From the catalogs of babes

{July 29, 2010}   SkyRiver vs. OCLC?

The library cataloging world is all a-buzz today since the press release(PDF) announcing that SkyRiver plans to sue OCLC for anti-trust violations.

I think anyone who’s been following any sort of cataloging news saw this coming miles away. I confess: I always suspected that the creation of SkyRiver wasn’t simply only to provide an alternative to OCLC, but rather an ulterior-motive vehicle for exactly this type of legal action. I know plenty of catalogers who have long felt similarly about OCLC’s apparent monopolistic behavior, but if I recall correctly from my 7th grade government class (and I likely don’t, but still), no legal action can be taken until there’s some sort of victim, some other company or organization that is directly hurt by the alleged violations. When OCLC had no direct competitors, there were no victims to file suit. Now SkyRiver provides exactly that. Now some kind of action can be taken.

I have no idea what will happen, but I’d sure love ringside seats.

{May 24, 2010}   where do we go from here?

I asked, “where can the interested, engaged, passionate and professionally-inclined librarians go to learn what it really means to be a professional?”

I have a lot of mixed feelings about the answer I’m about to give, but it’s the best answer, I think, for me, right now:

The Ph.D.

Yes, yes, I know it’s an academic degree, not a professional one. And I’m not actually advocating it as the best answer to my question posed above, nor do I think it ever should be. I don’t think it should ever require more school beyond a professional degree to teach professionalism–in fact, there’s probably something inherently wrong with a system structured that way.

I’m intelligent and have a good academic record, but I’m definitely more of the hands-on, practical type. I never considered myself part of the “white tower” academia elite that would ever even consider a Ph.D. But I’ve gotten to the point where the things I want to learn, the ideas I want to try, the services I want to implement and the education I want to share would be best served by returning to school to persue a doctorate in information science. (Or a position of strong decision-making authority in a small, independent, innovative, arts-focused college—I’m certainly available for that, if anyone out there reading needs such a person…)

I don’t want to be a cataloging data-entry-monkey. I don’t want to sit around writing bibliographic records for the rest of my career. I honestly mean no offense to people who do–I firmly believe it takes all types to make the world go round, and it’s always been my philosophy that even the smallest bibliographic work can make a difference in people’s lives. It’s a crucial aspect of libraries and cataloging and I love it—but I want to do more. I want to research and implement positive changes that better serve users and user groups, and I want to share those changes and ideas and discoveries with the rest of the field. My hope is that someday all of that would be a key element of professional librarianship, but until then, it looks like I’ll have to follow a more established route.

So starting in September, I’ll be working on a Ph.D. at the University of Washington’s iSchool, in Seattle, WA.

(I’m sure those who took offense to my previous posts will either be thankful that I’m going back to school to have some more education to set me straight, or quivering with fear at the prospect that I may be the next generation of cataloging faculty…)

This is obviously something I didn’t decide overnight. The idea has been percolating in my head ever since ALA Midwinter 2009, when I met Allyson Carlyle during a UW information session. There to keep my significant other company since he was interested in the UW MLIS program, I struck up a conversation with Dr. Carlyle, as we were both on the same task force. I mentioned some of the things I was doing, like publishing articles and book chapters and presenting at conferences, and she asked me why I wasn’t working on a doctorate, since I was already doing the same sort of work it would require. Her comments stuck with me long enough to start the application process last fall, and I was accepted to the program in March.

It was a tough decision to make, but in a roundabout way I’m grateful to my library for making it easier for me to make the choice to leave. Had either my reclassification proposal or the migration to a new ILS been given the green light, I would have wanted to stay, to work on those projects and see them through. When they were both summarily rejected in April, the decision was clear. There wasn’t much left here for me to work on besides the weekly delivery of materials to be cataloged. Maybe that’s enough for other people, but that’s not enough for me. I want to do more than that. I want to make a difference not only to my local library, but all libraries, to librarianship, to cataloging, the way we approach it and implement it and teach it.

I tried to make a difference here. I did all I thought I could here to make the library better for patrons, for everyone. It didn’t always work, but I like to think I gave it a darn good shot. And I’m not giving up. I may be done trying here, but I’m certainly not done trying.

{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.

{May 18, 2010}   I am not a librarian.

I am not a librarian.

You heard me. I’m not a “librarian.” I never have been.

Officially, my job title is “Catalog Coordinator.” It’s a title I despise, for several reasons. Some of them petty—I went to graduate school and got my MLIS, and now I want to be a librarian, damnit! Some of them logical—try telling anyone outside of libraries (and sometimes even within the field) you’re a “catalog coordinator” and they want to know how you decide on product photo placement for this year’s Lillian Vernon. Heck, even “cataloging coordinator” might be a little bit more accurately descriptive (and grammatically correct) to reflect what’s actually in my job description: things like cataloging materials in all formats; developing and creating library cataloging standards; oversee local technical processing; oversee cataloging across 4 campus branches, including standardization, education and training.

