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.

{May 20, 2010}   SOS: save our stacks

Man, I had a great segue of posts lined up for this week, with ideas that flowed into and built on one another, and then Donald A. Barclay had to go and write this.

It’s an article from American Libraries magazine (the online edition–I didn’t see it in the print issue) called “The Myth of Browsing,” and it purports that browsing the physical stacks  should not be a priority in the contemporary academic library. And with all due respect, I say “bull sh*t.”

Barclay offers a number of reasons why browsing need not be supported. First off, he claims that the physical stack browsing that current scholars feel is a historical precedent is actually false–public access to physically browse stacks is a relatively recent (20th century) concept. To this I say: so what? So what if it’s a new idea? Should we always do things the way they were done in the past? Should we take away OPACs and return to card catalogs–OPACs have even less historical precedence than shelf browsing. Oh, and let’s do away with full-text access in scholarly databases, too–that’s only been around, what, maybe 20 years? Just because something wasn’t done throughout the entirely of library history does not mean it’s incorrect or wrong–in fact, it’s quite possibly a positive innovation, and, in the case of public browsing, I think it’s been wildly successful.

Barclay also tries to shoot holes in the ‘serendipitous discovery’ valued by some researchers (especially in the humanities, and, near and dear to my heart, the arts). He tries to claim that because every resource in existence in the entire world cannot physically be on a shelf in a library to browse, that patrons are missing out, like “hitting the sale tables on day three of a three day sale.” Again, I must disagree. Of course we cannot offer every existing resource on a shelf at any given time, and yes, this will reduce some discovery possibilities. But aren’t our collections tailored to best serve our patron groups? Do not arts libraries acquire what they feel to be the best selection of books and resources for their clientele, while law libraries choose the best resources for their patrons, and so on? Yes, we must make choices, and yes, that mean perhaps choosing one resource over another and only offering selected books on the shelf. But isn’t that our job as librarians? Isn’t that what we are supposed to do, and what people rely on us for? Collection development and management are key components of professional librarianship, and to offer a collection of every resource in the known universe rather than a carefully tailored collection targeting user group needs, would be unsuccessful, and in my opinion, unprofessional. And at least with some resources on the shelves, something can be found, even if it’s only selected from a few dozen titles rather than every book in the world.  If resources are removed completely (say, to off-site storage as mentioned in the article) then nothing can be selected by browsing, and I personally think something is better than nothing at all. He also tries to claim that browsing is counterproductive due to issues with classification schema, but to me that reflects more on the appropriateness of the schema to the particular library. Regular readers of my blog know that I may be biased in this area, but I think such issues should motivate research into the library’s classification success (or lack thereof), even the success of the furniture design (as Barclay notes, books are more likely to be browsed at eye-level than on the top or bottom shelves out of view).

But what about digital access and browsing? Surely if we remove all those books off-site, people will be able to search and browse the library catalog digitally and find materials that way, right? This is Barclay’s claim–except he doesn’t mention libraries. He’s certainly keen to cite‘s “rich browsing experience” and how “so many of today’s academic library users routinely start by looking up books via bookstore websites.” He himself is saying it right here–library catalogs currently cannot and do not support the browsing needs of library users. Until we can offer the same sort of browsing and findability experiences digitally that library users can get from browsing the stacks, we are in no position to be removing stacks browsing access from our libraries. Now, I may be delusional, but I have optimistic hopes that the day will come when library catalogs are more robust and user-friendly than commercial book websites. But until that happens, we should not be putting our eggs in the basket of Amazon and other external sites and vendors over whose fate we have no control.

