I catalogue foreign language books at the British Library, it's Monday morning and I have a pile of German books on my desk waiting to be catalogued. The German books present us with the most problems because of the breadth of subject matter. This is a risky statement because our Hispanic collections are a complete mystery to me but I've never heard any of the Spanish or Portuguese cataloguers complaining of difficult technical stuff. And let's face it, German is not as straightforward as the Romance languages anyway. As Mark Twain said, "The Germans take part of a verb and put it down here, like a stake, and they take the other part of it and put it away over yonder like another stake, and between these two limits they just shovel in German".
I need to get through five or six of these books by lunchtime to maintain the required cataloguing rate. I notice one of them is conference proceedings. Anxiety levels rise noticeably. That will mean a decision about conference main entry which can be difficult. Hard thinking or coin? The former obviously, but one is sometimes tempted.
Even the beautifully illustrated Die Bayernfenster des Kölner Domes 1844-1848 (The Bayern windows of Cologne Cathedral 1844-1848), which I take up first, is potentially a problem because of the troublesome looking subtitle Kirchenausstattung zwischen Kunst, Theologie und Politik (the art, theology and politics of church décor). It's going to need looking at quite closely. We are sometimes helped by existing records created by other libraries and I'm using one for this book where a German cataloguer has detailed 140 illustrations, 42 of which are colour. Obviously someone with too much time on their hands.
I glance at another book in the pile. Waldburg-Capustigall: ein ostpreußisches Schloß im Schnittpunkt von Gutsherrschaft und europäischer Geschichte (Waldburg-Capustigall: an East Prussian castle: the squire, his family and European history). One of my duties is to propose new subject headings to the Library of Congress in the United States and this is the kind of work which may require them. Once approved by the Library of Congress the new subjects will appear on the British Library's catalogue. So, more extra work with this one.
Meanwhile, the French, Spanish and Italian cataloguers are having the time of their life. Knock a few books off sharpish – no problem! – and then down to the canteen for coffee. I do French myself so I know this for a fact.
We also have to catalogue a series called Fortschritt-Berichte VDI, which unlike most of the foreign language books require a Dewey Decimal Classification number. Even a German would find these a challenge. Their subjects range from fuel injection systems in cars to mathematical models for biological treatment in sewage purification. When you're struggling to keep up your cataloguing rate, you don't want to meet one of these.
My desk is next to our "Urgents" trolley. German books always outnumber other languages here. The hated Fortschritt-Berichte VDI are placed here, too. Because of this geography, reader requested books are sometimes plonked straight on my desk rather than being more democratically placed on the trolley itself. They have to be catalogued asap, and definitely no time for cherry picking. The readers are waiting for their German books.
German is a wonderful language and a good knowledge of it opens the door to a wealth of great literature. I have also learned so much about German history, culture and arts while cataloguing German books. But I certainly found it more of a challenge to learn than French for example, and cataloguing it is generally more demanding than French, too. Which brings me to the point about Spanish. I have heard it said that Spanish is the easiest foreign language for a British person to learn. I don't have any evidence to back this up except for the less stressed faces of my colleagues. So maybe if I'd opted for that in my education rather than German my life would be a little easier now. In spite of all this though, German is not my major problem.That honour goes to Finnish with its fifteen cases and painfully difficult vocabulary. I wonder what Mark Twain would have made of that.