find a book. I thought about this for a long time. In all of the times I have instructed a class in the use of the online catalog, not once has there been a lasting spark of interest. Even if there was a fleeting one, I doubt that many students spent a good deal of time thinking about accessing and searching the catalog after that. When they need or want a book, they come to the desk with the cover image pulled up on their phone (from Amazon or Instagram, maybe) and ask if we have it. How irritating of me to use that moment to “remind” them about the catalog. How unhelpful to hand them a call number and point. Most of the time, this does not result in a found book anyway – they come back asking for help, or worse, give up and leave. Now they may feel frustrated, intimidated, and maybe even foolish – certainly not welcome or helped. That is the opposite of how I want my students to feel in the library. Just go get the the book, Ms. Hammond. Only direct when you are very busy and very confident the student will find the book themselves.

Come to think of it, the functioning (or lack thereof) of our library management systems is a frequent topic on our listserv. I have become utterly frustrated by the slowness, the irrelevant term suggestions, and the inexplicable search field switch-ups that have been occurring in my LMS lately. It does not work as well as a Google search. So, what business do I have making students feel put off by an insistence on its use? Why am I wasting time trying to teach it, when I could be book-talking more instead? Maybe it’s enough to just mention that it exists and where to find the link. A student who wants to use it will – in fact, a student recently asked me whether there was some website where she could look up books in the library. I showed her, and she thought it was cool (really – she used that word). She looked up the title she sought and we talked about how to use the call number to locate the book. That was what she asked for – to be shown how to do it herself – but other students are asking for a book, not a lesson. I need to give them what they tell me they need, not what I, in my professional wisdom and “petty authority” decide they need. Knowing how to use a library catalog doesn’t make a lifelong library user. Feeling like the library is a place where someone will help you without hesitation or throwing up hurdles, might. Thank you, Alex!

Work Cited

Edwards, Margaret A. The Fair Garden and the Swarm of Beasts: The Library and the Young Adult. New York, Hawthorn Books, 1969.

3 thoughts on “Our Fair Gardens and the Tyranny of the Catalog

  1. And yet, I am reminded of the old saying, “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a week. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for life.” I found many of my Lower School students were intrigued and enjoyed exploring the catalog. The problem was the lessons on use of the catalog were not necessarily introduced at the moment they personally needed or wanted it. You do your best but even though you time it for the start of the year or before a class project, it is like watering all your plants at the same time.

  2. Thank you Allison, I think that’s right – we sometimes offer catalog or database instruction when we can, not when it’s going to be most useful. That’s why I wonder whether just a brief introduction to its existence combined with tutorials that students can access when needed might be a better use of precious class time than a full orientation. I also think Lower School might be different in this way. I have found that even when Middle or Upper School students enjoy browsing the catalog as I’m introducing it in class, they sometimes don’t remember to use it later, or, which seems most likely to me, they just find it easier to ask and that is okay!

    I will also acknowledge that Edwards was writing about a card catalog in 1969 – even less user-friendly than our OPACs. She also writes from a public library angle, and does add that understanding of the catalog would be important for the college-bound, whom, for the most part, we are serving in our schools. My main takeaway is that when a student just wants to get their hands on a book, maybe we should just give them the book rather than make it whole thing. Perhaps the middle of this road, and better practice anyway, would be to model how we look up and locate books – talking about each step as we do it, while finding the book the student needs and delivering it to their hand.

  3. I haven’t thought about that book in years and yet I remembered it immediately from the title of your post! I have a few catalog users, many shelf browsers, and those who prefer to ask a librarian. I like that they see the personal touch in our library and feel comfortable approaching the librarian. Walking to get the book is a great time for conversation.

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