Finally, Barclay claims that large physical book collections have become an “unsustainable luxury.” I don’t inherently disagree with this. But why are the unsustainable? Because we’ve made them so. Perhaps better management and strategic planning, with a focus on sustaining physical collections, would alleviate this issue. As for luxuries–indeed, large book collections are luxuries. That’s what attracts people to them–it’s a luxury that most people cannot afford on their own. Libraries are luxury, that’s part of what they’re designed for. They are a luxury of civilized, educated societies, which we need to offer if that’s what we purport to be. And again, from the way I see it from behind my rose-colored glasses, if it’s a luxury people want, they will say so. Which is exactly what they did at Syracuse, and what prompted Barclay’s article. Which brings me to my final (and biggest) beef with Barclay’s piece: here are library users stepping up and saying what they want and value about the library–in this case, physical stacks to browse and a hallowed environment in which to study–and yet Barclay throws everything in his arsenal against it. He sees library users saying in no uncertain terms what they want, and yet he argues against it. No wonder librarians get a bad rap; no wonder people sometimes see us as snooty, uptight traditionalists who push our ways on people because we assume that we know better. Now, I understand that users may not always know what they want, or even what might work best for them, but we’re certainly not doing anyone any favors by shoving that down their throats and blatantly arguing against supporting their needs and wants.

I don’t know much, but I do know this: people want physical spaces to browse print materials and immerse themselves in the traditional atmosphere that occurs only when in the presence of a large number of books. I believe they want it so much, that someday, when all these libraries have taken it away from them in favor of digital access and offsite bunker storage, I will open a space for them where they can come and browse and smell and take in the atmosphere. Maybe if I’m nice I won’t even charge them for it. On certain holidays and every fifth Tuesday of the month.

ps> Way to go, American Libraries, for not allowing comments on the article.

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.

{March 17, 2010}   survey results

I haven’t been posting much here lately, and it’s partially because I’m depressed. Why?

About 2 weeks ago I was told that both the reclassification proposal and the student & faculty survey were rejected by the Board of Directors. Because I know you’ll ask why: I was not given any substantial reason. Yes, I have more I’d like to say about it. No, I’m not really comfortable posting about it on a public blog, unfortunately. But buy me a drink at the next conference and I promise to tell you all about it. So much so that you’ll probably regret buying me that drink.

I’m saddened to  have to hold back my thoughts and opinions, because one thing I’ve always tried to do here is to be very open and real, and less about lofty, idealized concepts that cutting edge libraries are implementing, but rather the day-to-day accomplishments and struggles of “real life” in the library catalog. 

While I have lots of things I’d really like to say but won’t, there is one thing I can’t seem to keep my mouth shut about, and that’s what kind of message an organization–any organization–sends out when it decides not to survey its users, for whatever reason, valid or not. I think unwillingness to survey your users is a tangible example of disinterest in what your patrons think and want. As a user, I’d be upset with any organization that so blatantly demonstrates that they don’t care what I think.

If they don’t care what I think, why should I care about them? No wonder libraries are losing support. I wouldn’t support an organization with that attitude, either.

As some of you know, I’ve been lobbying for quite a while for new ILS/catalog software for our  library. Lobbying hard, considering our current state. I feel like we’ve made some successful progress: we had a great library staff committee to evaluate potential commercial software packages, and once we decided on our top choice and presented it to the director and the administration, the response was positive. However, at approximately the same time, the world decided to have some sort of Giant Economic Crisis, and despite the fact that it may truly be an unnecessary precaution for our institution, all software budgets were frozen until the beginning of FY2010. Not to worry though—I’ve been assured it’s our #1 top priority the minute the 2010 budget opens up. But I’m not exactly holding my breath here. What can I say? I’m frustrated that this project—in the works for several years now, since shortly after I first began working here—might be put off yet again, not just because I’m annoyed by delays or buget frustrations, but because I can’t understand why something so intrinsic to improving patron experience and access success seems to be so inconsequential to the powers that be. So it goes.

While I’m perfectly satisfied with the out-of-the-box product we’ve chosen and I have no doubts it will more than fulfill our current needs, some part of my mind can’t help wonder what a catalog for our patrons might be like if we could design it ourselves, from scratch, to specifically meet our patrons’ unique needs, rather than settling for the best pre-made system that addresses most of them in a traditional library way. Because I’ve never quite been sold on the idea that a traditional “library catalog” interface would be the best discovery tool for our students.