I know there are lots of titles for this type of job in use, some of them without the word “librarian” in them, even: Cataloger, Cataloging Supervisor, Metadata Manager, Technical Services Coordinator, and everything in between. And, sure, some of those titles encompass different duties and are not all equivalent (for instance, “Head of Technical Services” covers plenty more than just cataloging, and would be an inappropriate title for what I do. Although “Technical Services Librarian” might, depending whether or not it included all aspects of technical services).

So sometimes I wonder: if we librarians are supposed to be all about vocabulary control, why can’t we control this? Our titles are just as outdated as our subject headings. I’ve already gone off about the terms “OPAC” and “catalog” and changing them to more appropriately descriptive titles, why not our job titles as well?

For many, “librarian” conjures up a stereotypical image of the woman with the glasses and hair in a bun, shushing library patrons and stamping due dates in books. You and I know better—we know that librarians are so much more. We lament it all the time and try to find ways to explain to people what we do, that we do more than shush people and read books all day. That yes, we do need graduate-level educations to do our job. So maybe we need an updated ‘subject heading’ for what it is exactly that we do nowadays.

The New York Times recently mentioned “metacurating” the web: users controlling and vetting streams of information tailored to their personal interests. “Metacurator” might not be so far-fetched as a job title in the future.  Even if we don’t drop the “librarian” bit (and I can certainly see reasons to keep it), perhaps we can still clarify. What does “cataloging librarian” really mean to people? Even within the profession, I find that people have a narrow understanding of the job. Heck, I don’t even understand professional designations myself sometimes—I still can’t figure out the difference between ‘cataloging’ and ‘access services.’ If cataloging ain’t about access, I don’t know what is. Personally, I always tried to convince my boss (with zero success) to change my title to something more descriptive regarding what it is I actually do: I was gunning for “discovery librarian” or maybe “findability librarian.” But no dice.

In the scheme of things, does it really matter what my job title is? Probably not. And so perhaps I’m just being a petulant child about being a “librarian.” But that’s what I want to be, that’s what I went to school for, what I trained to do, what I’ve been devoted to accomplishing, and it seems like it will never happen.

Sing it with me: one of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong…

  • Bronze jewelry
  • Ceramic jewelry
  • Coral jewelry
  • Cut steel jewelry
  • Diamond jewelry
  • Garnet jewelry
  • Glass jewelry
  • Gold jewelry
  • Hairwork jewelry
  • Jade jewelry
  • Jadite jewelry
  • Paper jewelry
  • Paste jewelry
  • Pearl jewelry
  • Platinum jewelry
  • Shell jewelry
  • Silver jewelry
  • Textile jewelry
  • Turquoise jewelry
  • Wire jewelry
  • Wooden jewelry

Did you guess Paper jewelry? if so, you’re right!

Paper Jewellery

Why? Because paper jewelry is not an authorized Library of Congress subject heading.

It seems like it should be, right? I mean, there’s a clear pattern established for jewelry of different media types. So it seems like adding “Paper jewelry” should be a no-brainer. There’s plenty of literary warrant and everything.

So why isn’t it? Because suggesting and creating new subject headings is an involved, arduous process open to only certain members of the cataloging community. I don’t mean to be harsh, but I’m not sure how else to put it.

See, one needs to be a SACO member to submit a proposal for a new subject heading, or, if not a member, needs to “funnel” their proposals through an authorized member.  So it seems to me what it ends up boiling down to is not really what you know (either about a subject or about LCSH), but rather who you know, and what clubs you belong to.

A cataloger from a non-PCC participating institution who needs a subject heading not available in LCSH or an LC classification number not found in the LC schedules now has the following options available for sending forward a proposal to SACO. 1) Contact a nearby institution that is currently a PCC member and request to submit your new proposal through their contribution mechanism. The second alternative is for your institution to 2) explore entering into a SACO funnel cooperative project and make contributions through an active subject funnel.

I understand that SACO libraries and librarians undergo training in how to properly formulate subject headings, what constitutes literary warrant, and how to submit a proposed subject heading and guide it through the process of research and approval. And that’s great, and valuable and useful. And, imo, almost a complete waste of time and a shot in the foot for subject headings (and by extension, catalogers and library catalog users everywhere).

