From the catalogs of babes

{May 21, 2010}   anyone can catalog.

I think anyone can be a cataloger. You heard me. Sure, I think some people are certainly more inclined to be better at it than others. But I don’t think you have to be a professional librarian to be a cataloger. I think professional librarians actually waste their time on cataloging, when they should be working at a higher (dare I say “professional”?) level. My least favorite thing to do all day is sit at my desk and catalog books, a process I find to be not much above mindless data entry.

But some people are okay with that, as a day-to-day job. If all a person wants to do is download MARC records and fiddle with punctuation all day, then my advice is take a class or two in cataloging, either through an MLS program or independently (I’ve found The MARC of Quality really useful, personally), to learn that stuff, and then go about your business. Sure, it’ll help to have some paraprofessional experience, especially if all you want to do as a professional librarian is the same things you did as a paraprofessional.

But if paraprofessionals and professionals are doing the same things, where can we draw the line as to what “professional” cataloging entails? Many ‘professional’ catalogers have decried the ‘deprofessionalization’ of cataloging, and that professionals should be the ones doing the cataloging work.

I disagree.

If you move beyond the basics, if you want to do things like evaluate current cataloging standards in comparison to patron usage, improve metadata, organization, and information retrieval, and generally improve information access, then I think that’s where the professional line truly begins. That’s what makes the difference between paraprofessional and professional. That’s the line between “job” and “career.”  And it’s time catalogers and librarians took this professionalism by the horns, or we risk losing it altogether. Professional catalogers aren’t the ones who use AACR2r the best or can list subject headings at the drop of a hat. Professional catalogers are the ones who are evaluating their user bases, assessing how well those users are being served by the library’s cataloging, and pushing for improvements to narrow the gap between the two. Professional level catalogers shouldn’t be the ones spending their workdays on tasks like entering all the variant titles and spellings into 246 fields—they should be the ones designing new software to automate that process. They shouldn’t be the ones creating authorized forms of names and subjects submitting them to large, bureaucratic entities—they should be creating the tools to make that arduous submission process obsolete.

Many current MLS level cataloging classes spend the semester teaching punctuation and MARC tags when they could be teaching the actual professional aspects of cataloging—training people to design and create the ever-evolving standards, rather than simply applying them. Maybe you’re thinking that this is just my personal experience clouding my view, especially since my master’s program was one specifically focused more on the practical application of knowledge rather than some of the theory and academia-based programs. And maybe that’s true. But I’ve talked to lots of people—librarians, students, and faculty—at a lot of different institutions, and have heard very similar comments from all. And as the availability of quality cataloging courses and faculty continues to dwindle, I fear it will only get worse, not better. Until that begins to change, MLS programs will continue to churn out cataloging drones, rather than the innovative thinkers the profession really needs. So if a professional degree program isn’t providing it, where can the interested, engaged, passionate and professionally-inclined librarians go to learn what it really means to be a professional? Somebody tell me, because goodness knows I for one would like to be there.

Kathleen says:


I realize that part of the appeal of this blog is your youth and inexperience. Also new blood in a profession often produces extreme statements, either a desire to shock, plain ignorance or a combination of the two.

But I am beginning to tire of the global declarations, unsubstantiated by anything other than a bit of time in the field and youth. “MLA programs will continue to churn out cataloging drones,” is truly insulting to those of us who love cataloging and find it to be creative and challenging.

If you find it to be on the level of “data entry” then you know very little about it. I do more than catalog, but when I do catalog, I am constantly challenged in the most joyous, interesting and creative ways. I have to learn every day in order to carry out cataloging duties, and what I learn is endlessly fascinating.

I know pretty much nothing about fashion, but I would not presume to tell you that anyone who is interested in it is wasting their time on an ephemeral and completely unimportant aspect of life. I would not tell you that because I don’t know enough about fashion to make an informed statement. I wish that you would begin to offer the same courtesy to your fellow librarians.

I appreciate your enthusiasm for the profession, and I think you will be a great librarian. New blood, new ideas and a willingness to jettison archaisms is good and healthy. But judgment is also needed. Just because something has been around for awhile does not automatically make it ready for the ash heap.

