Searching in other languages

I’ve seen the way a couple of patrons use the third-language collections of the library (that’s a federal-government term; it means non-English non-French) and I think there’s a structural barrier that prevents people from using those collections. And I say all the following as a longtime defender of minority languages who holds a degree in linguistics and is a well versed in character encoding.

  • One day at Beaches I was in line behind a young mom who had just been issued a new library card. (She had her daughter right there.) I detected an accent. So I chatted her up later and, sure enough, she was Russian. I told her the library had thousands of Russian books, but you have to search the catalogue for them. (There are about 6,300 Russian-language circulating books in stock.) I don’t think I mentioned the other option – schlepping out to one of the few branches with significant Russian collections, like Barbara Frum or Щука. But it did occur to me “This poor lady is never going to see a Russian book at Beaches ever.”

  • The other day I was recombobulating at the TSA-like exit of the Reference Library. The man behind me, a middle-aged Korean, in fact had checked out three Korean books (of about 2,300 domiciled there). I guessed he probably has a hard time searching the catalogue in Korean and basically schleps out to TRL whenever he wants a new book to read.

Problems with third-language materials at TPL

  • You really have to know how to use the catalogue. You need to use advanced search in typical cases.

  • You can’t use your own script unless it’s Latin or Chinese. I did a few tests to verify this, actually. If your language is written in Latin (not “Roman”) script and you can basically type it out, even without diacritics, you can use the catalogue no problem. You can also search in Traditional Chinese. But, my testing suggests, that is it.

  • Hence you have to romanize your non-Latin script. If you want books in Russian or Korean, you have to know how to transliterate Russian or Korean into phonetic English. As this is either an inexact science or simply something people have different preferences for, it’s error-prone.

At some level you have to be functionally bilingual to search for items in non-Latin scripts. But this leaves out the people who basically cannot read anything but their first language. It leaves out the people with the fewest options and capabilities. Stated more extremely, the most vulnerable users of TPL’s third-language collections have the hardest time using them.

There is no solution to this problem. Tens of thousands of materials have already been catalogued via romanization. Of course it’s possible to go back and update the records to include original scripts, but who has the time or money for that? And doing so would introduce its own mistakes.

Every time I see the library promoting its multilanguage collections, I cringe

Because there are serious structural barriers preventing the most needy users from benefitting from those collections.

Also, a postulate: Every circulating Chinese-language item actually circulates if you look back over a reasonably long period (e.g., three years). And every Chinese item added in the previous year circulates in that year. These postulates are easily verifiable, I suppose, but are basically fun little talking points.

Unique sequence of events

  1. I submit blue suggestion form for obscure gay-sports documentary, Straight Acting (sic)

  2. Library actually buys it (and not a niggardly one or two copies)

  3. I have the only hold on the title, since barely anybody knows of its existence

  4. I get Yorkville’s copy. Later, I walk into Yorkville, we check it in by plunking it down on the pad, and (with permission) I merchandise it face-out it on the high-interest-DVD shelf

    ‘Straight Acting’ is one of six DVDs on a two-tiered display case

I promise you this has never happened before in the history of the Toronto Public Library.

All the best libraries print watermarks and benedictions on their date-due slips

Well, Perth/Dupont does. It was already my second-favourite branch.

Date-due slip with TPL watermark and footer reading Perth Hopes to See You Again Soon!

How do you do it? Symphony receipt-printing preferences. For footer text, you have to produce a picture of text (don’t use Arial and don’t capitalize every word, please) and import it.

Symphony Receipt Printer Printing Preferences

Now that I – especially I – have documented this little dollop of unsolicited delight, some mandarin downtown will try to ban it. You can safely ignore any such instruction.


While we’re waiting, here’s a bit of trivia they don’t tell you about.

I’m sure you’ve seen paperback books like this one.

Book with simple Toronto Public Library barcode

Note the barcode. It doesn’t show a branch name. That means the item is a floater, an uncatalogued paperback. Yes, it has an entry in the system, but it is not “catalogued” with author, title, and other information. An outside company buys most of these in bulk, and a lot of them are total crap and never move. This is one part of the library’s normal course of business that needs to be reconsidered.