We’re not a SACO library, and I doubt we ever will be. I don’t currently know anyone or have connections with any library that could funnel suggested headings for us. Yet we’re one of only a few highly specialized fashion libraries in the country, which means we have an intimate and thorough knowledge of that subject area. Who better to create and modify new subject headings for fashion-related subjects? I know of other small, specialized libraries with significant subject knowledge to contribute that are in the same boat we are. Yet, rather than harnessing the specialty subject knowledge from these libraries, subject headings are created for these topics by libraries and librarians that may only have vague (and sometimes inaccurate) ideas about these topics, and not understand the depth of headings needed in some of some these collections.

Now, I’m not advocating that we do away with SACO and start creating headings all willy-nilly. Again, I think the standardization and coordination offered by SACO is a highly beneficial service for libraries. What I would like, however, is a more open process for proposing headings. (While I’m wishing, let’s make it less complicated and easier for the layperson to understand, too.) Let’s let libraries and librarians who might have the best backgrounds in specific areas propose headings like “Paper jewelry” and “Fashion styling” and let the trained SACO professionals approve or disapprove and adjust the headings to comply with standards if necessary. Lots more libraries could then contribute, and lots more needed headings would be added and in areas of specific subject need, which in turn would make more materials accessible to patrons.

ps> Any readers want to funnel “Paper jewelry” and/or “Fashion styling” for me? I even have the paperwork done on the latter, as I didn’t know you had to be a SACO member to submit until after I’d already done all the research…

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.

{May 4, 2010}   these are not new ideas.

You know, these things I talk about in my blog, they’re not new ideas. They’re not even always my ideas. Sometimes I think they’re my ideas, when I’m thinking about them and writing them, but then later I stumble across an old blog post or an article in a back issue of a journal, I realize that, no, I’m not the first person to think of things like online catalogs as reference interfaces or using user-supplied tags as literary warrant for new subject headings. These aren’t revolutionary ideas. These concepts are not new to the library world; in fact, people have been suggesting and talking about them for years.

So what? I’m not bothered that my ideas aren’t new or original. I’m not trying to tout these things as my own. Mostly I’m using this blog as a way of sharing ideas and “thinking aloud.”  Heck, sometimes I’m excited to think that I thought of the same things in the same way as great famous names in the cataloging world.

What does bother me is that we’ve been talking about these things in the library world for years–decades, even–and we’re still talking about the same things. I remember a time in graduate school in 2007 when I thought of an idea where hierarchical record structures might be beneficial in reducing excessive record duplication and also assisting patrons in identifying, selecting, and disambiguating records and resources. Then earlier this week I sat down and read an article by Martha Yee  from almost 15 years ago proposing a near-identical concept. I have to wonder: why haven’t we done it yet? Perhaps the idea was tried and failed, but then wouldn’t we have heard about it? The fact that we’re still coming up with the same ideas over and over again yet never seeming to implement them is, I think, a troubling sign. I know progress doesn’t happen overnight, but it can’t really be this slow, can it? What’s stopping us from trying these ideas? Budget limitations? Lack of administrative support? Complicated processes? Inertia? I’m sure it’s a combination of all of the above, and more. But I’m tired of those reasons, and these excuses. I’m ready to try these new things. Some of them will fail, and that’s okay. Some of them will work, but only locally, and that’s okay, too, so long as they don’t break or otherwise interfere with others’ systems. Some of them will work, and catch on, and other libraries will start to implement them because they’re easier, more efficient, and work better. Maybe we can’t get to the latter without the former, but after all this time suggesting and talking about it, isn’t it time we started to try?

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.

This Library Resources & Technical Services grant announcement came across my feed reader about a week ago and I noticed one of the areas they are targeting is cataloging & classification 2009-2010. It seems like a worthy project, and I thought about applying, but I don’t think it’s really for me. When I think of the big topics in cataloging from 2009-2010, of course I immediately think of RDA and the semantic web, and I’m neither knowledgeable enough about those topics nor motivated enough to investigate to the level of depth that such a literature review would require. But I’m pretty sure some of you out there reading this are qualified and/or motivated, so I thought I’d share it. I won’t even ask for a finder’s fee if you get the grant after reading about it here! :) Act fast, because the deadline for applications is March 26, 2010.

{March 17, 2010}   a survey of a different color

Well, we may not be contributing to the Year of Cataloging Research, but at least somebody is:

As seen on Celeripedean: Elaine Sanchez of Texas State University is conducting a Survey on RDA and AACR2 .

Please go there. Take the survey. Let’s see what working catalogers really think.

I’m also intrigued by the second “brief” survey, Your Feelings About You Cataloging (Metadata) Profession. Brief? That’s funny–I confess I haven’t filled this one out yet, but you’d better believe I will. I have so much I want to say, much of which has already been said here on this blog. I’m trying to think of a way of cutting + pasting my major points while still retaining the ‘anonymity’ a survey deserves. I wonder what the character limit is on those answer fields…

et cetera