From the catalogs of babes

{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