Earlier this week, a music librarian was showing me her collection of pins she had picked up from various library conferences over the years. My favorite was one that read simply, “It’s in the notes!” Nonsensical to non-catalogers, I suppose, but the notes fields (the 500 field, mostly) is a catch-all field for anything that doesn’t fit elsewhere. This includes things like bibliographic history, physical description enhancements, and program notes. In music, we see information like composition dates, instrumentation, if the composer wrote any notes at the end of the piece, and the language of the libretto (and if it has been translated).
500 notes can be seen by users of the regular catalog, and for the most part, the notes help users decide if this is the item they need. Some of the notes, however, are there to justify other information in the record, making them more useful for catalogers who are trying to match the item in their hand to a record in the national file. Rarely does a catalog user need to know if the title was taken from a caption or from the cover – but these distinctions are meaningful to catalogers. We can also create local notes in the 590 field that are retained even if a local record is overlaid with an update. These usually indicate things that don’t apply to other libraries, like whether the copy is signed by an author, or who donated it.
Of course there are some guidelines for what to put in the notes (I am looking at a book titled Notes for Music Catalogers right now), but the content is generally flexible. This is in large part because the 5xx fields are designed to be read by humans rather than machines, unlike most of the other fields. It’s great – all the weird things about an item have a place to go: In the notes!