I’ve thought about this on and off ever since the RFP was but a twinkle in my eye, but Karen Schneider’s post about the shift from the “librarian-centric” to “developer-centric” model brought it back to mind:

Librarians do bring terrific skills to the table. We have a strong service orientation. We are practical. We understand what these products must do, and we have a firm grasp on timelines and calendars. We also have an appreciation for order, governance, and transparency. But we simply don’t (yet) have the core competencies to do what we did one hundred years ago — design, build, and manage our own tools.  We lost our way several decades ago, and we need to acknowledge that we can’t get out of this forest on our own.

If I could sit down today and start from scratch, and not base the design on previous library catalogs, I have an idea for how I’d like our catalog to function. Instead of title/author/subject based searches and entries, I imagine a browseable subject hierarchy. The opening screen displays visual representations (i.e. images instead of and/or in addition to text) of maybe the top ten or so popular research subjects that hour, day, etc. There might be a Google-esque search box, not the focus of the screen but certainly available for those with more specific needs or interest in topics not readily apparent. But overall, a simple, clean, un-cluttered, uncomplicated design.

pencil sketch of an idea of a new catalog interface

Please excuse the poor quality of my sketches—just because I work at an arts-related library doesn’t make me an artist. :) My original plan was to jerryrig some screenshots and do some fancy Photoshop work, but I kept running out of time and putting if off, and finally decided that my crappy sketches got the idea across and were better than nothing. Sorry about the bleed-through, but I'm a proponent of recycled paper.

Clicking on a subject (either from the home screen or after a search) does not take the user directly to a list of materials, but rather an authority page for the subject. Not a library-jargoned authority file like an LC authority record, but more like a Wikipedia-esque page with some basic info about the subject. A basic biography, birth/death dates, what they are famous or known for if a personal subject (like, say, Christian Dior);  a brief definition or explanatory information for a topical subject, such as Art Deco. Beneath this brief info, the screen would offer materials results: books, articles, DVDs, images, and other references (links to designers’ websites, contact information for design companies, etc.).

sketch of new catalog interface--second level screen

I think the subject focus would appeal to our students, and a page design reminiscent of a familiar site like Wikipedia would ease use. I think it would be more in touch with our patron demographic, both in their information-seeking behavior and their technology literacy.

Apparently other people agree with me, too, because while I was spending time writing this entry and putting off sketching, I happened across this fantastic blog post about concept-oriented catalogs which shares some of the same ideas (right down to the Wikipedia analogy) as this post I’m writing now.

So why isn’t our library’s catalog like this?

Because I can’t build it. I’m a librarian, not a computer programmer. As many of us are, and, as Karen Schneider notes, to our own disadvantage. I can understand my patrons’ information needs and behavior, and I can figure out how to organize and present that information to them in a findable way. I know what to do, I just don’t know how to manifest it. How, then, can we take the next step, from concept to creation?

There was a thread not all that long ago on the RADCAT listserv asking people how they got involved in what seems to now be called “radical cataloging,” i.e., basically, anything that questions or deviates from the proscribed traditional standards. Many people cited Sandy Berman as an influence, but I confess I hadn’t even heard of him until I was almost done with graduate school. (I may have even first learned about him on that very listserv.)

Apparently I’ve always been a radical cataloger, because I started deviating from the rules in the very first lecture of my very first cataloging class. It was my second semester in library school, but I had been working at the library where I am now for almost a year at that point, and I had already spent 5 years working for a large retail bookstore chain. The professor was introducing areas of bibliographic description with an exercise where he held up a book and asked students to suggest characteristics that might be beneficial to include in a bibliographic record. Everyone named the obvious components like title, author, etc., right away. The book was green, and I remember him asking the class if we thought that was important enough to be included. I (and several other people) answered yes, and were corrected by the instructor and told that it wasn’t.*

But all I could think about were all the years I spent helping people looking for “that book with the yellow cover” (both in the bookstore and in the arts-oriented library where I work) and how that cover color was information that people wanted to know and wanted to use to find their books, and if that information wasn’t included, we were doing a disservice to a certain percentage of searchers.

