Friday, February 24, 2017

Alphabetical disorder

Alexander McCall Smith
When I decided to try to find a certain Alexander McCall Smith novel on the fiction shelves of Largo Library, I knew the task might not be easy. Yet still hoping for easy, I searched first among the Smiths. There must be hundreds of novels in the library by authors named Smith, but books by Alexander McCall Smith, one of the most prolific authors of our day, were not among them. That meant I had to look under McCall.

Alexander McCall Smith hails from Scotland, and the British have a quaint custom, or perhaps it's an affectation, of sticking two surnames together to form a new surname, sometimes with a hyphen and sometimes not. In this case there is no hyphen, just McCall Smith, not that most people looking for his books in a library or book shop would know this.

Arthur Conan Doyle had Doyle as his surname for most of his life, but then he decided to change it to Conan Doyle. His second wife was Jean Conan Doyle, or Mrs. Conan Doyle. Visit the Arthur Conan Doyle website ( and you find the Sherlock Holmes creator referred to as "Conan Doyle."  Elsewhere he is generally just called Doyle, and at Largo Library his books can be found under D, not C. Library patrons are not treated so kindly when it comes to McCall Smith.

But looking for the novel under McCall was no simple matter either, for different organizations handle Mc and Mac prefixes differently. Some view Mc as the abbreviation of Mac, others don't. So should I look for McCall Smith under MCC, MAC, MCA or something else? I finally found Alexander McCall Smith on a shelf before the works of both Alistair MacLean and Norman Mailer, so I'm still not sure what system librarians use, but I'm sure it must be covered in some library science course. The problem is that most of the people using public libraries have never taken this course.

I checked my local phone book and found that the letters in both Mc and Mac are treated just like other letters in the alphabet. In the phone book it would be MacLean, Mailer and McCall, not McCall, MacLean and Mailer.

I'm sure I could have found my book more easily had I consulted a library computer or simply asked a librarian, but where would be the fun in that?

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