From the catalogs of babes











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.



{March 8, 2010}   RDA: why it won’t work

 With the release of RDA, people on every blog and listserv and Twitter feed are debating its merits. But I’ll tell you right now: RDA is not going to work. Why?

 1. It’s not easy.

2. It’s not free.

You can debate it up, down and sideways, but honestly, it’s as simple as that. Clay Shirky (in Here Comes Everybody) says, “When an activity becomes more expensive, either in direct costs or increased hassle, people do less of it.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: cataloging is hard. When it’s hard to do things right, people will get it wrong. Through no fault of their own. Who can blame the cataloger who applies subject headings incorrectly when there are literally 4 volumes of instructions, many of which have different rules and guidelines for each different subject? Who can blame someone for misremembering if a colon or a semi-colon precedes the 300b field? Who can blame a person for entering the title of a work in title case, rather than lower case (except for the first word and proper nouns), especially when the former is a national community standard taught in elementary education. And who can blame someone for not following these outdated standards because technology makes them no longer applicable or necessary?

This needs to change. It’s impacting our ability to offer quality services and access to materials.  We need to make it easy to do things well.

 I understand how complicated and complex some aspects of cataloging can be. But I don’t think “complex” necessarily has to equal “difficult.” I think there are ways we can structure software and cataloging interfaces to work for us rather than against us. When I first heard of RDA and it’s requisite electronic interface, I had envisioned it to be something along the lines of a “choose your own adventure,” or an electronic flow chart, where answering questions about the resource in hand would lead to the complete, automated creation of a catalog record.

I understand the use of consistency and standards, and how previously this was achievable solely through human application. But that’s no longer the case–many of these outdated standards can be automated, and in turn, more consistent than applications prone to human error. And if the profession values such standards, and truly wants everyone and every library to adhere to and meet those standards in order to create more interoperability, those standards not only ned to be easy to implement, they need to be freely accessible.

Many librarians are balking at the cost of implementing RDA, I think rightfully so, although not for the same reasons. I’m not bitching about it because it’s unaffordable for smaller libraries, or because it’s a subscription rather than a one-time printed book cost (although I think those are valid points). I’m bitching because putting a dollar amount on something, now matter how low it is, will stop people from using something, especially if there’s a free alternative. In this case, I see the free alternative as ‘ignoring rules altogether and/or making you your own standards.’ Requiring a price makes adhering to standards–a key value-added service of libraries and librarians–inaccessible. Which is pretty ironic, considering that libraries are supposed to be all about access. We’re all proactive about offering access to our patrons, but we can’t extend that same philosophy to ourselves, to help us do a better job??

The more depth and complexity in cataloging standards, the more we need to make it as easy as possible for catalogers to apply these standards. More work will get done (and done correctly!), more tasks delegated, turn-around times improved, access increased–all of which benefit not only the cataloger and other library staff, but in turn the patron, which is ultimately what it’s all about.

Help us, ALA. Give us better, faster, easier, more efficient ways to do our jobs so that we can, in turn, make our patron’s information experiences better, faster, and more efficient. If you can’t or won’t help us, who will?



{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 (www.connect.ala.org), 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 ntran@library.ucsb.edu. 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!



It’s the last day of the quarter at our library. The library is dead. I think maybe 4 people have come in all day, mostly to drop off books before we close for winter break. Our school is on the quarter system, and for about 2 weeks between each quarter, the library is closed to patrons, although we still come in every day to work on projects and backlogs that we can’t seem to accomplish when school is in session. I know we’re lucky; most libraries don’t have that luxury.

Sometimes, as the end of the quarter rolls around, and especially during the holidays, we get cards and gifts and candy treats from some of the staff and faculty, a very kind and thoughtful gesture of appreciation. Sometimes patrons will thank us individually, with a card or small gift, for personally helping them with a specific project, or always interacting with them in a positive way.  Yesterday, one of the circulation staff came in the workroom to share a nice gift he’d received from a teacher he always helps. And I confess, it made me a teensy bit jealous.

I’ve never been one of those outgoing, perky, friendly people who bonds with others right away. I think I’m pretty outgoing once I’m friends with someone and no longer have to interact with them in a professional manner. I suppose I’m old enough that to me ‘professional manner’ still equals a sense of some sort of formality–I’m not saying this is good or bad, it just is. I know I can come across as stand-offish, aloof, even stuck-up and snooty. I try very hard to be friendly, open, and approachable, especially at the reference and circulation desks, but I’m just never going to be one of those people with whom students and faculty have an instant rapport. Most of the time, I’m okay with that. As nice as it might be, it’s not my job to be the patrons’ friends. It’s my job to help them find the materials and resources they need.