So why isn’t cover color included in bibliographic description? I can certainly see obvious reasons why it’s not: covers can vary depending on printing, covers may be multicolored and difficult to describe, books are rebound, the information in the resource and not the resource itself is what’s important, etc. I think these are all certainly valid reasons for excluding color from bibliographic description; the issues and troubles that come from documenting cover color certainly outweigh any benefits derived from including cover description, at least in most libraries.

But in some libraries, like arts-focused libraries, patrons are interested to know what covers look like. This is documented by research as well as my personal observations. So why isn’t color cover included in bibliographic description if it does, in fact, serve patrons?

Because it didn’t fit on a catalog card.
The current cataloging practices we have now evolved directly from the use of cards, specifically card catalogs. I’ve heard Diane Hillman talk about how the semantic web is going to further FRBR and move us away from our archaic self-imposed card-based standards.  I’ve watched Tim Spalding’s talk  about the limitations of standards based on physical cards. We use “main entry” and the “rule of three” because catalog cards did not have space to include every author/contributor. LC prescribes 3 subject headings because any more would tax the available space on a 3×5 card. Modern cataloging has been far too heavily influenced by what kinds of information we could cram into a two-dimensional space a little less than 15 square inches.

Once we were no longer limited to that tiny piece of cardstock, did we start including more information? Has cataloging changed significantly with the new technologies that have manifested between the typewriter and today? It certainly doesn’t seem like it. I know I’ve talked before about discarding these limitations now that we have technology that’s not held bound by these constraints: why not make the title field repeatable, so that multiple versions of a title can be included in a bib record? Why not list all the authors, instead of just the first three? But it leads me to wonder–what else we might include once we’re no longer held back by the tradition of the catalog cards? People claim that RDA will address these issues, but I see RDA as another piece atop the house of catalog cards, teetering precariously, still based on preceding rules and standards and subject to implementation challenges too.

What I would really like to do is sit down and start from scratch. Pretend like card catalogs never existed. If I walked into my library today, with its users and its collection, but without any previous cataloging, how would I organize it? Would I make a card catalog? An online database? An index? A paper list? Piles? Would the height of the book be important? The page count? Would it be enough for my patrons to simply indicate “ill.” or would I describe resources more specifically in terms of maps, sketches, charts, photographs, images, reproductions, etc.? I might include width, rather than (or in addition to) height, so as to be easily able to calculate the linear feet necessary in our increasingly cramped shelf space. I might list all the authors, not just the first three named or the “main” one. I might include categories for artists, illustrators, designers, models, and other contributors that aren’t authors but are certainly creators or co-creators of the work. I might do a lot of things differently if I was given the chance to start fresh and not required to work under the shackles of a system that not only does not serve my niche library, but cripples the evolution of other libraries as well.

Of course, we can’t start fresh—libraries already have large amounts of time, money, and inertia invested in the defunct status quo. Libraries balk at the effort to perform retrospective cataloging and reclassification projects—to throw everything out and develop new cataloging from scratch would be unthinkable. And truth be told, not only is it economically unviable and incredibly taxing to an already overworked personnel, there’s also oodles of valuable data already in catalogs that would be inefficient to simply throw away.

