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 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.

I often get asked, both in blog comments and in real life, how I got started in library science and cataloging. Also, the Library Routes Project has been making the rounds in the blogosphere, and so I figured it was about time I posted something about how I got to where I am today (even though I might not always be sure where that is…)

Once upon a time, there was a girl who had a job making trophies. (As with most of my parables, the girl is, of course, me.) I was working for a promotional products company, doing graphic design for all sorts of tchotckes and etching crystal paperweights with company logos. In the spring of 2005, I was let go from my job there. I started applying for teaching positions (both of my parents had been teachers and I had some related experience) but the schooling required to acquire a teaching credential did not appeal to me. At all. In fact, many people suggested that I go back to school, and I was having none of it: I hated sitting in classrooms, I hated the inherent bureaucracy of higher education, I hated the time investment to acquire a piece of paper that I wasn’t really interested in acquiring in the first place, only because it was mandatory for the job. I’d spent some time in my undergraduate days working my way up the chain of retail bookstores, and while I enjoyed it greatly, I knew that retail was not a lucrative career path, especially one I would enjoy.

One of my friends who was pressing me to return to school suggested library science. I explained, all the reasons above and more, why I in no way, shape or form, wanted to go to grad school. He then sent me a link to a list of course descriptions from the University of Denver’s MLIS program. The page is different now, but I can still picture what it looked like when I read it for that first time. One of the first descriptions I read was for a class called “Online Searching.” I read that description and thought, “Hey, I Google-stalk people all the time, and I like it and I’m pretty good at it. You’re telling me there’s a class where I can learn to do this kind of thing even better?!?” I remember thinking how amazing that class sounded, that I didn’t even care about a degree or any sort of higher accomplishment–I wanted to take that class not only because it sounded interesting, but because it sounded fun.

I wanted to start so badly that I applied to the two local(-ish) programs that would let me start the earliest, that coming spring (Denver and San Jose State University, just for the record). The other feasible schools only accepted students to start in the fall of the following year, and I didn’t want to wait that long. I figured if I didn’t get accepted at the first two, then I would have time to improve and reapply for the later-starting ones.

In the meantime, I applied for a circulation assistant position at a fashion design school. Unfortunately, I didn’t get that job, but the head librarian at the time asked me if I might be interested in a temporary position for a few months while one of the circulation staff was out on maternity leave. I knew that a temp job could easily be a foot in the door, and even if it wasn’t, temporary work was better than none, so I took it. My very first project was organizing a collection of vintage sewing patterns. I thought it was a perfect task for me at the time simply because I was familiar with the major pattern companies and brands, as well as 20th century fashion and styles. It was easy for me to sort the patterns into women’s, men’s and children’s wear, then groups by decade and then alphabetically by name of pattern company and numerically by design number. Looking back, it’s clear to me that it wasn’t just the fashion familiarity at work–it was also the innate tendency to sort, classify, and organize those materials, to group like things together, and to base the method of organization on the inherent characteristics of the materials of that specific collection.

Thankfully, I was accepted at both of the schools to which I applied.  I ended up choosing SJSU’s distance program because I had just been offered a permanent full-time position at the library, mainly copy-cataloging books from the vintage collection and building preservational boxes for them. By this time, upon suggestion of the head librarian, I had just read Cataloging and Classification for Library Technicians. I still think it’s one of the best introductory texts available.

I don’t remember when I learned about MARC, or Dublin Core, or AACR2r, or LCSH, or any of those things. To me, it’s like learning how to read–I don’t remember a time before, I don’t remember the actual learning, it’s just something that I’ve always been able to do, something that I’ve always been aware of. I do remember starting the MLIS program in the spring making sure to take the prerequisite course for cataloging, since I would need to take beginning cataloging over the summer if I wanted to take advanced cataloging in the fall (the only semester it was offered). So even before I started my first semester, I already knew that cataloging was the area I wanted to study. I remember taking the introductory library science course, which included assignments like an annotated webliography and a summary of job trends in a particular area of library science. I think these assignments were designed to help students explore different areas of focus in libraries and information science. While other people wrote about law libraries for one assignment and reference for another, I wrote every single one of my assignments focused on cataloging.

I took a lot of classes in information organization and architecture, but I also took quite a few courses in archives. It wasn’t just that I was interested in crazy old stuff and personal papers (although that was certainly part of it), but I was also interested in the organization of these unique, one-of-a-kind collections. Like the vintage pattern collection that was my very first library project, archival collections come with their own organization issues, and it’s always been more interesting to me to puzzle out the best ways to organize things, rather than simply following a strict set of inflexible rules–especially when they can’t apply.

After a year of copy-cataloging for the vintage collection, I started copy-cataloging for the general collection at large, and then eventually handling the cataloging (copy and original) of all the library’s materials, as well as attempting to formalize policies and procedures for cataloging across the library’s four campus branches and starting a campaign to migrate to a new ILS.

In my final semester of graduate school, I applied for an additional job keywording images for a graphic design company. Image cataloging was an area that interested me, but also seemed to be one of those areas where you need the experience to get the jobs, but you can’t get the experience without previous jobs. A representative of the company spoke to my vocabulary design class and I was intrigued by the company’s controlled vocabulary, especially the use of natural language and user search terminology. I kept my eyes on their employment page and submitted my application the minute a position opened up. I mention this job specifically because I distinctly remember the posting describing the types of people wanted for such a position:

“Successful Keyworders are highly organized. Many have backgrounds in library science. Some even claim to enjoy alphabetizing their CD collections.”

