Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Reveries of libraries, the third : COLOUR CHARTS

Philip Harvey

An unkind academic once said of a colleague that his library was arranged by the colour of the books. The implication of this remark was that his colleague never read any of the books on his shelves. There also seemed to be the added implication that he spent most of his time arranging the books to look like a paint chart, because he had nothing else to do.  

Experience frequently teaches us otherwise. The strongest and most used of the five senses is that of vision, which is why when we are asked for a book, or are looking about for one in a sizable library, the colour of the cover is an essential guide, if we know the book already. Then, there are publishers’ series and encyclopaedic sets renowned for their black or purple appearance. We think of the Penguin Classics or Britannica.

There was a time when a cheap laugh could be secured, during a reference question, when the librarian said that the enquirer was looking for you know that light blue book, I had it just the other day. This is no longer such a joke, after years of finding a book on the shelf primarily by the distinctive colour of its spine, especially when that book is shelved out of order.

“Have you got that book by Merton? It’s the green one,” no longer draws an inaudible groan from the librarian, because green may be all we have to go on. Or, the enquiry may be for that very famous green book by Merton, or the only green book by Merton. Sometimes I myself can walk without hesitation straight to the green book of Merton’s, never mind the call number. It remains a truth well-attested, that colour is frequently the one thing about a book that the user remembers.

Arrangement of books by colour has historical credibility. There are collectors who bind or cover their books in different shades to distinguish by subject or trait. Until recently every academic library bound its periodicals in distinctive binder’s colours to help separate runs on the shelf. And some of the most elegant private libraries in the world have their books covered in certain colours in order to match the décor or design plan of the bibliographical dreamer. To make their books ‘invisible’ in a living space, collectors are known to wrap their books completely in white. Many rare books collections follow this model to this day.  

Classification by colour is another matter. How would that work? The larger the library the greater the distinctions of colour we would have to make. It would not be enough to place all yellow books in Yellow. We would need to line them up in sequence by sunflower, lemon, amber, gold, blond. Numerical classification at library school is a cinch compared with this kind of in-depth analysis of the spectrum. And how would it be recorded in the catalogue? No MARC tag is available for Colour Classification. The science simply has not taken into account this most elementary of mental cues. Downloading the cover and putting it on the record too only tells half the story.  

It will never take on, but the appeal of books arranged by colour is perennial. In a library not requiring classification, it is a natural tendency. The sight can be marvellous. Only thing is, we recall too quickly the proverb about not judging a book by its cover; librarians are governed by content.

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