We can certainly harvest that data, but we need to add all the other stuff that’s missing—all the stuff that was left off in the past because it didn’t fit on that tiny little card, all the additional authors and contributors and series and width measurements and whatever else proves to be important to us and our patrons. LibraryThing already does this with some of its Common Knowledge data, which is clearly established as important information to the user group the site serves. As an arts librarian, I’d love to see development in the physical description areas, since our patrons seem to be so influenced by the physical characteristics of our resources. I wonder if this could also be crowdsourced/added socially: in the same way that LibraryThing members contribute series and character information, perhaps arts library users could describe their resources in ways that they find important to them? And if each library added the data that was important to them, imagine how fleshed out, detailed, and useful our bibliographic records could be!

Every library is different, and one tiny 3 x 5 card can’t hope to fit all the information needed by all of the different libraries out there. So now it’s my turn to hold up a book and ask which components might be important. Think about your library, its users, and its collection. Pretend catalog cards never existed. Tell me: How would you organize your library’s materials? What information would you record?

* I don’t begrudge the instructor for his answer–it was correct in context in that ‘color’ isn’t included in the traditional 8 areas of bibliographic description, which was, after all, what the lesson was about. He is actually a fantastic instructor who I would recommend to anyone, and I’m totally going to steal that exercise idea someday when I’m teaching cataloging.

{January 13, 2010}   missing midwinter

As I’m starting to see posts and tweets from Midwinter, I confess I’m a little sad to not be attending this time around. It sounds like there are some cool sessions, plus I’ve never been to Boston. Not to worry, though: Boston is still a viable goal for 2010… 

For those of you, like me, tuning in from home, I’m happy to share that I’ll be participating in a virtual midwinter presentation, sponsored by the arts section of ACRL

ACRL Arts Section’s *Virtual* Discussion Forum
ALA MidWinter 2010

Join ACRL Arts Section’s first *virtual* discussion forum!
Saturday, Jan. 16th @ 11am (EST) via Conference Call (and ALA Connect)

It will be an exciting first, and you won’t want to miss it!

Rachel Clarke is a Cataloger at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising Library. Her presentation entitled “Avant-Garde Cataloging: Pushing the Boundaries of Traditional Standards to Better Serve Arts Library Users” will talk about cataloging for arts and design school libraries.

Marie Botkin, an MLIS Graduate student, will discuss Medieval Manuscript Illuminations and their significance to fashion changes.

There will be a Q&A session after the presenters.

How to join the discussion:
1. Dial into the conference call: 218.844.0850. When prompted, enter the access code: 713404*.
2. During (or before) the conference call, log into ALA connect (, find the ACRL Arts Section community, click on the Discussion tab, then click on ACRL Arts Section Virtual Discussion Forum. Download the documents, and now you’re ready to follow along with the presenter!

Have technical questions or questions about the discussion forum? Please email Yen Tran at Hope you’ll join us for this exciting discussion! 


Yes, I am doing a virtual presentation on cataloging and classification for arts libraries. I do hope you’ll join in! Personally, I’ve found ALA Connect somewhat awkward in terms of navigation and login, so you might want to go in ahead of time and poke around to make sure you’re hunky-dory with your username/login and navigation. But just in case,  here’s a link to the exact page within ALA Connect. There’s no need to be an ALA member to use ALA Connect or attend the presentation, so come on!

{January 1, 2010}   Welcome to 2010!

Welcome to a new year! I think it’s gonna be a good one. Not only has 2010 been designated the Year of Cataloging Research, but this blog has also been listed by Cataloging Futures as one of the top ten cataloging blogs to read in 2010 and also nominated by both the former and some kind anonymous readers as one of the top ten library-related blogs to follow in 2010 by LISNews. I sure hope I can live up to all of that!

 I know I’ve got lots of big plans in store for this year, lots of things to talk about, and, of course, lots of strong opinions. Let’s make some resolutions to do some research, assessment, evaluation, and improvement in our services, big or small, to make 2010 a better year for our patrons as well! If anyone out there has plans regarding cataloging, classification, or any other collection organization for this year, I would sure love to hear about them. Please leave a comment and let me know: what’s your cataloging resolution?