And that’s what cataloging is: helping library users find, identify, select, and obtain(pdf) bibliographic resources. The purpose of cataloging is not to create a bibliographic record; that is a function of cataloging, but it is not a purpose. Bibliographic records are valuable contributions to cataloging and make up a majority of the work that catalogers currently do. But a cataloger’s job is (or should be) larger than that–they should use whatever appropriate means necessary to enable the library’s user to find materials, to identify and/or differentiate between materials, to select the best or most appropriate material for their needs, and to obtain or acquire that material. To enable library users to accomplish these tasks takes more than bibliographic records. It takes more than authority control, more than subject analysis, more than classification, metadata, stacks management, holdings, circulation, reference, bibliographies, reader’s advisory, inventory, needs assessment. It takes all these things and more to get to a point where users can not only find, identify, select and obtain materials, but can do so seamlessly–without errors, hassles, broken links, missing materials, unnavigable interfaces, and all the other obvious obstacles that users see on a day-to-day basis.

And that’s the problem: cataloging, and all its related functions, when done property, should never even be noticeable. The only time we’re brought to the attention of patrons or other library staff is when things aren’t working. What kind of reputation does that give us? It lends the impression that we’re all errors, all the time. I have a friend at another library where they recieved a report of some broken links to articles on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, and the faculty member who filed the complaint had the nerve to complain that it took 4 hours to get it resolved. 4 hours! During a holiday weekend, when the library was closed and no one was working! To me, that shouldn’t warrant a complaint, it should warrant a bonus. But the staff fixes errors so rapidly on a regular basis that  I guess 4 hours must have seemed outrageous.

What catalogers do goes on behind doors, in basements and workrooms, away from the public eye. Ideally, the tasks we perform make library functionality seamless and transparent. Many do not understand what is we do all day, or how it applies to tangible library services or manifests in patron services. Patrons rarely (if ever) see us, yet we touch so many of them directly though records, indexes, subject headings, and other services. Patrons don’t bring us gifts for making their searching easier. Every thank you note I’ve ever received has been for instructional presentations, never for increasing findability.

I’m not trying to fish for sympathy. Despite some of the bad days, when it’s finals and students are stressed and teachers are disorganized and frustrated, I think most of the time, our patrons really do appreciate us. We’re always appreciated for our public face–our thorough and knowledgeable reference service, our extensive collection of materials, our flexibility in terms of circulation and accessibility. I don’t need recognition from patrons to know that I do my job well and I improve library services. I observe it everyday, when I watch people look for books and DVDs. I’ve seen students retrieve books in searches that I know only turned up because I added keywords or headings to the record. I’m not in this for applause or reward or grandeur (although I sure wouldn’t turn it down…), and I know many other catalogers feel similarly.

But if you have a minute, maybe you can stop by your cataloger’s desk and say thanks. Tell them you appreciate what they do. If you don’t know what it is exactly they do (and it’s hard to appreciate something if you don’t even know what it is), maybe take a few minutes and talk to them about it and ask them to explain it to you. It could be a beneficial and enlightening conversation for both parties.

And hugs to all my cataloging friends out there. Keep up the good work!



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.

 



So I finally joined ARLIS, which I know seems strange that it took me this long to join the organization devoted to arts libraries. It’s not that I didn’t want to join before, because I did. It honestly sometimes just comes down to a matter of money. I started joining professional organizations when I was a student, and I personally find them very beneficial. It’s cheap to join as a student, but the membership fees often drastically increase after graduation. I don’t fault the organizations for this, and I don’t think any of their individual fees are outrageous, but by the time you’re joining 3 or 4 organizations, it can get pretty pricey.

I’ve tried to cull the herd and cut some of my memberships, but I find it very difficult. I don’t want to leave ALA, as I feel it’s the “core” organization of the field. With ALA comes ALCTS and LITA. I’m hesitant to leave SLA (although the debate about the realignment and name change may just drive me away), not only because the specialty library focus ties in so closely with our library and what we do, but also because they invested in me when I was a student, and I still feel I owe it to the chapter and the organization to make good on that investment. I was considering dropping SAA, since I don’t currently work as closely with archival materials as I used to, but then they published my paper in their journal, and I’d feel bad leaving so soon after that. So I’ve got those three, plus their subdivisions and local counterparts, plus now ARLIS, and I still think ASIS&T would be worth the membership if I could afford it. By this point, we’re talking hundreds, if not $1,000+ per year for professional organization memberships alone.