Ivy says:


I know you and I have disagreed in the past and so I can’t say I’m surprised by your response, although a bit surprised to find you still reading this blog. :) I respect your opinion and I fully admit that sometimes the sweeping pronouncements are indeed for shock value. I have a creative writing background which I enjoy putting to good use, and I am often known to use hyperbole to make a point.

But cataloging *is* data entry, by definition. If you are thinking it’s more than that, great! It puts you in the ‘professional cataloger’ camp that I tried to describe above. Unfortunately, not everyone thinks that way.

I certainly never meant to imply that cataloging as data entry was any sort of unimportant waste of time–I firmly believe the opposite. Cataloging would be nothing without it, and all these grandiose pronouncements that I and others pontificate about would have no building blocks to support them without the billions of bits of data and metadata that are truly at the heart of cataloging. I am not saying here that this data entry is unvaluable; what I am saying is that I don’t think mastery of it is the *sole* distinction for professional designation–which is something I have seen put forth in the industry. In this post I am trying to explore the distinctions between what makes a person a professional cataloger or librarian versus a paraprofessional, and I don’t think it can or should hang solely on one’s ability to create a bibliographic record.

Additionally, I’m actually going somewhere else with this post, but you’ll have to wait until Monday to find out where.

Susan says:

So, I’m of two minds on this.

The first mind says I would expect the professional cataloger to be assessing the needs of the user and library to make sure that the level of record chosen/cataloged to are met sufficiently while still providing a return on investment on the time spent per record cataloged. They also need to be able to assess updates to the standards and systems so that everything syncs ups (super brief story on that: my husband’s library just changed from one ILS to another & they didn’t have 006 or 008 fields in the old system because they weren’t necessary for what that library needed and the new system is *freaking* without them and he has to figure out how to fix it. Even what some folks might consider Absolutely Necessary others determine to be unnecessary and both are right). We are in desperate need of professional catalogers who can and do make sense of the various bibliographic metadata standards and how they interact and how to use them to best effect within the environment they’re being applied. With millions, billions of MARC records in OCLC, and millions of titles in some libraries, we need people who can create more streamlined tools and programs that automate as much of the process as possible. I fully expect my team of professional catalogers to be able to determine and articulate the standards to which we catalog because they are the ones that tell the folks who do the bulk of the work what to do. They’re also the ones that I expect to be able to assess the quality of a set of records that we don’t create. We desperately need people who do this work and this is what distinguishes a professional from a paraprofessional.

A paraprofessional needs to be able to follow directions and catalog to the standards set by the professional which does, to be fair to the detail necessary and amount of judgment required, require a fair amount of intellectual work. I think it’s easy to underestimate the skills required to be even a good paraprofessional cataloger.

And this is where my other mind kicks in — because creating records is not solely data entry , especially on some of the more difficult records. And sometimes that’s the perfect work for a professional cataloger. And sometimes you just need to step back from the big picture and analysis and all that and kick it old school and churn out some new records (or authenticate created records or any of that stuff that we frequently leave for the paraprofessionals. Sometimes doing something like that is the only place you get to feel some progress in something (because how long did it take the thinkers and deciders and committees to all come to a decision on whether the 260 field could/should be repeatable? Sometimes change is just really slow and long time coming to monolithic institutions…).

I’m at the point where I think we’ve way over-complicated a complicated thing for a variety of reasons, none of which are easily resolvable and none of which were easily anticipatable. And it’s still up to us to figure out the way forward. :) It’s a really exciting opportunity we have here. I’m all for finding what’s worked well and also taking lessons learned and doing some new stuff.

Susan says:

Oh! And I meant to add, I’m looking forward to seeing what you have to say Monday!

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Emily Nimsakont, Jessica Hollingshead. Jessica Hollingshead said: Really great blog post on the future of professional cataloging […]

You write: “Many current MLS level cataloging classes spend the semester teaching punctuation and MARC tags when they could be teaching the actual professional aspects of cataloging—training people to design and create the ever-evolving standards, rather than simply applying them.”

Oh dear, where to start. I’m one of those people who teach punctuation and MARC tags. I ask my students on the first day what do they think descriptive and subject cataloging is and how it works. Most of them reduce it down to “following rules” or just “MARC”. That is what they have heard. It is more than a little disconcerting to see you do the same, but from the perspective of supposedly knowing what cataloging is about.