2010 is going to be a good year. I know that together we can all investigate and make changes that truly make a difference in people’s library experiences and lives!

2 days. 2 staff. 1200 DVDs. One mission:

DVDs sorted by category, with labels

It may sound like a bad action movie tagline, but it’s true: two people reclassified our feature film collection in two days.

I say this because I get a lot of balk whenever I bring up reclassification, anything from upgrading to the latest DDC edition to instituting an entirely new schema. Libraries are understaffed, underfunded, don’t have the manpower or the time to go back and retroactively convert or upgrade or migrate to a new system. And I say (pardon my French): bullsh*t.

I’m not denying that it’s a lot of work. It’s a crazy amount of work. What I am saying is: isn’t that work worth it? Obviously every project requires a calculation of return on investment, and sure, sometimes the amount of effort expanded won’t be worth it.  But how can you calculate the returned value of patron service? Doesn’t improved findability for patrons (which in turn increases library usage and circulation) warrant a significant investment? And to anyone who claims otherwise, I ask that you re-examine the mission and purpose of libraries in general, because if you’re not willing to invest in patron service, then what exactly is your purpose?

To the catalogers who balk: I know we’re all swamped and underappreciated, and most libraries have backlogs enough to keep them occupied until the year 2063. (And I can rant about that for the same amount of time, but that’s a post for another day…) Cataloging new acquisitions and making them accessible is important–it’s personally my highest priority as well as being the highest priority in our cataloging policies here. But as high as it is, it’s not the only priority, just as bibliographic records are not the sole point of cataloging. As busy as we all are, I think there are ways to work on updating and/or reclassifying a collection so as to improve patron accessibility and experience. Here’s what we did:

  • Tuesday morning, circa 9 a.m.: The audiovisuals specialist and I decide to reclassify the feature films. Okay, that’s kind of a lie. It was an idea we’d been talking about for a while, 2 quarters at least. Repeated observation and commentary from students and faculty led us to believe there was a great deal of difficulty finding feature film DVDs and videos, which up until now, had simply been shelved in DDC/Cutter order. All features were assigned 791.4372 + Cutter number; essentially all 1200+ commercial Hollywood movies were arranged in alphabetical order. Try to imagine walking into a Blockbuster Video arranged like that and trying to find a movie. I sure hope you know exactly what title you want to see, because if you’re in the mood for a light romantic comedy or a scary thriller, you’re SOL. Sure, we could have built out DDC numbers for the film genres based on the schedules under 791.436 + Table 3C, but honestly, that’s not only a lot of work, but how does that help our patrons? Maybe it lumps together like genres, sure. But by that point you have a number so long that it wraps around the spine of the DVD case, making it difficult to read as well as still being a number that patrons don’t identify with. Much easier to just divide into sections by name of genre and label accordingly. And that was what we decided to do, and Tuesday morning we looked at each other and decided that we’d dallied around long enough, and we were just gonna bite the bullet and do it.


  • 9:30 am: The two of us brave immensely strong winds on our way to the nearly office supply store to purchase a package of labels for the project. Total cost =$12.99 + tax.


  • 10am: We discuss and decide on 7 categories: Action, Animated, Comedy, Drama, Foreign, Musicals, and Sci-Fi/Horror. We debate other ideas, like Historical and Documentary, but we decide to keep it simple and just stick with the main seven. They are based on traditional movie genres as well as what our patrons commonly request, as well as what they don’t want–we’ve had numerous occurences of students checking out films only to return them with disappointment because they didn’t know the movie was a musical or in a foreign language. Separating those two categories out should help alleviate that problem, if not solve it entirely. We print color-coded labels for each section.


  • 11am: We start pulling materials off the shelf and sorting them into piles. Of course we encounter problems as we go. Some movies span multiple categories; some are totally unfamiliar to us and we have no idea where to class them. We begin making executive decisions: all war movies will go in Action; all Jane Austen films will go under Comedy (where we have already decided to class romantic comedies); an animated film in a foreign language will go under foreign, because our students are more interested in avoiding subtitles than they are in finding (or avoiding) animated films. This is the thing about physical classification–there comes a point when these decisions have to be made. Yes, everything is miscellaneous, and I can point you at examples of animated foreign musicals. But you have to make a decision, you have to document that decision, and then you have to move on. And I think this is where many classification/reclassification projects shut down, either at this point, or even before, just from fear and anticipation of this point. (See: Open Shelves Classification.) Face it: you’re not going to please 100% of the people 100% of the time. There’s going to be a lot of compromise. Be Zen with the compromise. Embrace it. And most of all, be able to explain it to people–that’s one reason you’re documenting it, so you can say “here’s where we put war movies, we file them under action.” As long as you know where they go, you can direct a user there. Because believe me, someone, somewhere will be upset that you don’t have a top-level category for war movies. But if you can say, “hey, we didn’t have enough to make a separate section, but we put them all in action, you can find them all there,” as long as the person inquiring knows where to find them, they’re usually happy. (There are a few people who will never be happy no matter what. That’s life. Move on.) We end up with a small pile of materials that defy obvious classification, so we look them up on Amazon (notice I didn’t say the Library of Congress or in the bib record) to determine the best place for them. 


  • Noon-ish: Now that we have piles, we start slapping labels on materials. We take a few minutes to agree in which direction and where on the spine they should be adhered. Then we get to it, and madly begin sticking labels on everything, including ourselves.


  • 1:00: Break for staff holiday potluck. Whee!


  • 2:30: Back to work. The audiovisuals specialist continues to label while I begin changing call numbers in the ILS. Unfortunately, we don’t have any sort of batch change option, so each record must be changed individually. Previously, a DVD call number would read something like:

DVD 791.4372 AL42w

After the change, the call number now reads:

DVD Animated A

That’s a lot easier to read and understand, no?

We continue like this until the end of the day Tuesday and resume Wednesday morning. We get a little help finishing up the labeling from some wandering part-time staff in need of projects. After the labels are done in the morning, I continue to change call numbers in the system while the audiovisuals specialist begins shifting the stacks and alphabetizing and reshelving materials. After I finish working on the computer, I join her, and by 5 p.m. Wednesday, the project is done. Well, we still need to order some alphabet labels to replace the old DDC spine labels–until those arrive we’ll still alphabetize by the old Cutter number. But other than that…

DVDs arranged neatly on shelves

So that wasn’t so hard, was it? Sure, it was a lot of work, but hey, that’s our job. I think it’s often fear and anticipation of the overwhelming nature of such projects that puts a stop to them even before they start. I’ve done quite a bit of reclassification now, and here’s some stuff I’ve learned so far:

1. Start small. Work in sections. If you look at reclassifying your whole collection, it’s going to be too much. This time around, we didn’t even do all of our audiovisual collection–we limited it to just feature films. When I updated our collection from DDC21 to 22, I worked section by section, first tackling 745, then 747. Break it down into manageable chunks. We’re on the quarter system here, so I like to go quarter by quarter. One quarter I took on 750, reclassing painters by name rather than country origin (since it made more sense for our students that way). The next quarter I did the same thing for architects in 720. Also, if you’re working in a smaller section, it’s easy to throw up a ‘pardon our dust’ sign telling patrons that there’s work going on in that section and to ask staff for help if they need anything there. Also, a smaller section or sub-section can function as a test case, where you can observe patron reactions and adjust accordingly before moving on to larger projects. Maybe (for some unthinkably bizarre reason) our patrons will hate what we’ve done with the DVDs. It’s a small enough section and easy enough work to restore them to the original DDC order if desired.

2. Have a plan. As much as it seems like we jumped into the project on Tuesday, it really was a long time coming and part of a larger strategic goal. Even though we finalized the categories that morning, we had discussed them in-depth previously as part of a larger collection reorganization. Make sure what you’re doing is in line with the larger scope of the library and the collection as a whole. Having a plan assumes research regarding your library’s collection and users.

2a. Once you have a plan, get to work. Once everything is ready to go, go do it. Try to do it as quickly and efficiently as possible. Don’t plan reclassification for a time right before you’re going on vacation, or it’s finals week in the library, or other situations where you might be interrupted. I think drawing this type of project out or letting it linger in limbo doesn’t do staff or patrons any good. Hence tip #1 to start small. If all you can do is one shelf a month, then pick your shelf and get it done and just do that one shelf. But do it, rather than putting it off until you “have more time.” We’re never going to have more time. Libraries never do. If you’re going to do it, find a way to get it done, or don’t do it at all.

3. Take advantage of available resources. Part of the reason we could reclassify our feature films so quickly is because both of us were intimately familiar with our collection. I can reclassify DDC 22 because I know the system like the back of my hand. I can look at most materials that come into our library and classify them immediately, without even looking at the schedules. This means I can reclassify sections in a day that might take the staff at out other campuses a week or more. Harness these strengths. Use people on your staff (yourself or others) with expert knowledge. Can you do some sort of batch change or find-and-replace in your ILS? Use that to your advantage. Do you have volunteers, interns, student workers who need easy projects? Set them up labeling or shelving.

4. Don’t overthink it. You can easily get bogged down trying to accomodate every tiny little niche category and user. Yes, browseability is important, especially in an arts library like ours. But remember that you can’t please all the people all the time. Remember that there are alternate means of access, like the catalog. There are still ways to find all the films set in a certain time period, or all the Pierce Brosnan movies. Think of your classification as broad browsing categories, and leave the niche, faceted searching to the catalog. Many people will not understand this, and everyone will have opinions about classification categories. But remember: this is what you do as a cataloger. This is ostensibly your area of expertise. It’s our job to consider ideas and suggestions from users and staff alike, but it’s also our job to use advanced knowledge to screen the ideas and create something functional, rather than getting bogged down trying to incorporate every idea and suggestion. There are other, better tools and technologies for that, and all these things can be designed to work together rather than replace each other.

5. Don’t get too carried away! I love classification and reclassification, and goodness knows I might reclassify everything in sight if given the chance. But some materials and collections don’t need it, and it’s better to direct energies elsewhere. Change for improvement is good. Change simply for change’s sake is just change. And change can be hard to adjust to, for library staff and patrons alike, even if it is designed to improve user experience. Which brings me to…

6. Documentation and training: Sure, some of the reclassification projects I’ve mentioned, like upgrading to DDC22, are theoretically pretty seamless to staff and all but invisible to patrons. Something like our DVD categories seems pretty self-explanatory. But believe you me, when we open our doors again on January 7, we’re gonna see some wide-eyed and confused faces. Be ready to explain–many, many times over–the new system and how it works. Make signs. Make handouts. We’re planning on typing up descriptions of the new categories, posting them in the audiovisuals area as well as on our student portal/website and faculty intranet. Additionally, I’ll be writing up something similar for internal library use, not just for staff reference but also training and succession planning. This way anyone who adds new feature films to the collection in the future will have documentation telling them exactly where to class Jane Austen or animated foreign films. This also ensures consistency, so that all war movies will really be classed under action.

7. (Most importantly) Have fun! Yes, this is a lot of work. Maybe I’m crazy, but I really enjoy these sorts of projects.  I like classifying things, and I like having a tangibly demonstrable example of improving user experience. I can’t wait until the quarter starts to see the reaction from students and faculty. Maybe they’ll hate it and so we’ll change it. But maybe they’ll love it, and be very happy about it. That’s what I’m anticipating, and that’s what I’m looking forward to seeing–after the shock of change, the smiles on their faces, as they are not only happy with the new ability to find materials, but also the realization that we listened to what they had to say, and acted on it.

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et cetera