But the really fun part about floaters is they have no home branch. In the ordinary course of events, they stay where they are returned. When there isn’t a lot of space, like on the Bookmobile, you might not see that floater again, but usually it just sits at a branch till someone takes it out and returns it to another branch.

(There are uncatalogued books and other items that do belong to certain branches – Queen/Saulter has a good selection of those, and most of the DVDs and CDs I donated to Jones are registered in the system as such.)


Another way to hack the system that’s perfectly legit: Interlibrary loans.

After amalgamation of the various Toronto municipalities circa 1998, the Toronto Public Library really began to live up to its name. The entire system was one giant repository of books you could request. But you actually have access to dozens of other libraries in Canada and, potentially, elsewhere.

Three books with yellow interloan bands running down the covers

Three current interloans: Design for Democracy, Saskatchewan: Uncommon Views, and British or American English? A Handbook of Word and Grammar Patterns

Can’t find a book at TPL? Or can you find it only at the Reference Library or on another reference shelf? And is it not too new? Then you can request it via interlibrary loan. It’s that simple.

I think I’ve been using interloans since August 2006 and have received over 60 books this way – everything from a 1941 edition of a typography book to a a $200 box set on camouflage. I’ve flipped through rare and costly photography titles. I’ve received humour, architecture, and linguistics books. I have a project underway to read every remotely plausible book on graphic design in the library; every book I cannot find I request via interloan. [They’re all marked as (interloan) on my reading list.]

I receive about one out of every seven requests I make in all categories (about 66 out of 354). Why so few? I insist on free loans. If you aren’t that picky, you can pay the remote library’s costs, which could be $20 or much more. I choose not to, which limits the available supply. In principle you can apply to borrow even compact discs and movies via interloan, but few libraries send those out, and none, in my experience, sends them out for free. (I couldn’t get my hands on the Rhino Records Disco Box, for example.)

I’ve gotten books from many university libraries (typically Queen’s), from libraries in podunk towns in Ontario (who evidently have wider tastes than one would expect), from the federal government, and from nearby libraries in the 905.

In theory every branch can place an interloan (even Urban Affairs with its noncirculating on-site collection), and I’ve seen interloans on the shelf even at small branches like St. Lawrence. I particularly like the idea that a book comes in from out of town and gets sent to whatever little branch I specify. How’s that for service?

The process

The process is straight out of the 1970s. Ostensibly you have to ask a librarian to fill out a rather ugly paper form, which they then send via internal mail or fax to the interloans department in the bowels of the Reference Library. This leaves a great deal to be desired, and librarians, in my experience, occasionally act like it’s a tremendous imposition on their time. They complain that they have to check the book in the TPL catalogue and on Amazon before they can do anything.

Some librarians go one step further and give you attitude if you try to use this service “too often.” They never actually use that phrase, and a frequency of too often is never defined, but these librarians seem to believe that interloans should pretty much never be used, and if they are used, you get one go and that’s it.

I show up with 30 requests at a time and this freaks people out. Or it used to. After many hiccups (and I do mean many) at two different branches, we’ve got the system down to a science. I think you should not be the least bit shy about using interloans.

Nonetheless, the whole process needs to be computerized. There’s one school of thought in the library that holds that anyone should be able to place an interloan as easily as they place a TPL hold. I don’t agree with that. There has to be a way to force people to verify that TPL doesn’t have the book, plus you have to build in disincentives for preteens and other pranksters to spam the system. My suggestion: Make it possible to place an interloan via computer, but you have to do it on a computer at a library branch.

It can take a couple of weeks or many months to get your book – or you may never get it. There’s a quota system in place whose details are a well-guarded secret; if I understand it correctly, they try to put through one request per person per day. So it doesn’t help to be in a rush, because these are galactic timescales we’re dealing with here.

Farm team

My big question is: Why doesn’t TPL treat interloan requests as a kind of farm team that gives clues as to the items people want that the library doesn’t already have? As a kind of consumer intel for new acquisitions, you might say?


(2009.04.08)    I got another lecture that included yet another set of contradictions of previous rules of procedure. I’m tired of being made to feel unwelcome for using the interloan service, and, in a microcosm of the foregoing, I am also tired of being made to feel unwelcome at Jones for using interloans.