Processing East Asian Materials

Acquiring and processing materials in languages with which we’re not familiar is not uncommon, particularly in academic libraries.  It could be Spanish, French, German, Italian, Swedish, Danish…but luckily those use Latin characters.  But what happens when you have to work with Cyrillic, Arabic, Chinese, etc. characters – and you don’t speak/read those languages?  Stuff gets a lot harder.

map of east asia
By – Ajia tōbu yochizu, CC BY 2.0.

In my acquisitions position, I have had to handle all sorts of items, including Arabic, Japanese, and Chinese.  (And I know I would be pretty much indispensable if I could do much of anything with Hangul. Alas.)  I’m not particularly versed in any of those languages.  But an acquisitions librarian has to do what an acquisitions librarian has got to do.

Because the library I work in is massive, we have the luxury of having native-speakers of most languages.  Still, things can go awry and the poor graduate assistant (me) gets a heap of foreign language materials to process.  Sometimes, the library has only one native-speaker and one person cannot handle the volume of stuff we order, receive, catalog, and further make accessible to our patrons – so someone else has to jump in and help.  Other times, a colleague is out for whatever reason.

That happened with Chinese books.  The Chinese language had to be out of the office for an extended period of time, leaving a bunch of non-Chinese speakers to figure out what to do with a large shipment of books from Taiwan.  And, yeah, I was the one who got to receive these books and move them to cataloging.

This incident is why I’m writing this blog post.  I want to give some advice about how to process East Asian materials…in case you get stuck with figuring out what to do with books and journals you cannot read.

So, here’s my advice:

  • When you go to order these books, make sure somewhere (whether it’s an Excel file or in your MaRC records) that you have the original characters linked to the Romanization linked to another identifier (like an ISBN, ISSN, or vendor-assigned number).  We had Excel sheets with Chinese characters, pinyin, ISBNs, and corresponding purchase order numbers.  This helps immensely when trying to match the item to the order record.
  • “Steal” from OCLC. If this East Asian book already has an OCLC record, use it.  No need to struggle through cataloging something that you can’t read if it’s already at least somewhat discoverable.
  • WordReference and Google Translate are your friends.  This is where the Romanization comes in handy.  Type the Romanization (for example, the pinyin) into one of these services.  The services will bring up the characters.  I used this to figure out the difference between the Simplified and Traditional ways of writing “Taiwan.”
  • Go check out Helena Byrne (Trinity College in Dublin)’s post on LibFocus on cataloging Korean books.  She has some excellent ideas, both for Korean and for foreign languages in general. A few non-language-specific highlights include:
    • Use an online keyboard. Byrne recommends Branah.
    • Watch foreign-language films to get used to people and place names, the look and sound of the language.
    • The Library of Congress has rules for Romanization. You can follow them, if need be.

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