From the catalogs of babes











So what if libraries did take a page post from the Illinois Poison Control Center and chronicle every single reference query in a day, or a week?

Now, I’m not a reference librarian (although 20-25% of my job is, in fact, reference). But  I do feel like from my personal experience, discussions with other reference and non-reference librarians and staff, and reading articles and blogs, I can make some general assumptions about what types of inquiries might be included in such a list.

You’d get some “where are the bathrooms?” questions and requests for tech support. You’d get questions like “do you have this book…?” and “Where are your books about…?” You’d get some weird questions you’d never thought people would ask. You’d also get more informational-needs questions: the Internet Public Library has compiled a list of some examples here. There are lots of different types of reference questions.

It then occurred to me that every catalog query is a reference question. Asking for books by title or subject is certainly a reference inquiry. Catalogs are designed for holdings inquiries. The purpose of the catalog is to enable a user to find what materials a library holds by  title, author, and/or subject :

Charles Ammi Cutter, Rules for a Dictionary Catalog, 1904

But aren’t holdings questions reference questions? And–more importantly– does a patron know the difference? Do they know that a catalog only retrieves holdings, and not the answers to all of their different types of reference questions? And can they be expected to, in this day and age of Google, which does not return holdings, but rather information and data, the kind that reference questions are built on?

All of a sudden it hit me. I’d thought about it for a long time, but hadn’t yet be able to articulate the idea in words: the catalog has always been a holdings interface.Yet, many people expect it to be a reference interface. Patrons sit down at (or log in to) the catalog expecting it to be like a reference librarian or like Google and provide information to help answer all their questions. But it’s not. It returns bibliographic records, which are barebones representations of resources that may or may not contain the information that will help answer their question.

Should the catalog become more of a reference interface? Is that even possible? Evolving the catalog into a such a design would certain help move the catalog beyond the “find” and into the  “identify,” “select”  and “obtain” aspects called for by IFLA. As evolution of the catalog progressed, it might even lead into AI interfaces (anyone remember Ms. Dewey?) that could react and respond to each patron’s personal search queries and information needs. I can see a more interactive interface like this especially important/applicable to arts users, who generally tend to prefer human interaction over self-guided traditional catalog navigation.

If these lofty ideas are not possible (or should I say “feasible”, because I have no doubts that such things are possible, but perhaps not for libraries) then how can we bridge that gap? If catalogs truly aren’t designed to work like reference librarians or Google information searches, then it’s not fair to patrons who have that impression and expectation. It should be on us to make it clear that the catalog is a list of what the library holds and nothing more. Maybe we need to start referring to it as an “inventory” rather than a catalog? I don’t know. What I do know is that as long as patrons continue to expect reference answers from their catalog queries, they will continue to be disappointed.

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Once upon a time, about 2 weeks ago, a friend of mine posted an interesting link on Facebook to a post from the Illinois Poison Control Center blog. It’s called “A Day in the Life of a Poison Center,” and the entry is simply a chronicle of every single call and inquiry the center received on a given day: February 10, 2010. The center received 282 calls and abbreviated each one to a 1-2 sentence anonymized summary which was listed in the blog as it occurred.

The day-in-the-life blogathon was motivated by state funding cuts to the poison control center (surprise, surprise). By listing tangible, concrete examples of the services they provide, the poison control center effectively demonstrates value and return on investment to the community–I mean, isn’t saving a life worth a little bit of state financial aid?

But whether or not they intended to, the poison control bloggers demonstrated more that just why the center needs funding–they also clearly demonstrated exactly what their staff do all day and why it’s important to have trained, specialty professionals handling those tasks.

Let’s say your child just drank some drain cleaner. Who do you want answering your questions: a professionally certified poison specialist with training in toxicology, or some random, minimum-wage worker hired off of Craig’s List?* Sure, we can save money by hiring less qualified staff–and we might need to after being subjected to drastic funding cuts. But is it worth it?

Reading through the summaries, I learned lots of things I never knew or realized about poison control centers before. I had no idea that EMTs and ER doctors and nurses consulted poison control centers for information and advice–or that such a high percentage of calls to the poison control center were from those sources. I guess I always just assumed poison control centers were designed for end-consumer, average individual use. It certainly makes sense, though–I can’t expect an EMT or ER staff or general physician to be familiar with highly detailed, in-depth specialty knowledge about the immense amounts and varieties of poisonous substances that exist in the world. It’s critical that they call someone with specialty knowledge of the subject–people’s lives depend on it.

Now, I might be biased and it might be a stretch to say that librarians save lives,** especially in the same direct ways and methods as poison control specialists. But the two situations seem to me to have much more similarities than differences: they both fulfill information needs from reliable sources.They both require specialized knowledge and training to perform this task. Their job duties are both often misunderstood by the general public and they both suffer from funding cuts–from tax money that comes from that same public. The Illinois Poison Control Center publically documented every single question they received in a given day in a direct attempt to  change the former in order to change the latter. What if we did the same thing with library reference questions? Could it help show exactly how we help unite people with the critical information they need and answer that annoying age-old question: “why do you need a master’s degree to be a librarian?”

