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Developing content collections: the library catalog as an early literacy guide.

The Slater Public Library, of which I am director, serves a central Iowa community of approximately 2,000 people. This town, like many Iowa towns, is but a small boat, thrashed in winter by icy winds. But in summer, it is surrounded on all sides by a sea of green fields. Though the country landscape is idyllic to many, the residents of Slater and the surrounding area share many concerns with the metropolitan. These concerns include the desire of parents, teachers, and librarians to locate reading materials that are appropriate to the varying reading levels of beginning readers.

It seems, at times, that a frantic race persists to ensure that a child, in the crucial learning stages of early elementary education, acquires the appropriate reading level before he or she "gets behind." Though there are obvious issues with branding a book "Grade Level One" or "Reading Level 2.2," it is nevertheless helpful for a library to provide parents, teachers, and children with a generalized reading-level scheme, so as to aid in the literacy of young children; in fact, it would be strange to walk into a library that didn't differentiate between picture ("easy") books, juvenile books, and adult books. The Slater Public Library has attempted to create a more searchable online catalog, utilizing machine-readable cataloging (MARC) subject fields, to assist patrons in finding accessible materials for early elementary children.


The Impetuses to Change Our Catalog

"My son is in second grade, but he reads more at the first-grade level."

"My daughter devours books. She's only in first grade, but she reads as well as my 9 year old."

"It's not that he doesn't like to read--it's that he's bored with the books at school. He really likes the Star Wars books we have at home."

"Do you have really easy books for my 6 year old ... maybe something that rhymes?"

These comments and requests are all too familiar. And depending on the consistency of a library's catalog, the librarian's familiarity with the collection, and the patience of the inquiring patron, the task of finding accessible materials for young readers sometimes feels more frustrating than it probably needs to be.

"My son is in second grade, but he reads more at the first-grade level. He's bored with the books at school, but he just loves dinosaurs."

Commence Boolean acrobatics.

Subject: Dinosaurs AND Subject: Juvenile

There are 54 results. "OK, ma'am," the librarian says, preparing to delve into the reference interview. "It looks like we have multiple titles. Is there any particular aspect of dinosaurs your son is interested in?"

"Just anything at his level," the patron responds.

"OK. Let me try another search. One second."

Subject: Dinosaurs AND Series: Step into reading

There is one result. "Alright!" the librarian declares, proud to recall a particular series. "Let's take a look at Dinosaur Days by Joyce Milton."

"We just returned that one," the patron replies.

Let's try this again; this time from the top.

Indeed, the task of cataloging children's materials has a long history. In 1976, Sanford Berman referred to the "hoopla" over "modernized" Library of Congress (LC) subject headings, as well as the prevalence of "age-segregated cataloging." Currently, the ALA website discourages libraries from shelving books by grade level; I wholeheartedly agree, as ambitious young readers should be encouraged to challenge themselves.

Therefore, the organizational system described in this article does not physically shelve materials by grade level; rather, it incorporates beginning books at various "reading levels" and places these materials on the same shelf, allowing library users both young and old to browse at their leisure. Yes, the organizational system I described in this article attributes "grade level" tags to the MARC records of these materials. But like all subject headings, these electronic tags are to focus, and not inhibit, the patron's search.

Of course, fantastic library catalogs do exist, especially at larger institutions. Many catalogs are getting closer to the Amazon model, which has become a Holy Grail of sorts (check out the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library catalog at In the catalogs of such libraries, the MARC records are richly inscribed, and the detailed notations provide many accurate and relevant keywords to aid in the selection of accessible materials. Unfortunately, not all catalogs are so thorough. And I presume librarians at other small, medium-sized, and even large libraries will concur, especially where staff, time, and money are limited or where the only cataloger also happens to be the director/children's librarian/acquisitions manager.

Library catalogs, as we all know too well, are very imperfect devices. Janet L. Balas ponders whether the ILS is failing; Andrew K. Pace states that MARC records may be "holding back library automation." And the history of a local library catalog might be this: "At one time, Suzy created excellent MARC records. But then we outsourced, and the quality wasn't great. So we returned to in-house cataloging, and Dan did a great job. But he eventually left, and we couldn't find a solid cataloger for several months."

