From the catalogs of babes

{May 7, 2010}   A little bit more about cataloging and reference

I have a little bit more I want to say about reference, and then I’ll get back to cataloging, I swear. Really.

To me, reference and cataloging go hand in hand. Like peanut butter and jelly (or peanut butter and bananas or peanut butter and potato chips, if that’s how you roll). Like oil and vinegar, treble and bass, salt and pepper. They’re the heads and tails of the coin of library service. Sure, reference can be done without the catalog (and by extension, cataloging)–if you’re one of those intense know-it-all reference librarians with the answer to everything at your fingertips (less and less likely these days as more and more information is created, published and distributed). And sure, cataloging, at its very most basic data-entry skill level, can be done without reference. But really, what good is one without the other?

Cataloging and reference are two halves of the same whole. I know from my personal experience (which includes 8-10 hours/week working reference out of the 40 I spend in the library) that my direct reference interactions have made me a better cataloger. Where else could I see first-hand exactly how our patrons look for materials? Where else could I hear exactly what words they used for search terms? Sure, I could get that kind of information from others who work the reference desk, or from reports or surveys or OPAC search logs.* And I would use all of that, too. But it’s so much more immediate and makes such a stronger impact to hear people tell you in person, to your face, how they search in their own words. It’s interacting directly with our students and faculty that led me to investigate library reclassification, develop alternative subject vocabularies, and brainstorm improved catalog software interfaces.

Not only that, but once I take these gleaned insights and incorporate them into the catalog, I then know a new trick or two about how to use it, which in turn helps me help patrons. Understanding how the catalog works from the back end leads to easier use of the front end interface. Many of the reference librarians I know speak highly of their cataloging classes in graduate school–even if they detested them at the time, they almost all acknowledge how beneficial those classes turned out to be when using catalogs to help people on a daily basis. Knowing about LCSH and how headings are structured helps them find more (and more precise and appropriate) materials for patron. Knowing where to look for a language note, illustrations, or editions can make or break matching the right resource to the right person.

I firmly believe all catalogers should work reference. I also believe that all reference staff should do some sort of cataloging. Now, I know that’s not feasible in some libraries, like large institutions with entire cataloging departments and teams of specialty reference staff. That’s okay–every library should, first and foremost, do what works best for that environment, for those users. But I think a lot of libraries could benefit from doing away with the whole reference vs. cataloging,  “public services/tech services” divide. Libraries are about user service, period. Reference is a user service. Cataloging is a user service. Circulation is a user service. Instruction is a user service. Everything we do should be a user service–if not, why are we doing it?

I’m sorry for all those catalogers who got into the job because they weren’t ‘people persons’ and didn’t want to interact with the public. That’s a very narrow (and selfish) mindset, imo, and a sorry excuse for pursuing a career, especially one in a service profession. I think the time has come for catalogers to integrate further into other library areas. We can work better together than we can apart. Catalogers cannot see themselves or be seen by others as the solitary data wrangler in the back corner of the basement. How do you know if your catalog is helping provide reference service if you’re never out there at the reference desk?

*Well, some people can. We don’t have access to that kind of high-falutin’ technology here.

Jessica Palmer says:

I couldn’t agree with you more. I am in library school to become a cataloger, but have been taking reference classes and working on a reference desk. Experience on the public side is invaluable. Especially now, while libraries try make changes to navigate through a Google world, how do you know which way to way to take cataloging if you don’t know how users need to use it?

Laurel Tarulli says:

Great points. On the public library front, we also need to consider RA work (in addition to reference). In the end, if it comes down to the “next great read” or reading suggestions, it’s important that RAs know how to use the catalogue, and cataloguers know what terms readers are using to describe books.

My favourite saying: “Cataloguing IS a public service”.

Kathleen says:


These are indeed excellent ideas, but I was sorry to see you buying into, and reiterating the “catalogers aren’t ‘people-oriented’ and they hide in the basement” stereotype.” In my department, all 3 of us worked public service for many years before we became catalogers, and our first thought, always, is “how can we do better work so patrons can find things most expeditiously?”

Part of librarians working together for the betterment of service is to respect what each of us does, and not pass on stereotypes. I’m sure there are some insular catalogers. Perhaps you’ve only met those. All the ones I know, (and I know a lot of them!) are dynamic, funny, engaging, intelligent, full of laughter and really hard workers.

Ivy, like everyone else here, I agree wholeheartedly– and I’m cheered to see a technical services librarian being enthusiastic about patron access and user services.

Felt like I had to respond to:
“I’m sorry for all those catalogers who got into the job because they weren’t ‘people persons’ and didn’t want to interact with the public. That’s a very narrow (and selfish) mindset, imo, and a sorry excuse for pursuing a career, especially one in a service profession.”

True, true and very true. But another major irritant for me is are reference and user services staff who are happy to banish technical services to the basement, or who reject cataloging because they’re not “computer people” or “numbers people” or “detail-oriented types.” Just as it hurts the profession for catalogers to cloister themselves in the back rooms, it’s equally harmful for public services librarians to overlook or deride the importance of classification and cataloging. It’s what leads to the public vs. technical services divide that stymies librarianship today.

I grit my teeth when I hear “I got into this because I like books, not people,” but just the same, it stomps all over my last nerve to hear “Well, that’s something that only interests catalogers.”

I think I’d better stop now; this is becoming a rant.

Ivy says:


I don’t personally buy into it, but I have met many, may people who do, and it was those people who I was trying to address with those comments.

I hate to say it, but stereotypes do evolve from truths somewhere in the past. I can either ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist (which I don’t think will solve anything) or I can call it out. It wasn’t my intention to reiterate as enouragement, but rather to advocate change.

@Jennifer: Another good point about balance.

Although, I should confess that originally I thought I would get into librarianship because “I liked books.” I think many people do start out that way, and I don’t think that’s a big problem as long as they do learn that it’s an information service profession and are willing to adjust accordingly. Thankfully I learned pretty quickly, and I actually think that in my case the conversion in my thinking helped strengthened my service values, rather than if I had come in to the profession with that mindset already.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

et cetera
%d bloggers like this: