Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Alice in Periodicals Land

Periodicals research at the Národní knihovna might be described as a bit unpredictable. The holdings are probably extensive, which they certainly ought to be for any national library, but it is hard to know what will actually turn up.
The periodicals room, I should say immediately, is an excellent place. Not in its physical accoutrements, which last I looked were a bit shabby, but the librarians there treat researchers very well. One seeks anything from the last six years or so there; all I’ve ever had to do is hand the librarian a list of periodicals with desired dates, and she brings back stacks for each year. All the periodicals librarians seem to be cheerful and obliging. Furthermore, the photocopier in the room will do tabloid-sized pages. What more could one ask?
Most of my periodicals, however, are not the province of the periodicals room. They are much too old for that, and have been bound. Some of them have even been photoduplicated and bound as one-sided reproductions. In theory, one requests them in the same manner as ordinary books.
This is not entirely true, however. (Or so it seems to me.)
When I first became acquainted with the library, I only used the physical card catalog to order books. This was because I couldn’t get the online catalog to accept my library card data. (By sheer accident, I have since discovered that the online system will only accept my card data from the Czech-language page. It does not like the English-language page. Um—whatever it wants.)
As the card catalog for Czech periodicals was relatively easy for me to understand, I ordered lots. At that time, most of them seemed to arrive properly, although there were always those that had some mystifying problem and never showed up (the librarian could not always figure out the cryptic notes on the order slips). Sometimes the article I wanted wasn’t there, leading me to speculate whether perhaps there were multiple journals of the same name and I should have ordered the one printed in Brno instead of Prague or vice versa. Or, of course, the article might simply have been torn out at some point. But I was able to look at and photocopy or transcribe quite a few articles.
In the fall, when I began ordering books from the online catalog, I also attempted to order periodicals that way. This was not a happy process. Unlike many American online catalogs, which have a separate search for journals versus books, in this catalog one simply types the title and hopes for the best.
Now, I might note that both here and in the US, searching for periodicals is generally a pain. Editors love to name their magazines things like October, (the) Soil, Combat, Index, and Eva. One-word names from common words. Say, for instance, you want to find out where the art journal October is stored. The first time I tried this, I gave up because this search brought up hundreds (or was it thousands?) of titles that include the word “October.” I can’t remember if I ever looked for The Soil, but I must have as I seem to recall looking at some copies of it at the Bancroft in Berkeley. I’m not sure how I avoided getting lost in all sorts of agricultural publications. Here, then, one searches for the women’s magazine Eva and gets every book with Eva in its title. Don’t even try to imagine searching for Index. (What joker named this magazine, anyway?)
Once the title has been found in the sea of related titles (for example the relatively simple example of the interwar journal Host, not to be confused with the present-day Host), there is the question of date. If the library admits to having the journal, does it admit to having the desired date? Well, generally not.
I began to be seriously baffled when I realized that the (generally quite good) online catalog was telling me the library did not have periodicals that I had already seen there and wished to revisit. It began to seem that nothing I could possibly want was showing up in the online catalog.
I returned to the physical card catalog and was reassured that pretty much everything the online catalog was denying me existed in one and sometimes multiple copies. I ordered stuff. It arrived. I had to rush to get through enough of it, since one can only reserve five items.
When my stack got low, I ordered more. When I went to the library today, I was confident that there would be a fine stack of stuff and that I had plenty of fresh camera batteries and could get good results because sunlight was in plentiful supply.
Not one of my items was anywhere to be found. The librarian produced three of my call slips and said that one item was only available on microfilm (never mind that I had used it just a few months ago and it was not in tatters), one was not found but could be ordered another time, and I have forgotten what he said about the third. I had ordered more than three items, so one wonders where the rest of the call slips went. Nothing I had planned to work on was there. I proceeded to order more materials and settled down to work on things I already had in the computer, which is to say things I could deal with at any time, anywhere.
This sort of thing is why I often feel as though I should simply photograph each journal I use in its entirety while I have my hands on it, but of course I really don’t have time to engage in that degree of wholesale document photography.

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