Thus, library catalogs are often inconsistent products, derived as they are from different individuals at different times with different ideas. It can be frustrating when the MARC records for some volumes in Mary Pope Osborne's Magic Tree House series make note of specific information, including reading level, while other volumes in the same series have less-detailed MARC records. And if MARC records are inconsistent within a popular series such as the Magic Tree House, other relevant books may be overlooked altogether--books that may have been a perfect fit for a young reader. In short, the richer the MARC record, the better the search.

In addition, there sometimes persists an inconsistency with respect to the physical placement of books for beginning readers. Those thin, beginning reader books are often stashed here and there; some are hardly visible, squeezed between thick, junior fiction novels, while others wait in silence, hidden beneath the shadow of oversized, nonfiction volumes. And to make it all the more confusing, there is little uniformity in how various publishers label their beginning readers. "Step 2" from Publisher A may mean something different than "Step 2" from Publisher B. So what's a librarian to do?

Improved MARC Records Improve Search

The dramatic transformation in the cognitive abilities of early elementary children constitutes a reason to include at least some indication of reading comprehension level within MARC records. For example, Nancy Krulik's Katie Kazoo, Switcheroo series, with its full-page text, complex sentences, dialogue sequences, and paragraphs, may overwhelm, and even discourage, a reader in first grade. And a volume from Cynthia Rylant's Poppleton series might quickly bore a flowering reader in the third grade. But grade level can be deceiving, as many third graders read at a fifth-grade level, while other third graders read at a second-grade level.

Indeed, the mark of "grade level" is something of a sweeping generalization. Certainly, many children read above or below their respective grade levels. Children develop at individual rates, and we humans are much too complex and interesting to be stamped with a reading level on our foreheads.

To borrow the words of scientist Roger Fouts, who devoted his life to working with chimpanzees, "A class of thirty schoolchildren contains as many different brains as it does faces." Thus, it is simply for consistency, based upon generalizations, that beginning reader books can be classified at certain levels. In a sense, grade level is a useful guide but not an absolute authority. And because of this ambiguity, beginning reader materials of various levels share the same shelf space at the Slater Public Library, thus encouraging patrons to browse among different levels.

Of course, the first step had been to collect all these materials together and give them a proper place of their own. After all, picture books ("easy books"), young adult books, and graphic novels have their own spaces, so why can't these important beginning books have a space as well?

A logical question then follows: What exactly constitutes a "beginning reader" book? Actually, the publishers do some of the work here. DK Readers, Step Into Reading, and I Can Read! represent only a small sampling of the many series that publishers mark specifically for beginning readers, especially those students in kindergarten to third grade. Other works, such as the Magic Tree House series and the Poppleton series, though not specifically stamped as "beginning readers," nonetheless are readily identifiable as materials for new readers.

Beginning reader books come in all shapes and sizes. Some of these materials are factual. Joanna Cole's Hungry, Hungry Sharks! for example, introduces the science behind these amazing fish. But another beginning reader book might feature talking sharks. Some beginning reader books are concerned with the proper care of horses, while others detail the adventures of sparkling pony unicorns. Ryder Windham's Galactic Crisis! mixes the Star Wars saga with Dewey 791 nonfiction. Nevertheless, the important thing here is not whether the materials are fiction or nonfiction; the point is that these particular books are produced for the explicit purpose of teasing the imagination of early elementary readers. Regarding this age range (approximately kindergarten to third grade), the difference between fiction and nonfiction is rather immaterial; the overarching desire is to ensure that children find materials that are both accessible to their reading ability and, just as importantly, exciting to read. We want new readers to enjoy reading.


It is certainly beneficial to have these books sitting next to one another, occupying a shelf space all their own. But browsing can be enhanced even further with electronic shelves; patrons can locate materials by electronically searching within the beginning reader section, assisted by an online catalog that aims to match comprehension level and personal taste.

Nuts and bolts of changing the MARC record. Materials can be shelved electronically with MARC records. In this case, using Follett Circulation Plus/Catalog Plus, v. 6.40, it is more efficient to utilize the subject field 650 of the MARC record, as opposed to other fields that can only be accessed with a general keyword search. In addition, field 650 doubles a word's access points, as metadata in the subject field can be accessed with either a general keyword search or with a more clinical subject search.