Yes, I saved the posting. (Remember, I did study archives.) The thing that caught my attention was the bit about alphabetizing CD collections. Because that was me. Literally. Not only did I like to alphabetize my CDs, I liked to pull them all off the shelf and re-alphabetize them, or put them into genre categories, or by artist, just for fun. Yes, this was a hobby of mine. I’m not ashamed to disclose my lack of popularity or party girl status.

It’s a pretty roundabout story of how I came to be a cataloger, and while I can put my finger on the moment I knew I wanted to study library science, the exact moment when I decided that cataloging and information organization would be my focal point isn’t exactly clear. Looking back, I sometimes can’t believe I didn’t figure it out sooner. But I list all these bits of experiences here because they are not only what made me a cataloger, but what made me the cataloger I am, with my background and perspectives and opinions, where they come from, and why.


{December 1, 2009}   15 minutes of fame

I like to keep an eye on my blog stats, especially where people come from and what terms they use to search. What can I say? I’m interested in how people look for and find things; that’s one of the reasons I became a librarian.

This post has always been at the top of my hit list, holding steady at a few hits per week, but today I noticed an unusual amount of recent hits and a new referring link.

That’s right: my post is required reading for a graduate-level class in information organization (taught by Candy Schwartz, no less!).  I think the course outline is well-rounded and addresses many of the issues I’ve described in that post and others since. I have no idea if my post is useful or used as some sort of discussion springboard for rebuttal, but if it’s helping students think about things in a new way, I’m glad.

I gotta say, though, it is a bit weird to see one of your blog posts cited formally, especially alongside Chan, Taylor, and the DDC itself! That’s some seriously intimidating company!

{September 30, 2009}   today’s message



I have no doubt that OCLC provides many ways to stay current in this fast-paced world of cataloging. Many OCLC ways.

As for me, I’d rather get my information from a variety of sources, preferably ones not put out by the cataloging monopoly. It’s part of this little thing we like to call “information literacy.”

I’m not saying, I’m just saying…

{August 29, 2009}   free to a good home

I haven’t been posting much, but rest assured I’m working on some big stuff. In the meatime, perhaps I can tide you over with the lure of free (as in beer, not as in kittens) stuff!

I happen to have a copy of Mary Mortimer’s Learn Dewey Decimal Classification (Edition 21) free for the taking. Be aware that this is for an older edition of the DDC. Our library moved up to DDC22 a while back, which included some significant changes in key subject areas of our school, so we won’t be using this book as training material anymore. It’s outdated for us, but I know there are plenty of libraries out there who haven’t upgraded, or perhaps it would be good practice for an MLS student. Heck, if you wanted to cut it up and make art projects out of it, I’d probably be okay with that, too. It’s got a barcode and a spine label, but other than that, it’s in good shape and hasn’t been written in.

Leave a comment if you’re interested. If I get overwhelmed with comments from interested parties, I’ll do a random drawing or something. Maybe I’ll make you all write haiku about fashion cataloging and pick my favorite. Or not.

{August 19, 2009}   anticipation

I can’t wait for the new issue of Cataloging & Classification Quarterly to arrive so I can read this!

This morning I happened upon a job posting from the Toledo Museum of Art that included the following as one of the “essential dutites and responsibilities” of a catalog librarian position:

• Enhance the usefulness of the library catalog by assisting users in applying cataloging principles to retrieve materials more efficiently.

I have to say, I’m a little disappointed. I can see what they’re getting at–basically, help users use the catalog–but they way they’ve written it sounds like they feel that the catalog librarian should be responsible for teaching patrons the inner detailed workings of AACR2r in order to successfully use the catalog, when I think it should be the other way around–the catalog librarian should be responsible for making it so the users don’t have to know a lick about AACR2r in order to find what they’re looking for.

It’s hard enough to teach librarians and library students the inner working of cataloging rules and standards, and here we’re talking about teaching them to patrons? That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve read all day. (The fact that it’s from an arts library to boot is even more disappointing. They don’t seem to have done much reaserch about their user base.) Teaching cataloging standards to patrons would not only be an immense challenge, but it emphasizes the idea that patrons need to adapt to the catalog instead of the other way around. The catalog is a tool. The patron is not. If your tool doesn’t work for the purpose you need, you get another one that’s more appropriate to the task at hand. If your saw is dull and doesn’t cut, you replace it with a new, sharp blade. If you have a wall of screws, driving them in with a hammer will not be successful. We need to change the tools we’re using to suit patrons’ needs–not the other way around.

Since we’re a relatively small college library, many of us wear many hats. In addition to cataloging (which is of course the majority of my job) I also shelve, work shifts at the reference desk and give presentations about how to use the library and the library’s online services (a little thing most libraries like to call “bibliographic instruction”).

Sometimes I get frustrated being on the technical services side of things, yet still saddled with the responsibility for such tasks. It’s not that I can’t do them or feel that I’m incompetent. I actually think I handle it just fine. I’m no stranger to teaching and presenting. Not to sound like I’m tooting my own horn, but with parents who were both teachers, years of experience as a camp counselor, leading storytime at Barnes & Noble, assisting teachers at an elementary school, even teaching sewing and costuming classes, I have little doubt in my presentation skill and teaching ability. It’s not my first choice of how I like to spend my time–if it was, I would have focused on that in grad school instead of things like classification and vocabulary design.

But it’s still nice when, upon completing a presentation about the library’s reserach databases, the instructor says, “Thanks. That’s the best presentation I’ve had yet.”

{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.

et cetera