But I finally ponied up the dough to join ARLIS, since I’ve been wanting to attend one of their conferences for a while and though 2010 might be a good year to do so. And I’m really glad I joined–it really does seem to cover the niche area I want to work in. I got several friendly and welcoming emails, including one that alluded to a local discussion group specifically for catalogers in the arts! I know must know how excited that made me–how awesome to find a group of people like me, and even better, their next meeting was coming right up, so I was chomping at the bit to attend.

I wish I hadn’t gotten so worked up. Don’t get me wrong–it was a nice meeting, with a lot of nice people, and well-educated catalogers, which was a nice step up from some meetings I’ve been to. Unfortunately, I missed the introductions, so I’m not sure exactly which and what kinds of libraries everyone was representing, which was dissapointing becuase I feel that’s so intrinsic to cataloging work–what type of library are you, who do you serve as your patrons, what types of materials do you collect? I know quite a few attendees came from art museum libraries, which are going to have very different research needs than art schools. What I didn’t understand was how no one else seemed to understand that.

I felt a very strong presumption in the room about Cataloging Rules and How Things Should Be Done, and not very much about users at all. Most of the agenda covered what I consider to be very niggly little bits of cataloging propriety: is the entry in this 1XX field correct, is “$vCatalogs” being used correctly in this record, should this piece of ephemera be described as “1 sheet, folded” or “1 folded sheet”? I know I’m probably going to get flayed for this, but really, people: who the hell cares? Software, if designed properly, makes all those issues irrelevant. Google’s search algorithms will find your folded sheet either way, and probably even if you call it “folded paper,” too.

I was shocked at the apparent prejudice–while discussing whether or not a “cheat sheet” for cataloging exhibition brochures was correct (see above re: niggly minutiae), many people were asking “why would anyone bother to collect those things anyway?” and similar narrow-minded comments. Perhaps that institution has the largest art ephemera collection in the world. Perhaps those materials are in great demand in that geographic area. Perhaps the brochures are used as examples for graphic design classes or instruction in art exhibition design. Who knows? None of those catalogers, because they didn’t even bother to ask before ripping into not just the proper application of MARC and AACR2r on the cheat sheet, but also the reason for the collection itself.

There was so much narrow focus on minutia that it seemed like the considerations of library users didn’t even exist. One woman from an art museum brought up a dispute with a classification number assigned by the Library of Congress to a book about 4 artists. LC classed it in ND237.O5, evidently specifically under Georgia O’Keeffe, but she felt LC was incorrect and a broader classification would be more appropriate. After spending a lot of time hemming and hawing and discussing why LC had classed it that way, based on the rule of three and classing on the first listed subject heading, and how it was biased for LC to class it only under O’Keeffe since she was the most famous, and how this woman had seen the exhibition herself and it was beautiful, and how the book might be classed under women artists, and why the book shouldn’t be classed under women artists because it’s not specifically feminist enough, about how the book might be classed under American painting, but the book wasn’t all painting, there was one piece of sculpture included… it was all I could do to bite my tongue to keep from shouting: “If you don’t like it, just change it!”  (Someone alert the classification police, because we do it here all the time. I changed the classification numbers on no less than 10 titles this morning alone.) Especially since the women’s primary complaint was that her museum curator would “not understand why the book was classed there” and would be unable to find it! I think books should go where your users will find them, most especially in arts libraries, where established research repeatedly shows a preference for browsing access over searching.

As if that wasn’t enough for me to bite through my tongue, another cataloger actually said that “classification is nothing more than an address” and “not to fret over the call number.” I wish I knew which library she worked for. I’m sure this is a fine model for more research-oriented libraries like perhaps the Getty or LACMA. But as a group of not just catalogers, but catalogers serving arts libraries, I was appalled at the lack of understanding of patrons’ information-seeking behavior. These people are so busy counting the knotholes in the trees, not only do they not see the forest–they’ve forgotten the forest even exists.

It was my first meeting, and as a newbie and relative unknown, I wasn’t quite ready to vocalize my thoughts and make waves. (You might not guess it from my outspoken rants on this blog, but I’m actually fairly introverted and shy.) I’m still glad I went–I saw a few more potential rogues in the woods, and the meeting really opened my eyes in a lot of ways to just how entrenched we are in our methods of cataloging, how much momentum the history of cataloging carries, how hard it just might be to switch to a user-based model of cataloging. It’s going to be an uphill struggle, that’s for sure.