Let me ask you—how would catalogers go about designing and creating the ever-evolving standards if they don’t know how to use the current standards? If they don’t understand the principles that provide the foundation for the way we do things now then how will they know what doesn’t work and the best way to improve them? For example, the incessantly stupid remarks that “MARC is old” will never convince me if the person making the statement doesn’t understand the encoding standard and how it is used, and then through usage understands what does work and what doesn’t. If I claimed to be a chemist and I told you I could make a better chemical product, but that I had never studied chemistry, would you be inclined to accept my work?

It angers me to read that adhering to punctuation is somehow a waste of time. We learn punctuation in primary school—was that a waste of time? Does it somehow come naturally? Punctuation in cataloging is used in a specific way and that way has to be taught. Is that a waste of time? I would more persuaded by a person who has studied and learned how punctuation is used in a catalog record, and who then comes up with a better way to use it, then by someone who never has learned it.

Anyone wishing to work as a cataloger must learn how to APPLY the standards. Knowledge of the application provides the knowledge for how to change it. To do otherwise is foolish.

And by the way, I spend about one class out of the whole semester, teaching the punctuation used in a typical record.

Kathleen says:


It’s the term “data entry” to which I most object.

I have done actual “data entry” while working my way through school. It is mind-numbing, repetitive, thoughtless work.

Cataloging is the exact opposite of data entry, which is why it is making me crazy to see you apply that term to it.

When you catalog, the first thing you have to determine is ‘what is this thing about?” That is your starting point and it’s a fascinating exercise. When you get a cart of materials to catalog, anything in the world may appear on it, and in myriad formats.

Once you have figured out what the subject of your item is, then you must think of the best way to describe it so that your patrons can locate it easily and quickly.

Only then do you begin to enter your item, and then you do use a set of rules. But the rules are there so that everyone can understand the entry. If I were writing to you using any sort of symbols I like, rather than the Roman alphabet, then you would not be able to understand me, nor I your reply. Not all rules are bad.

I just wish that you would not be so emphatic about something which you are inexperienced at. And please stop calling cataloging “data entry!” It’s anything but!

Ivy says:


if I gave the impression that professional catalogers should not thoroughly understand standards, that was not my intention. I thought by discussing what characteristics I feel are required above and beyond standards application it was inherently implied that professional catalogers need that knowledge.
My purpose in this post, which apparently did not come across as clearly as I intended, was to explore the differences in what makes one a paraprofessional vs. a professional cataloger, which is a long-standing and ongoing debate in our profession. I am of the opinion that to elevate to a more ditinguishable professional level, we need to do more, and yes, learn more and teach more, than just the paraprofessional level skills.

Ivy says:


I may be young compared to others, and I may not have the years of cataloging behind me that you do, but I will thank you to stop calling me “inexperienced.” I did several others things before I became a librarian–one of which was in fact data entry. I do not share your personal propensity toward an extremely negative connotation of the phrase nor does your opinion change mine. And since that’s what this blog is about–my opinion–I encourage you, if you feel so strongly about expressing your personal opinion, to start your own.

booker says:

> I think we’ve way over-complicated a complicated thing for a variety of
> reasons, none of which are easily resolvable and none of which were easily
> anticipatable. And it’s still up to us to figure out the way forward.

This seems to be the point. Sure, there’s a reason things are the way they are. Is that satisfactory? No, not if trained professionals are spending their time deciding where punctuation goes. That’s experience and knowledge and brain cycles NOT devoted to determining the best way to structure records that move users to resources with the minimum possible friction. Forestry fails when it gets too used to the trees. Experience can actually be an anchor holding one back.

Kathleen says:


If you put out a post saying that library schools produce “cataloging drones,” and that cataloging is “data entry” which most people take as simple keying, then you should not be surprised nor dismayed that you get passionate responses. If you don’t want strong responses, don’t begin by dissing others.

If I said “fashionistas are airheads,” I don’t think you would take that kindly, and you might be inclined to reply in defense of those who are interested in and enjoy fashion. I don’t think fashionistas ARE airheads, I’m just trying to make a point.

I will, however, cease calling you “inexperienced since you have asked me to do so. That, I hope, is the courteous response. Will you in return, stop calling cataloging “data entry?”

