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!