And now that I know what the general tenor of the group is like, I feel better about starting to broach the idea to the group slowly, perhaps with an announcement at the next meeting in February about my forthcoming book chapter about cataloging for art school users. It also makes me wonder if maybe the time isn’t right to pitch a session on user-based arts cataloging to ARLIS…but one thing at a time. Sometimes I have the problem of seeing just a little too much forest and not enough trees!



{July 22, 2009}   giving them what they want

One of the “best” sessions I saw at ALA was the Sunday afternoon session on Catalog Use and Usability Studies. I put “best” in quotation marks because it wasn’t an over-the-top amazing delivery or anything. I thought about saying “interesting,” and it certainly was, but while the topic was of interest, the actual information wasn’t novel. Perhaps “most applicable” would be, well…most applicable in this case.

There were other speakers on evaluating usability, but the meat of the session was Karen Calhoun’s presentation of OCLC’s latest research report, Online Catalogs: What Users and Librarians Want. If you haven’t read it, stop what you’re doing and go right now. It’s not long and it has lots of pretty charts and graphs. Every cataloger and anyone remotely involved with cataloging or catalog systems and interfaces needs to read this. You can come back to this post later, when you’re done. I can wait. It’ll still be here.

I love and hate this report at the same time. I love that someone finally did some research about what end users want from an online catalog. I hate that someone had to spend time and money to discover that “end users want to be able to do a simple Google-like search and get results that exactly match what they expect to find.” Ya think? Pardon my French, but no sh*t, Sherlock. On the other hand, I love that hard data now exists that validates that exact point–a point I’ve been making ever since I started down the cataloging path.

We’ve suspected this for a long time. Now we have data to back it up. Maybe now we can finally start moving away from clunky, cluttered online interfaces with strict, unfamiliar terms and irrelevant metadata and move towards something more user-friendly that contains information that patrons actually use.



{July 18, 2009}   back to the grindstone!
booksoncart

New books waiting to be cataloged and added to the collection.

More about other stuff once I work my way through this…



Last week, a very interesting book came across my desk.

 

Now, we do tend to get a few auction catalogs for our collection, especially for costume sales and the like, so it didn’t seem all that unusual. Until I looked at the back and was about to scan in the ISBN.

 Above the barcode reads the publisher-assigned description “Fiction/Graphic Novels.” My immediate thought was: “Wow, this is the first time I’ve ever seen such an egregious typographical error from the publisher.” But Farrar Strauss Giroux really isn’t some two-bit hustler house that would let a mistake like that slide by. Something had to be up.

Looking at the t.p. verso, I found the CIP data from the Library of Congress, which assigned the DDC number 929′.20973 and listed the following subject headings:

  • Doolan, Lenore–Archives.
  • Morris, Harold–Archives.
  • Doolan, Lenore.
  • Morris, Harold.*
  • Personal belongings–United States–Case studies.
  • Couples–United States–Case studies.
  • Man-woman relationships–United States–Case studies.

No subdivisions for fiction whatsoever. I know CIP data is preliminary and can change, so I found the record in OCLC where one of the many libraries who edited the record was thoughful enough to add the genre/form heading “Experimental fiction.”

That’s right.This book is fiction. The people are not real. The made-up story of the two characters’ relationship is told though the fabricated “items up for auction” and their descriptions, letter excerpts, etc. It’s not a traditional novel per se, but it’s certainly not non-fiction and it’s not a real auction catalog. In my opinion, it’s genius, is what it is. But it’s hard to say if the Library of Congress shares my opinion, since it seems like the book stumped them but good.

It’s hard to blame them, though–the book is so well done that it stumped me too, at first, and most of the other library staff with whom I shared it. And if it stumped all of us, imagine the possible patron confusion that could ensue. Which brings me to my next challenge: where to class the book? I fear classing it with other auction catalogs may encourage the false belief that this was a real auction and the characters real people. But shelving it with The Devil Wears Prada and The Perks of Being a Wallflower not only opens up the potential for a constant barrage of questions from staff and patrons about whether or not the book is really in the right place, but it also almost nearly guarantees that, in a library focused on browse-based discovery, it may never be found by the patrons that might use it.