Nathan says:

I also did data entry for a medical device company before doing cataloging. Cataloging is more challenging, though I would say that probably anyone who takes the time to learn the standards *and has a strong liberal arts background* can do a good job (and I would point out that many of our records come from the LOC, which actually employs people with strong liberal arts backgrounds who also have specialized subject knowledge and catalog in that area). In all honesty, if we did not have people like that, I think life for the regular, everyday cataloger would be much more difficult. Sometimes I look at the LCSH for a record and am very impressed with the thought and effort that has gone into them.

So, I would say that some parts of cataloging resemble data entry. But when I get to some parts – especailly the LCSH – I have to stop listening to my headphones and pay attention.

All that said, I confess I do think automation and human intelligence need to go hand in hand and that I don’t feel terribly up to the task to apply “computational thinking” to this or that cataloging problem. My practical knowledge of much of the available software (things like MARCedit, effectively using macros, etc) is not even what it could be.


Ivy says:


I’m not so sensitive as to be offended by someone calling fashionistas “airheads.” Ive even been known to call some of them that myself, because, let’s face it–some of them are. Just as some catalogers (not all, but some) will always simply key in information. And that’s okay! There’s a need and a place for that in our world–all I’m trying to ask here is if that, along with other day to day rote catalog work such as you describe, should be the place for the *professional.* I don’t think it is. YMMV.

I would be willing to consider a different turn of phrase if you can suggest one to me that is not long lenghty jargon yet still encompasses the point I am trying to make.

Kathleen says:

Hi Ivy,

Thanks for the reply :)

I would be happy to supply another term for you to consider using, but I think the problem with the whole discussion may be that I am unclear about what you are trying to describe.

I objected so strongly to “data entry” because none of the cataloging I do resembles that in any way. It’s hard for me to think of a term which would convey what you wish to convey, since my experienc of catatloging in no way resembles “entering data.”

When I “enter data” I do not have to think. I am merely copying words or numbers or formulas that someone else has composed. That is not at all what I do when I catalog. So there is where the confusion arose I think.

What kind of cataloging do you do? Are you just copying data from some database into your own? If that is what you do, then I’d agree, that’s a form of data entry. But it’s not cataloging, if you see what I mean?

As to punctuation, once you have it internalized, it’s just like using punctuation in these posts. I don’t stop to think, “oh, I have to put a period at the end of this sentence.” I just “know” it goes there, so I put it there. The same happens after you have been cataloging for awhile. YOu just know and use the punctuation as in any other kind of writing.

I agree that it would be a terrible waste of time for anyone, paraprofessional or degreed librarian to sit around all day thinking about obscure punctuation.

When I write in French or Spanish, which I don’t do as often as I do English, then I DO think about the punctuation because I don’t use it every day. But I don’t do that when I catalog.

So if you could tell me what kind of cataloging seems like data entry to you, I will try to think of a term. Yes?

[…] From the catalogs of babes {May 24, 2010}   where do we go from here? I asked, “where can the interested, engaged, passionate and professionally-inclined librarians go to learn wha…l?” […]

Ben says:

As a professional cataloger I would be overjoyed to see ISBD punctuation exiled from the MARC format. Not because I think it’s useless (it’s not) or that it would be one more thing I don’t have to know (it wouldn’t), but because it is display-data that doesn’t belong embedded with content-data, and it makes it that much more tricky to get MARC to cooperate with other metadata standards. Alas, this seems to come up at MARBI every couple of years, and routinely gets shot down as “unfeasible at this time”.

As to whether “data entry” is a slur or a compliment… meh, who cares. I know the value of my work to the institution I serve, and it is not negligible, whatever you choose to call it. Anyone who really thinks cataloging is justly mindlessly copying information into a database probably also thinks that “if you can read you can cook” and other similar idiocies.

I am more annoyed, to be honest, by the fact that we are all supposed to use “metadata” in every and all circumstances where “cataloging” used to be used. It’s an icky neologism (according to OED the earliest appearance of “metadata” was in the 1960s as a brand-name), particularly when a perfectly good and venerable word already exists.

Ivy—it may not have been your intention to give the impression that you did, but what you wrote and how you wrote was pretty clear to me. One of the great challenges of doctoral work will be to clearly define your arguments and support them with balanced evidence.

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