When I want to look up book info, my gold standard is the Library of Congress Online Catalog. I trust that the information will be accurate and easy to find, and I especially appreciate the one- or two-line book summaries found on copyright pages and online subjects/contents listings everywhere. These summaries usually give me everything I need in order to quickly confirm details about a book, providing the main character’s name and age, the main premise of the book, its time period and setting, along with anything particularly distinctive about the form or genre (a novel in verse, a multiple-person narrative) that might not otherwise be predictable. In short, the LOC is a fact-checker’s dream.
I have enjoyed and wondered about these summaries since the early 1990s, when I was a school librarian in NYC. I marveled at their succinctness, their economy, their ability to neatly encapsulate a book. Authors are often asked to summarize their own books in a sentence, and find it one of the hardest things to pull off well. So who were these magic people able to leap complex books in one or two well-crafted, lean bounds? (**See end of article for a contest where you try your own hand at writing a summary; winner receives glory and a very cool prize.**)
Finally, I just had to find out. Some sleuthing (okay, really an email to a pal at Candlewick, the ever-helpful Elise Supovitz) led me to Senior Cataloging Specialist Ruth Polan, who was surprised and possibly gratified that someone had noticed her work and wanted to know more. She graciously agreed to an interview, which we conducted both via email and on the phone. Ruth was so much fun to talk with, lively and funny and full of great information. She answered all of my most pressing questions, and also surprised me; for example, although it makes sense given the nature of writing, I hadn’t realized how much the individual personality of each cataloger manages to seep into the summaries they write, and how much thought they continue to give them long after the book is out.
So, for anyone who has also wondered about the largely invisible but vital agency behind this tool we book people use nearly every day, I now present to you the wonderful Ruth Polan!
How long have you worked for the Library of Congress?
I’ve worked here for a staggering 33 years! It doesn’t seem that long, as my work here has always been interesting, challenging, and fulfilling. I worked first as a descriptive cataloger, from 1977 to 1985. I was in the LC Intern Program in 1986, and then became the coordinator for microform cataloging, a short-lived position that I held from 1986 to 1989. I transferred to the Children’s Literature Section as part of a Library reorganization in 1992 and have been here ever since.
What led you to working there?
In library school at UCLA I intended to specialize in children’s literature, but I became fascinated with what I considered the intellectual challenges of cataloging (I had an amazing cataloging instructor, Betty Baughman, who really knew cataloging theory and history as well as the practical aspects). I ended up specializing in cataloging of children’s literature. I got a job as a children’s librarian in a small public library when I graduated. The following year, a couple of my fellow students from UCLA were going to LC to be in the Intern Program, and a few more of us decided to go along and try to get jobs in Washington, D.C. We were young, unencumbered, and it seemed like an adventure, which it was. Three of us drove a 30-foot U-Haul truck, towing a VW Beetle, from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. in the middle of the summer. Whew!
What exactly does a Cataloging Specialist do? And are you in charge of a fleet of catalogers?
No, I am not in charge of anything! Cataloging Specialist is just bureaucratese for someone who has a lot of experience and can handle the more difficult cataloging chores. We do training, make policy decisions, handle queries from within and outside of the Library, and the like.
How DO you craft those amazing one-line summaries of books? Does any of the info come from the marketing materials and summaries publishers provide, or is each book read by the catalogers before the summary line is written?
Ah….. our summaries. We are very proud of them, and we work very hard to make them as well-written and informative as possible. We have some guidelines that we follow, which I will try to summarize:
The summary should be a brief, non-critical one-sentence annotation that describes the content of the work being cataloged without making any judgmental statements about its quality. The general rule of thumb about length is 20 to 25 words, but we retain the right of flexibility, taking as many words as are needed to describe the work adequately and accurately. Sometimes a second sentence is added to reflect special features of the work (“Includes related activities” or “Features movable flaps”).
In cataloging fiction, the cataloger tries to mention the name and age of the main character, where appropriate, as well as the setting, time period, and key elements of plot or theme. Effort is made not to give away too much of the story, particularly the ending.
We will make use of info from the publishers if it is helpful. In the past we made an effort to read each galley, but we are so swamped with work and have so few catalogers now that we just cannot do that anymore. We make use of summaries from the web (various specialized websites), information supplied by the publisher, etc. We try to read at least the first and last few chapters to get the flavor of the book.
How many summaries are written daily, and by how many people?
I really don’t know how many are written daily. I can do between 3 and 10, depending on the length and kinds of books at the top of the stack. We handle a large range of material, from simple picture books to young adult novels, graphic novels, and everything in between. We have a staff of 5 1/2 catalogers. One is still in training, and one is half-time with us and half-time with another section. When I joined the section, we had 12 catalogers. We have lost people to retirement, sickness, transfers, and one person actually resigned! We are anticipating more people retiring in the near future – our longest-serving staff member is leaving at the end of the year, which will be a huge loss. We are trying to do less with more, and it’s very difficult. We used to provide summaries and juvenile subject headings for both fiction and nonfiction, but several years ago we had to stop doing nonfiction altogether. We are now looking at other categories for which to provide more limited cataloging treatment.
[Librarians take note! Ruth also mentioned that the Library of Congress has started a program with other libraries and with publishers to be a partner in cataloging children’s literature. Interested library systems can inquire about partnering with LC in cataloging through the ECIP Cataloging Partnership Program by getting in touch with Diane Barber at the email address or phone number here: dbarber @ loc.gov 202- 707 – 5176 or Caroline Santucci, 202-707 – 3317 and csus @ loc.gov. The strange spacing is to thwart bots.]
Is there a style bible you use? What kinds of words do you avoid?
We use the Chicago Style Manual, but we have a variety of other reference tools that we go to, from Strunk and White (especially the nifty new edition illustrated by Maira Kalman!) to our own internal guidelines. In 1971 one of the catalogers who dubbed herself the “annotator in residence” wrote a memo to the director of the Processing Dept. concerning our guidelines. She wrote the following:
Verbal policies…. “adhered to assiduously by the children’s catalogers, are as follows:
– To refrain from the use of complimentary or uncomplimentary adjectives in the annotation that refer to the story, the content of the book, or the author’s viewpoint. This eliminates such verbiage as “cute,” “exciting,” or “delightful.”
– To refrain from the use of phrases that might be construed to be editorial. This includes such statements as, “A biography of America’s greatest woman poet…” and other subjective statements.
– To summarize as concisely as possible the plot, the type of story, or the content of the book (if non-fiction). If the format or the author’s viewpoint is an unusual one we might make note of that such as an Englishman writing on the Revolutionary War.
– To avoid “showy” writing, multisyllabic words, wordiness, and phrases or terms not in common usage.”
With the above guidelines in mind, the ….catalogers … strive to create an annotation that is unobtrusive in style or language and which in concise and clear sentences states the idea, plot, or content of the book.”
Are the summaries always written before the book’s publication date?
That’s a hard one. Our goal is certainly to always provide cataloging data before the book is published, sometimes the publisher does not send the information to us enough in advance of the publication date. Sometimes we get the application information in the same month as the publication date, and we cannot supply the data in cases like that. We have a large backlog right now of about 500 titles, so we’re running about 2 months behind. Sometimes, on the other hand, we get the information to the publisher in ample time and for whatever reason, they decline to publish it in the book. And sometimes they don’t send in for CIP cataloging (Cataloging in Publication) but print in the book that CIP data is available, when in fact it’s not.
Do publishers get to see the summaries and/or have input?
Yes, after our cataloging is completed, it is sent to the publisher. If they have questions or concerns they can contact us and suggest corrections, which we will try to accommodate. Sometimes they ask us to make changes and we have to say no because they would violate our policies, but we try to be cooperative.
[A colleague of Ruth’s, Diane Barber—Acting Assistant Chief, U.S. General and U.S. and Publisher Liaison Divisions, Acquisitions and Bibliographic Access Directorate, Library of Congress—added that “it’s important that publishers request CIP data for children’s titles when the story line is firm, so that accurate summaries can be provided for libraries.” Sometimes, the LC will receive information that changes in between the submission date and the publication date, and the publisher doesn’t always remember to alert the LC to those substantive changes.]
Is there a division between children’s books and adult books – between genres – between fiction and nonfiction?
Yes, we in the Children’s Literature section only catalog children’s books, and now, as I’ve said, only fiction at that. Well, actually, we also do folklore and legends, and fairy tales as well. The children’s nonfiction, unfortunately, is usually treated the same way as adult nonfiction, which is to say it is cataloged by “adult” LC catalogers. As for genres, we do graphic novels, novels in verse, picture books, science fiction, fantasy, folk and fairy tales — in other words, all genres that fall into the loose definition of children’s and young adult fiction. As a matter of fact, the former AC (Annotated Cataloging) Program just changed its name to the CYAC (Children’s and Young Adults’ Cataloging) Program, to better identify our scope.
I can tell you that we try to write “in one voice” — that is, we try not to inject our own personality into the summaries, but sometimes it’s difficult. Sometimes I try to have a little fun with them. [There are several examples of this below.]
When I write summaries for books that I really think are good, I often try to convey some of the “atmosphere” of the book in my summary. Here’s one where I tried to do that (the title is Billy Bones, by Christopher Lincoln):
“The secrets of High Manners Manor, carefully guarded in a closet by Billy and his skeleton parents, begin to unravel when the orphan Millicent arrives and the two children start uncovering ghosts, apparitions, and scurrilous lies that have been festering in the house for far too long.”