 

*WTF is up with listing the personal names twice, once subdivided and once not? I seem to recall some bizarre rule stipulating this, but it seems very redundant to me and I’m hard pressed to come up with any reasonable logical explanation.



{April 28, 2009}   why is cataloging hard?

A week or so ago (probably longer, at this point, what with the time it takes me to get around to typing this stuff up), I was working with another library staff member, showing her some basic bib record modification. Basically one level up from general copy-cataloging, we were working on copying existing records, then modifying them to match the item in hand. As we were going through the process, I was trying to make it as easy and streamlined for her as possible, but still make it clear that cataloging rules and standards had to be followed. The further we proceeded, the further I could see her face drop as more rules were added and more things had to be considered, and more resources consulted. At one point, I realized we had no less than 8 windows open on her PC workstation: our ILS, our OPAC, ClassWeb’s LCSH, ClassWeb’s classification, OCLC Connexion, WebDewey, OCLC’s Bibliographic Formats and Standards, LOC Authorities… The tabs were so tiny that we couldn’t read them; we lost track of which window was which.

This staff member is an intelligent woman, who’s read about cataloging and been to some training. She can build a basic DDC number, and understands why standards and authorized headings are important. I figured, while it might be overwhelming at first, she shouldn’t have too much trouble catching on to some of the next steps of putting those concepts to use. But seeing her face as I showed her how she would need to look up one set of rules here, and another set of standards another place, and an authorized heading from yet another, separate resource, made me want to cry. The bass-ackwards functioning of our ILS software certainly wasn’t helping, either. I told her, ‘I know it’s hard, and I’ll try to make it as easy as possible.’  The only problem was that I wasn’t sure how.

Cataloging is complicated–I won’t argue that. There’s a finesse and background knowledge, and, yes, sometimes even a certain sort of personality needed to look at a collection of materials, look at its audience, look at the usage, and puzzle out the best way(s) to organize and offer access to that collection. It’s challenging and it’s difficult, and it takes a lot of skill and knowledge. It’s why I got a master’s degree. To figure out those puzzles, and to solve them.

I did not get a masters degree to learn to put a period at the end of the 245c or which order to put LCSH free-floating subdivisions. Just like some librarians say “I didn’t get a master’s degree to shelve books, or babysit children.” These are tasks that come with the territory, but they are not our job. They are not the core focus, and they are not why we are librarians. Yes, we have to do these things, just as in all things in life, we must take the good with the bad. But it’s about time we spent more time focusing on what we’re really here to do.

I’m not here to properly punctuate records. We have the technology to automate that, but many still have not taken advantage, and I still see regular questions on Autocat about ISBD punctuation, or subject headings (I know I’ve mentioned a few of my own questions in earlier posts). There’s a lot of detail to keep track of in cataloging, and I think that’s often why it’s perceived as so complicated and hard.  But really, it doesn’t take any special skills but training. I’m probably setting myself up for a lynch mob here, but here goes: anyone can catalog. It may take a lot of time and training, but really, there’s a prescribed set of rules to follow (despite their complexity). Rules are nothing more than “if A, then B,” or, in our cases, “if A is less than B, then C, but if A is greater than or equal to B, then D,” but they’re still rules that anyone can be trained to follow. Given enough motivation, I think a trained monkey could write bib records. (Some of you are probably ready with the tar and feathers at this point. I don’t care.)

I don’t mean to belittle the work of past catalogers. A lot has been done for our field, and we wouldn’t be where we are today, bad or good, without that history of work. MARC was revolutionary for its time, and not only turned library science on its head, but many other computer science areas as well. But that was 50 years ago, and while all those other sciences took that knowledge and ran ahead with it, we clung to it, the same ways we cling to the listserv, even though it no longer suits our needs.

Cataloging is hard becuase we’ve made it hard. We continue to use outdated rules and technologies that are difficult to learn. I have long wondered–if we can tell a database to display “245a” as “title” in our patron interfaces, why can and should we not do the same in the back-end staff interfaces? There is no need any longer for anyone to know what 245a is. In the days of catalog cards, the title was not repeatable–there simply wasn’t room. The same for authors, which was the origins of the “rule of three.” Our technologies are no longer bound to those restrictions, yet we still follow those rules…why? If a book has parallel titles, which would be easier: some convoluted rules about which order to put them in and which punctuation to use to separate them, or to simply enter each one? Which is easier: some bizarre rule of authorship where the cataloger must determine which of the many contributors is the most responsible for the work, or simply being able to add each author? In fact, with current indexing technology, I don’t even think the author’s names need be entered in the traditional “Last, First,” format–and I can only speak for my library, but I know our patrons do not know they need to structure names in the format when searching. And why should they? If they have to be taught an unfamiliar– and to them unnatural–search structure, aren’t we making it more difficult for them, not less? To me, that seems counterproductive to everything we believe in and everything we work towards.