But what exactly has been added to field 650 of our beginning reader volumes? Every volume in this beginning reader section is electronically tagged in a consistent manner. Two layers of metadata are added for each subject field, creating two layers of specificity; the initial subfield specifies the entire section ("Beginning Readers"), while the additional subfield specifies the grade level ("Grade 1," "Grade 2," etc.). Thus, the text "Beginning Readers" has been entered for each relevant volume in the "a" subfield; this brackets all the beginning readers into one electronic "shelf." The "x" subfield, however, distinguishes the grade level; this adds a second dimension of specificity, electronically "shelving" the materials by reading level (see Figure 1). With all the items appropriately cataloged, a simple subject search for "beginning readers" yields all the materials in this section, and it also lists them by grade level (see Figure 2).



To catalog a material at a specific grade level is an art, not a science. It involves several factors, such as referring to publisher-provided information, other library catalogs, and the experience of the cataloging librarian. In general, materials comprising single words, short phrases, and simple sentences tend to be more appropriate for kindergarten students and first graders, while materials with paragraphs and dialogue sequences tend to be more appropriate for second and third graders.

Including two levels of metadata (subfields "a" and "x") in field 650 enhances reference services. Patrons and library staff members may search for titles in multiple layers of specificity. A search that includes the subject keywords "beginning readers" casts a wide net, examining materials at multiple reading levels. Alternatively, users have the option of performing a more clinical search by limiting the subject search to a specific grade level. For instance, if there are no Halloween-themed books tagged under "Grade 1," the searcher can try "beginning readers" to broaden the search. Or if a patron is overwhelmed with the number of dog-themed titles within the subject "beginning readers," he or she may choose to narrow the search to "Grade 2." In a sense, the system allows the user to be as specific as he or she desires.

Improvements follow changes. Now that the materials are physically and electronically shelved, let's try our search again.

"My son is in second grade, but he reads more at the first-grade level. He's bored with the books at school, but he just loves dinosaurs."

It's time to utilize the "Power" search on the Follett OPAC.

Subject: Dinosaurs AND Subject: Beginning Readers

There are 12 results.

Subject: Dinosaurs AND Subject: Grade 1

There are three results.

"Please follow me, ma'am. We have a few books for you to examine. If you don't think these are helpful, let me know, and I will gladly find additional materials."

Circulation dramatically improved for our beginning readers after the reorganization of our library in October 2007. In that initial month, materials cataloged as beginning readers represented 4% of the total circulation. However, the section's circulation improved to nearly 10% of the total circulation in only a few months. Despite a slump in late summer 2008 (which I attribute to baseball, vacations, and other summer activities), the circulation statistics reveal an overall upward trend line (see Figure 3).


In Summary

A child's early reading skills develop at varying rates, often rendering it a challenge to locate accessible materials. However, the library catalog can act as a helpful guide to caregivers, with only simple modifications to MARC records. Finally, it is important to remember that this is an imperfect system, meant to act as a guide for library patrons. All children develop in their own time; however, we can at least do our best to help children find something fun to read all by themselves.

"May I help you? Yes, we do have a Batman book you can read by yourself."

Resources Discussed

American Library Association. "Questions and Answers on Labels and Rating Systems." interpretations/qandalabelsratingsystems.cfm.

Balas, Janet L. "Does One-Stop Searching Really Serve All?" Computers in Libraries, Vol. 26, No. 9 (October 2006): pp. 42-44.

Berman, Sanford. "Follies & Deficiencies: LC's Cataloging of Children's Materials." School Library Journal, Vol. 22, No. 8 (April 1976): p. 50.

Fouts, Roger. Next of Kin: What Chimpanzees Have Taught Me About Who We Are. New York: William Morrow and Co., Inc., 1997.

Pace, Andrew K. "Dismantling Integrated Library Systems." Library Journal, Vol. 129, No. 2 (Feb. 1, 2004): pp. 34-36.

Toledo-Lucas County Public Library Catalog.

Jeffrey Meyer received an M.L.S. from the University of Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh is also his hometown) in 2006. He is currently serving as the director of the Slater Public Library in Iowa and would be happy to receive correspondence at
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Author:Meyer, Jeffrey
Publication:Computers in Libraries
Article Type:Viewpoint essay
Geographic Code:1U4IA
Date:Apr 1, 2009
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