An Unerring Eye for the Inessential

Posted On Jul 25 2007 by

Every once in a while, I read something that just grabs me by the throat. If I’m lucky, it stimulates my thinking, makes me laugh, and prompts me to actually do something.

I recently had such an experience when my boss forwarded a reprint of an article by Maurice Line, whom I am now ashamed to admit I had never heard of. He worked for the British Library and was a consultant before he retired in 2005. “Librarianship as it is practiced: a failure of intellect, imagination and initiative” was reprinted in Interlending & Document Supply (33/2, 2005, pp. 109-113).

He paints a somewhat sorry state for libraries in terms that we can probably all relate to.

“Trying to hold on to unused publications that libraries no longer have room to house, having theological arguments about the contents of catalogue records, and indulging in the numerous other irrelevant, inappropriate or trivial activities of which librarians are so fond, with their unerring eye for the inessential.”

OK. So nothing real surprising there, but I was saving the punchline. This reprinted article is from an address that Line gave in 1983. Since I got it, I’ve read the article at least three times. I am moderately fixated.

I’ve been to two speaking sessions since I read it, and it has become the lens with which I have viewed all discussion—in both positive and negative ways. Negative, because it raises my blood pressure when someone says we are at some sort of turning point. Line seems like a prescient scholar, but very few can telegraph a problem 25 years ahead of time. It makes me want to scream: “The sky isn’t falling, people, it has already fallen.”

custer-cutter “It is criminal to stand by rigid cataloguing codes (even if they were soundly based) if this means the existence and even growth of a backlog of books awaiting processing. If such a stand is made for long enough, it may well prove to be ‘Cutter’s last stand’.”—Maurice Line

On the other hand, Line’s poignant criticism gives me hope because I think we are the midst of a library era of imagination and initiative led by a cadre of intelligent librarians and technologists. To end with Line’s own words, “We have nothing to lose but our mental laziness, our spiritual dullness, our introspection and our inhibitions.”


[This post originally appeared as part of American Libraries’ Hectic Pace Blog and is archived here.]

Last Updated on: January 19th, 2024 at 12:22 am, by Andrew K. Pace

Written by Andrew K. Pace

4 responses to “An Unerring Eye for the Inessential

  1. Interesting — 1983 is also the year Karen Markey’s OCLC report on the process of subject searching in the library catalog was published ( There’s a great little diagram in this report which I have on my office wall; it’s a sort of graphical equation with several innovative features that add up to an “OPAC with more power than the library catalog.” Sadly, it’s now 25 years on and we still aren’t very close to achieving this goal.

    Actually, though, Ranganathan was saying this back in 1951 (which is why I get upset when people use Ranganathan to defend the inessential):

    A little reflection will show how irrational it is to argue that because we had been doing something in a particular way in the past and any changeover means trouble, cost etc., we should rule out all attempts to change. This argument will tie all future to a year of the past. That is not the way in which the world grows. The industries themselves do not grow that way. A costly machinery of 1949 is scrapped in 1950 to give place to a totally new design because it is more efficient. The industries do not hesitate to finance such a change-over. On the other hand they know that they will suffer if they do not change-over. The industries should take a similar view of the machinery of library classification also and provide the finance necessary to rebuild it. The library profession too should become more aware of the crumbling of the present foundations of classification, which still rest on arbitrary numbering at bottom, and put up a case for a re-design of the foundations in the light of the factors which led to its break-down and the methods of research and growth which prevail now and are likely to prevail in the future as far as they can be foreseen leading to new formations in the field of knowledge.

    That’s from Philosophy of Library Classification (

  2. “”AACR2 is one of the most remarkable examples of trying to solve a problem by committee, with predictable results … No data on users’ needs were collected: instead cataloguers discussed how to change the rules, rather as if hens were to gather together to discuss the design of eggs.””

    initiative, (1983), reprinted in 33 Interlending & Document Supply109,109-112 (2005) available at

    More good Lines:

    We do not want our catalogues to stand as the largest monuments in an extensive cemetery of dead books.
    On the construction and care of white elephants: some fundamental questions concerning the catalogue (with M. W. Grose) (1986)

    Some schemes … have appeared, but the impact on library classification has been very small. Bliss is used by few libraries other than those in Institutes of Education (which happened to be founded about the time Bliss was published), and Colon is surely hardly used at all. It is possible that, in addition to the very important research carried out by the Classification Research Group and others, a rather different set of questions require fuller examination. In seeking theoretical perfection, it is easy to forget one essential ingredient for a perfect theory – that it must work in practice. At present, some classification research has about as much relevant to modern library function as Christian theology — in the academic sense — has to practical Christianity.
    How golden is your retriever: thoughts on library classification (1969)

    It is often not uncommon to see backlogs of anything from 6 months to 2 years in libraries, particularly academic libraries. Never mind whether the readers are waiting for the books, or if the funds will ever be available for cataloging them properly; standards must not be reduced.

    One characteristic of the perfectionist is that in order to live with his own perfectionism, and knowing that he cannot attain it himself, he must find others who are also imperfect, preferably more imperfect than himself. Few things therefore so rejoice the librarian as when in stocktaking he comes across someone else’s mistake, be it large or small.

    This persists in the ‘more voluminous than thou’ complex — the use, as a standard measure of comparison between libraries, of the number of volumes a library holds, as if bulk is somehow a measure of quality. With libraries, as with women, sheer bulk should be totally irrelevant as a measure of quality.
    The search for the ideal (as Agnew Broome) (1974)

    Ignoring the words of committees is a lot more difficult than ignoring the needs of users.

    As Ranganathan said, “Save the time of the user” (a precept, incidentally, that I wish he had followed when writing his books).

    Can we have fewer papers on “How I run my library good” and more on “what my users feel about my service”?
    Ignoring the user: how, when, and why (1980)

    All collected in Maurice B. Line, Lines of Thought : the Selected papers of Maurice B. Line (L. J. Anthony ed., 1988)

  3. In the nineties the Essen University Library organised annual symposia (published in a paperback series Essen Library Symposia) in which Maurice published several papers. As these are the years electronic libraries started to emerge they were of particular interest.


  4. 1983? Here’s a quote I originally found on Google book search:

    “Unfortunately, standard rules had become too much of a good thing. An undue proliferation of rules was the topic of “Crisis in Cataloging” as identified by the Librarian’s Committee of 1940 at the Library of Congress and immortalized by Andrew Osborn, one of the members of the Librarian’s Committee, in 1941.

    “The Library of Congress together with ALA took the lead to examine the rules, and Seymour Lubetzky was hired to discover ‘Is this rule neccessary?’ usually answering, ‘no’. Catalogers had become too focused on creating the perfect record according to LC standards, which they also complained not even LC had achieved.”

    From “Cooperative Cataloging: past, present and future”, by Barry B. Baker. “Has also been published as Cataloging & classification quarterly, volume 17, number 3/4 1993″–T.p. verso.

    I too am afraid that the sky fell a while ago, and I’m not sure if we can put it back up.