From the catalogs of babes

{March 31, 2009}   out of touch

I apologize for being so out of touch lately. I’d like to blame it on the chaos of finals (breaking up a fight between two students over an electrical outlet in which to plug their laptops being the new high point of “Did I get a master’s degree for this?” moments), but really, I’m just a cyclical, sporadic blogger. That’s always been my style and despite effort to the contrary, I just can’t force myself to write when uninspired.

So after finals comes the much-beloved Quarter Break, the two to three weeks between quarters. Most other schools might reduce their library hours, or schedule limited reference service, but not us. We’re closed. You heard me right. We close the entire library for 2-3 weeks four times a year. Maybe it’s not the best thing we can do for our patrons, and I do sometimes question that. but let me tell you, when it’s 10p.m. on that last day of finals after all the chaos and there are two students left in the library doing nothing but checking their Facebook accounts, closing the library is such a huge pot of gold at the end of your rainbow. And as much as we joke about break, we actually use the time we are closed to get a lot of work done, especially projects that would be nearly impossible to complete when there are patrons present, like moving furniture or shifting collections.

We also do things like conduct staff meetings and attend trainings. Yesterday was my first time attending the annual school-wide curriculum review. I’d heard a little bit about it from staff members who attended the previous year, and I knew it was a full day of touring the school, stopping for 10-15 minute reviews and updates at stations for each of the school’s 14 majors. I was immediately impressed with the creativity and interactivity of my first scheduled station, for Textile Science, where we made heat-press transfers, identified t-shirts from different manufacturers, mixed dyes in an attempt to match swatches, and tye-dyed fabric, all in an effort to show us exactly what types of work and projects were expected of the students in that major. My very first impression, after trying in vain to identify shirts from Old Navy, Victoria’s Secret and Urban Outfitters, was not only how challenging the assignments actually were for students, but how much better I was already understanding what they were expected to do, and I thought, shouldn’t all the library reference staff be here? This would be such a beneficial thing for anyone working our reference desk to be aware of. I suppose the idea is that the curriculum review attendees take their experiences back to their departments and share them, but that line of communication seems to break down somewhere, and anyway, being there and trying the projects hands-on was really a big part of illustrating the point.

My next station was also interactive, but using technology rather than hands-on projects, and many other stations throughout the day also incorporated technology into their sessions, because technology is increasingly becoming more entrenched in the curriculum. And don’t get me wrong–I’m very glad to see our school finally attempting to connect more to our digital student demographic as well as supporting the advancing technologies actually used in the industries for which we educate and train. But I have to confess at bit of skeptical cynicism when listing to a bunch of bordering-on-elderly baby boomers try to talk intelligently about Web 2.0.  In fact, looking around the room at lunchtime, of the 100 or so people in the room, I only saw three other people besides myself and my co-workers that looked to be of this digital generation. One of our lunchtime speakers (herself a baby boomer) went on and on about hiring and jobs for the new digital generation, imparting to us the “new trend” of employers Googling prospective employees and emailing resumes. At one of the stations, we sat in front of computers and were urged to experiment with Wordle, which overwhelmingly awed my Boomer groupmates, whereas  I got somewhat chastised by the presenter for not being as enthusiastic about trying the site–but, as I tried to tell her, I’d already tried it plenty before on my own, when I first heard about it a year ago. I really do sometimes worry about what will happen to our school without better generation overlap and planning, especially with the forward natures of the industries we serve.

I’m not trying here to be cynical or discriminatory or dig the generational divide even deeper. In fact, part of me is encouraged at the enthusiasm of the older generation. Another woman in my group was quite interested learning about new technologies and tools, and asked me how I found out about them, which was an interesting question that really made me think. I tried to answer her, but I think she really wanted me to cite one website she could go to for all the new cool web trends, or one link that she could follow that would give her all the answers (not unlike many of our library’s reference inquiries, I realize as I type this).  But I couldn’t exactly put my finger on where I learn about any of this stuff. I grew up with BBSes, listservs, and chatrooms. I read a lot of blogs, and I follow a lot of links. I communicate with people more online than off, so my circle of friends is by nature going to be more tech-savvy than average. And many of those friends are not just using these tech tools, but I’m proud to say they’re the ones creating them. And that’s how I hear about these sites, because they’re created by my friends, or friends-of-friends: the epitome of social networking. Whereas my conversation with this co-worker revealed that she apparently the most tech-savvy of her friends, so it’s unlikely that she will be introduced to new technologies through them. So I was kinda stumped on how to best advise her, which is something I need to address if I want to keep the gap from widening.

The other thing that struck me throughout the day was how little the curriculum review actually applied to my position. I very much understood why I was there as a librarian (see especially my comment above re: sending all reference staff); but I couldn’t figure out why I’d be there as the cataloger. I tried to glean insights about assignments and projects that might help me better organize the collection or add keywords to records or classify textbooks. And perhaps it’s just that each session was so brief, without detail, and targeted for general consumption rather than specifically tailored for a library audience. But while I got a lot out of the curriculum review about how to improve reference service and integration of our information literacy campaign with the curriculum, I can’t say I got anything at all about how to improve cataloging.

Now maybe that’s just the way it is. Not everything will always pertain to cataloging, and cataloging is not all that the library is about. But it is my job, and so I feel my first responsibility when attending this or other such events is to glean information to help me improve how patrons connect with materials in our library. But the more I thought about it on the way home, the more I wondered if I wasn’t misfocused myself. I mean, I still believe in correct cataloging and standards, and that even the simplest catalog record, if well-done, can make a difference in a someone’s life. I’m not abandoning that philosophy, but I am wondering if it should be a priority for our particular library demographic. Does it make a difference to our students if we use correct ISBD punctuation? Does the order of our LCSH strings matter if we are only using a keyword search anyway?* Why invest such meticulous time and effort in our library catalog, when patrons turn first to subscription databases and personal reference assistance instead? With lack of investment, promotion, and use of the library catalog, why do I spend 75% of my time working on it and 25% on reference, and not the other way around? I feel almost like I’m out of touch with my own job.

I know there are things I can do to change this. I could push to promote the catalog more, some of which I am already doing. But it’s hard to promote the use of a database that doesn’t give you much more than the title of the book and it’s location. Students could get more information from Amazon–heck, they can even have the book delivered to their door. Our catalog can’t do that. Our full-text magazine and newspaper databases give them the whole article. Our catalog can’t do that. Heck, some of our databases even return images. Our catalog definitely doesn’t do that. So it’s a little hard to promote something that basically doesn’t address any of the information needs our users are looking to fulfill. We can move to catalog software, and that’s in progress. And I do think the catalog will get much more use after that happens, especially with federated search capabilities. But we still have patrons of a nature that prefer personal inquires to self-directed searching, and it still won’t be able to compete with the likes of Amazon and Google. And our students still won’t care if a title is capitalized or not, or if a record says “Christian Dior” vs. “Dior, Christian.”

I’m not discouraged about catlaoging, or its standards or procedures. I am concerned about the place and the role cataloging plays in this very particular environment. I can’t help but wonder if the library as a whole would be better served by passing off the 95% of materials that can be copy-cataloged to a well-trained paraprofessional and transitioning this position into a more technological role, either with me in it, or someone else.


*Please, this is not an opening for a keyword vs. controlled vocabulary debate. It has to do with our software, our students’ familiarity with Google, and a history of incorrectly entered LCSH.


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