*(Now, I realize that’s a bit blunter and more cut-and-dried than the real world, where often times people without degrees and certifications can still hold expert knowledge, and people who hold those qualification can still be ignorant. But in general, there’s a reason such degrees and qualifications and standards exist, and the poison control center is an excellent example.)

**Just for the record, I totally and utterly do believe that librarians save lives. It’s not as hands-on direct as doctors and EMTs, but getting the right information to people is just as critical and often has the power to affect life decisions of all levels of significance. If I didn’t truly believe that, I probably wouldn’t be a librarian.



{April 22, 2010}   Dear Mr. Lagerfeld

Karl Lagerfeld's Personal library

Dear Mr. Lagerfeld,

Don’t you need a cataloger for that massive book collection of yours? Why don’t you give me a ring sometime.

Sincerely,

your friendly neighborhood fashion librarian



{April 13, 2010}   catalogers get my vote

So it’s that time of year again…time for ALA elections. I can’t say I’m overly active in most of the organizations I belong to (although the new local SLA happy hours certainly get my attention…). But I’ve always believed that voting for officers and leadership roles is not only my duty as a member, but also one of the main ways I can be represented in that organization. Even on my more cynical days, when I feel like voting is an inadequate method of representation, I still hold sway that I have no right to complain if I didn’t cast my vote at election time. So every year I dutifully cast my electronic ALA ballot.

But every year there are something like 30 openings for members-at-large (not to mention all the candidates for offices like president and treasurer and whatnot). If I was really dutiful, I would take my time and thoroughly read each and every single one of those bios and elections statements and carefully select who I felt would best represent me in the organization. But who has time for that?

So here’s my strategy: I open up each bio page and search for words like “catalog,” “cataloger” or “cataloging.” If I find one, I read over that person’s bio. With rare exception, I usually end up voting for them. While it may not be the ideal way to select my representatives, it’s a compromise that I can live with, and it makes sense to me that I myself, as a cataloger, would want to elect other people who understand (and, theoretically, advocate for) cataloging to the ALA board. Out of  about 117 candidates this year for Counciliors-at-Large, members could vote for 34. After I ran my search, I voted for 7.

7 out of 117 had some reference to cataloging in their bio or background. That’s about 6%. I wonder if that’s an accurate representation of the profession–are 6% of librarians catalogers? What about 6% of ALA members? I’d be interested to find out.

I mention this because recently I’ve had ongoing thoughts regarding catalogers and their escalation to leadership roles, if any. I have a sneaking suspicion that only a tiny fraction of library leadership comes from a cataloging background. The stereotypical ‘antisocial in-the-basement’ cataloger is not perceived as a personality type that lends itself to leadership roles. And if most catalogers enjoy their day-to-day cataloging duties, they probably aren’t interested in moving up to management. Most of the librarians I’ve talked to who have moved up to management (catalogers and others) regret that they spend more time on administrivia and less time “in the trenches” doing the direct work that drew them to librarianship in the first place.

So I’ve been wondering: how many catalogers actually move up to management or administration? I’m not talking here about heads of metadata or technical services. I’m talking about roles that oversee larger and more diverse library functions, beyond just cataloging-related tasks. How many library directors have a  background in cataloging? If we wonder why cataloging and its related services are often overlooked and/or undervalued, I wonder if this plays a large role in why? If management and administration aren’t familiar with cataloging (I’m talking about more than just one crash course in library school 20 years ago), how can they see the value in it? And if they can’t see the value in it, how can cataloging gain the support it needs to serve and improve the library?



{April 10, 2010}   season 2

It’s no secret that the wind has gone out of my sails lately, and I haven’t been posting much because of it.

I tend to think of blogging along the lines of a TV show: there are individual episodes (posts), and there are many episodes in a season. Some of those episodes are one-offs, just meant to express one idea or one night of entertainment, unrelated to the overall direction of the show. Other episodes speak to a story arc, an episodic plot that creates an ongoing  storyline for the entire season. Good TV shows, imo, often have both types of episodes, to varying degrees, and I feel similarly about blogs. The good ones that I like to read have both one-off posts but also an ongoing story, whether it’s the day-to-day happenings or a certain library or person, or the chronicle of a project over time. I think such an ongoing story approach adds depth and context to the posts, and also makes the blogger more accessible to the reader, as they follow along through triumphs and failures.

I didn’t set out with any particular story arc in mind when I started this blog. I meant it to be simply observations and ideas about my experiences in the library cataloging world. But ongoing themes emerged, and plots developed anyway. But now, many of those arcs have ended. Both of the major projects I’ve been working on (and blogging about) have been stonewalled. I’m as much at a loss for what to do with myself during the workday as I am what to write here.

But it’s the nature of stories to end, and new ones to begin. So what happens when you have the same cast of characters, the same setting, the same overall themes and ideas, but a new story? In television, that sounds like a new season.

I think it’s time for a new season here. As with before, I don’t have any particular plot in mind (although I do have some ideas bubbling…) I’ll start off season 2 with some random thoughts and observations, and see where it goes from there.

Thanks for watching reading! Be sure to stay tuned, because while I don’t always know where things will end up, I already anticipate some cliffhangers!



et cetera