You can see that this summary violates several of our guidelines (it’s kind of long and there are certainly multisyllabic words), but I still like it.
Here’s another one I wrote for a book that I adored (The Pillow Book of Lotus Loewenstein, by Libby Schmais):
“Quirky sixteen-year-old Lotus Lowenstein’s diary reveals that although she lives in Brooklyn and is failing high school French, she loves all things Gallic and dreams of living as an existentialist in Paris.”
That one doesn’t quite succeed in conveying the humor of the writing, but I hope it would make someone curious enough to read the book.
What else might inquiring minds like to know about cataloging and the Library of Congress? Anything that might surprise us?
I have to emphasize (this goes for all my answers, both written and oral) that I am speaking for myself alone, not for the Library of Congress in any official capacity.
The worst thing about the job is that we actually have to write summaries for picture books WITHOUT SEEING THE ILLUSTRATIONS! Talk about hard to do! Sometimes we will read the text and not realize that the main characters are animals and not humans. After all, they have kids’ names, go to school, talk to their parents, play sports. Unless there’s some clue in the text, like maybe: “The ball fell just beyond Jimmy’s outstretched paw” we wouldn’t know unless the publisher tells us. And then we feel kind of stupid when the book is published and the story is about a family of cats.
[So heads up, publishers! Please remind your staff members to send in brief summaries along with manuscript text submissions!]
It’s very exciting to find out that you cataloged/wrote a summary for a book that goes on to win an award or is an honor book. As I said above, I did Walk Two Moons. I also did Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963. It was his first book, as you know, and when I finished it I put it down and went to the woman who was the head of the section at that time and I said, “I have just discovered a fantastic new talent.” I’m still convinced that if it hadn’t been his first book he would have won the Newbery with it. I couldn’t stop talking about it to my colleagues, and I made everyone read it when it was published. At that time we had a children’s literature book discussion group that met at lunchtime once a month, and I insisted that we had to read this great book. Anyway, my point is that it’s kind of a thrill when you pick out the good ones in advance of their even being published.
Ruth subsequently shared other summaries she particularly likes, and I can’t resist sharing them with you, as well. Her commentary is as entertaining as the summaries themselves:
Here’s one where I really tried hard to capture the vividly icky atmosphere conveyed by the author. I don’t feel that I was entirely successful, but I tried. The book is Inside the Slidy Diner by Lauren Snyder.
“A little girl describes the creepy decor, people, and events at the greasy diner she lives in, where Ethelmae, the owner, sweeps up sticky buns from the filthy floor and serves them, and the house specialty is “Lumps and Dumplins”–with a secret ingredient.”
Here’s a Daniel Pinkwater book where I included a little inessential extra (the name of the teacher) because, well, who can resist Daniel Pinkwater’s names?
“Flash Fleetwood finds a very quiet gorilla which he names Phil, and, to the delight of the second grade students, their teacher Mrs. Hotdogbun says he may attend school along with them.”
I didn’t do this one, but your book got this very nice summary that includes your words:
“A young boy who likes to ‘wokka-wokka, shimmy-shake, and shocka-shocka’ gathers his neighbors together for a surprise celebration.”
One more where I used some phrases from the text but didn’t enclose them in quotes, but for some reason I did enclose babyberry pie in quotes. It’s Heather Vogel Frederick’s Babyberry Pie:
“In illustrations and rhyming text, gives the recipe for making “babyberry pie,” from picking a baby from the babyberry tree and popping him in the tub to putting powdered sugar on his nose and toes and tucking him into pie crust covers.”
This is from a book called Lines that Wiggle. I used phrases from the very rhythmic, alliterative text:
“A variety of monsters and other creatures demonstrate some of the different things that lines can do, from curving and curling to zigging and zagging.”
Kathi Appelt. The Underneath.
An old hound that has been chained up at his hateful owner’s run-down shack, and two kittens born underneath the house, endure separation, danger, and many other tribulations in their quest to be reunited and free.
[SPOILER ALERT!] The publisher asked me to change the summary to avoid giving away the ending. My original sentence ended with something like: “…. before being reunited.”
Margaret Mahy. Simply delicious!
A resourceful father engages in all kinds of acrobatic moves to keep an assortment of jungle creatures from getting the double-dip-chocolate-chip-and-cherry ice cream cone he is taking home to his son.
Alisa M. Libby. The blood confession.
Cursed at birth, the beautiful and ruthless young Erzebet becomes obsessed with achieving eternal youth and begins to bathe in the blood of virgin girls in order to preserve her beauty. Based on the life of the “Blood Countess,” who lived in Hungary in the 1500s.
Andrew Matthews. The flip side.
Robert, a British fifteen-year-old, is confused when he plays the part of Rosalind while studying Shakespeare in school and discovers parts of his personality that he did not know existed.