So what do we do?

We need to make a concerted effort to make cataloging easier. We need to do away with needless complexity. Making cataloging easier, both in rules and in process, gets us away from grunt work and frees us up to spend our time on innovation and improvements. This is already happening anyway, what with library paraprofessionals taking on more and more of the cataloging work. I hear all sorts of wailing about how professional librarians should be doing that cataloging work, so that it’s done “correctly.” I’ve known just as many qualified, well-educated and trained paraprofessionals as I have known professional librarians incapable of cataloging a John Grisham novel. It’s not the degree that makes you a good cataloger, it’s the training and the experience. Let’s train our techs correctly so that they do a quality job, and let’s make it easier for them to do a good job by streamlining and simplifying the process. And when the job is easier, it gets completed more quickly, meaning putting materials in patrons’  hands faster.

 Yes, there are parts of cataloging that will always be more art than science and need human evauation and judgement. Otherwise, cataloging would be entirely automated by now.  Someone, some human somewhere, needs to decide what a book is about and how patrons can best access it. A computer can come close on the former some times, but not the latter. It still takes judgement, so let’s free up time for that judgement by making the rules and stanards more efficient and easier. Donald Norman (The Design of Everday Things) thinks ease encourages adoption and use. Clay Shirky (in Here Comes Everybody) says, “When an activity becomes more expensive, either in direct costs or increased hassle, people do less of it.” As cataloging continues to be perceived as difficult, organizations focus on it less and devote less time, staff, and budget to it. As buried as we are in our current models, carried along by inertia, many people fear any sort of change. But what if the alternative was easier (and free)? I think we’d see a mass-migration. 

We need to stop focusing professional cataloging education on the nitty gritty details and teach overall concepts of cataloging. The two classes I had in graduate school were called “cataloging” but were actually nothing more than “exercises in creating AACR2r bib records in MARC.” A few alternatives (Dublin Core, VRA, etc.) were mentioned in passing, but never taught, and really, it’s not the hands-on skills that need to be taught in a graduate program, but how to understand those standards and make them work. Save the MARC indicators for the hands-on training (which every cataloging professional ought to have), and let’s focus on a graduate-level understanding of why we organize and how to offer access, through various means and methods, and how to determine what might be best in different situations.

This would also help eliminate the “fear” of cataloging, both in education and the professional workplace. The current perception of cataloging as difficult is a turn-off to many library science students. I didn’t avoid reference classes because they were hard, I just didn’t take them because they didn’t fit my educational path. When students are being steered by difficulty rather than interest, investment, or purpose, it does us all a disservice. As more students avoid the “difficult” cataloging classes,  less students will end up well-trained in cataloging, or even trained at all. With such a decline in cataloging interest and study, who will be the next generation of catalogers? And after that, as the numbers studying cataloging dwindle, who will teach future generations?

We need to give up clinging to cataloging as a difficult skill in order to justify our degrees and ourselves as librarians. All librarians are notoriously undervalued, and sometimes it seems catalogers even more so.  No one understands what exactly it is we do all day, and measuring and demonstrating results can be very intangible. Sometimes the only thing that keeps us from being downsized, adjusted, or eliminated is that we do something “difficult” that no one else in the library can do. Because if it’s not hard–if anyone can do it–why would someone need a graduate degree to be a librarian? But I don’t think that’s what we should be relying on to keep us around. Clinging to this complexity for complexity’s sake, this braggadocio of obscure skills is a poor way of justifying one’s education or status as a professional.  There are plenty of other complex and difficult tasks to deal with as a professional librarian, like management and ethics. Let’s figure out and emphasize the professional duties we perform beyond creating records and submitting names to NACO. What kinds of things are you doing in your library to enhance your patrons’ experience, to make it easier for them to find materials, to help them discover information? To me, that’s what makes a professional, and that’s why I went to library school.

There needs to be change. Many people won’t like it, but some sort of change is going to happen eventually, is happening even now. What we need to do is make sure the changes make things easier, instead of more complex, and that the changes allow us to reevaluate our focus and what exactly it is we do. There’s going to be change. Let’s make sure it works.



et cetera