Lisa Williams Kline. The princesses of Atlantis.
Twelve-year-old best friends Carly and Arlene write about twin princesses during the final, cataclysmic days of Atlantis in a story that parallels the growing tensions the two friends are experiencing in their lives.
I think I did a much better job here of describing the parallel stories than I did with Walk Two Moons. I was more experienced by 2002 when I did this one.
Robin Friedman. The importance of wings.
Although she longs to be an all-American girl, Roxanne, a timid, Israeli-born thirteen-year-old who idolizes Wonder Woman, begins to see things differently when the supremely confident Liat, also from Israel, moves into the “cursed house” next door and they become friends.
The wings in the title refer to the hair styles we wore in the 70s. [Yes, Ruth, I have to confess that “wings” are all too familiar to me. I wore them. See photo.]
Lucy A. Nolan. Smarter than squirrels.
Recounts the adventures of a rambunctious dog who thinks her name is Down Girl and her next door neighbor, Sit, as they try to keep the world safe from dangerous squirrels, the paper boy, and a frightening creature named Here Kitty Kitty.
This series of books is hilarious. I don’t think I managed to convey that so much in the summary, but I tried.
Two more “second sentence” examples.
Tom Angleberger. The strange case of Origami Yoda.
Sixth-grader Tommy and his friends describe their interactions with a paper finger puppet of Yoda, worn by their weird classmate Dwight, as they try to figure out whether or not the puppet can really predict the future. Includes instructions for making Origami Yoda.
Margaret Read MacDonald. How many donkeys? : an Arabic counting tale.
When Jouha counts the ten donkeys carrying his dates to market, he repeatedly forgets to count the one he is riding on, causing him great consternation. Includes numbers written out in Arabic and in English transliteration, as well as the numerals one through ten, and a note on the origins and other versions of the story.
Kristin Clark Venuti. Leaving the Bellweathers.
In Eel-Smack-by-the-Bay, put-upon butler Tristan Benway writes a memoir of his years spent working for the chaotic and eccentric Bellweather family in their lighthouse, as he prepares for his long-awaited departure from indentured servitude.
I think this speaks for itself.
Ellen Potter. The Kneebone boy.
Otto, Lucia, and Max Hardscrabble, whose mother has been missing for many years, have unexpected and illuminating adventures in the village of Snoring-by-the-Sea after their father, who paints portraits of deposed monarchs, goes away on a business trip.
This one too. When there are eccentric names that help set the tone and atmosphere of the story, I try to make sure I get at least one or two of them into the summary.
Frank Cottrell Boyce. Framed.
Dylan and his sisters have some ideas about how to make Snowdonia Oasis Auto Marvel into a more profitable business, but it is not until some strange men arrive in their small town of Manod, Wales with valuable paintings, and their father disappears, that they consider turning to crime.
R. A. Spratt. The adventures of Nanny Piggins.
When Mr. Green, a stingy widower with three children he cannot be bothered with, decides to find a nanny for his children, he winds up hiring a glamorous ex-circus pig who knows nothing about children but a lot about chocolate.
Micol Ostow. So punk rock (and other ways to disappoint your mother).
Four suburban New Jersey students from the Leo R. Gittleman Jewish Day School form a rock band that becomes inexplicably popular, creating exhiliration, friction, confrontation, and soul-searching among its members.
Andy Behrens. The fast and the furriest.
The overweight and unathletic son of a famous former football star discovers that his equally fat and lazy dog is unexpectedly–and obsessively–interested in competing in dog agility contests.
Jayne Lyons. 100% wolf.
At the time of his first transformation, a young werewolf of noble and proud ancestry is driven from his pack when, instead of turning into a fierce wolf, he changes into a little black poodle.
Troy Cummings. The Eensy Weensy Spider freaks out! (Big time).
Frightened after the scary waterspout incident, the Eensy Weensy Spider needs some encouragement from her friend the ladybug before she will try climbing again.
And that concludes our interview. Thanks so much to Ruth for her time and helpfulness and great good sense of humor. How much do we love those summaries?!
Forget the Bulwer-Lytton; here’s the Summary Smash!
Craft an original one-sentence summary—you may not build yours upon the LC or publisher summaries—for any of these three books: Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, M.T. Anderson’s Feed, or E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. First-place winners will receive Kindles, Nooks, or iPads. Hahahahahaha! No, they won’t. They will win something of incalculable value: fame, glory, and the undying admiration of hundreds, nay thousands, of PW readers.
Grand Prize — Take the Ruth Polan Challenge: Come up with the one-line summary of Walk Two Moons Ruth most wishes she’d written, and we will send you a copy of Walk Two Moons signed by both Sharon Creech and Ruth Polan!
Winners will be announced in next Thursday’s Shelftalker.