From the catalogs of babes

{May 24, 2010}   where do we go from here?

I asked, “where can the interested, engaged, passionate and professionally-inclined librarians go to learn what it really means to be a professional?”

I have a lot of mixed feelings about the answer I’m about to give, but it’s the best answer, I think, for me, right now:

The Ph.D.

Yes, yes, I know it’s an academic degree, not a professional one. And I’m not actually advocating it as the best answer to my question posed above, nor do I think it ever should be. I don’t think it should ever require more school beyond a professional degree to teach professionalism–in fact, there’s probably something inherently wrong with a system structured that way.

I’m intelligent and have a good academic record, but I’m definitely more of the hands-on, practical type. I never considered myself part of the “white tower” academia elite that would ever even consider a Ph.D. But I’ve gotten to the point where the things I want to learn, the ideas I want to try, the services I want to implement and the education I want to share would be best served by returning to school to persue a doctorate in information science. (Or a position of strong decision-making authority in a small, independent, innovative, arts-focused college—I’m certainly available for that, if anyone out there reading needs such a person…)

I don’t want to be a cataloging data-entry-monkey. I don’t want to sit around writing bibliographic records for the rest of my career. I honestly mean no offense to people who do–I firmly believe it takes all types to make the world go round, and it’s always been my philosophy that even the smallest bibliographic work can make a difference in people’s lives. It’s a crucial aspect of libraries and cataloging and I love it—but I want to do more. I want to research and implement positive changes that better serve users and user groups, and I want to share those changes and ideas and discoveries with the rest of the field. My hope is that someday all of that would be a key element of professional librarianship, but until then, it looks like I’ll have to follow a more established route.

So starting in September, I’ll be working on a Ph.D. at the University of Washington’s iSchool, in Seattle, WA.

(I’m sure those who took offense to my previous posts will either be thankful that I’m going back to school to have some more education to set me straight, or quivering with fear at the prospect that I may be the next generation of cataloging faculty…)

This is obviously something I didn’t decide overnight. The idea has been percolating in my head ever since ALA Midwinter 2009, when I met Allyson Carlyle during a UW information session. There to keep my significant other company since he was interested in the UW MLIS program, I struck up a conversation with Dr. Carlyle, as we were both on the same task force. I mentioned some of the things I was doing, like publishing articles and book chapters and presenting at conferences, and she asked me why I wasn’t working on a doctorate, since I was already doing the same sort of work it would require. Her comments stuck with me long enough to start the application process last fall, and I was accepted to the program in March.

It was a tough decision to make, but in a roundabout way I’m grateful to my library for making it easier for me to make the choice to leave. Had either my reclassification proposal or the migration to a new ILS been given the green light, I would have wanted to stay, to work on those projects and see them through. When they were both summarily rejected in April, the decision was clear. There wasn’t much left here for me to work on besides the weekly delivery of materials to be cataloged. Maybe that’s enough for other people, but that’s not enough for me. I want to do more than that. I want to make a difference not only to my local library, but all libraries, to librarianship, to cataloging, the way we approach it and implement it and teach it.

I tried to make a difference here. I did all I thought I could here to make the library better for patrons, for everyone. It didn’t always work, but I like to think I gave it a darn good shot. And I’m not giving up. I may be done trying here, but I’m certainly not done trying.

{September 24, 2009}   an OPAC by any other name

So it’s quarter break here in our library. We usually have 2-3 weeks between each quarter when the library is closed to patrons, but we still come in to work. We’re actually pretty lucky in this regard, as we get a lot of tasks done that we couldn’t ordinarily accomplish with the library full of students. I’m grateful for this opportunity; I know most other libraries don’t have a time like this.

One of the many things we do over quarter break is to change out all the library displays. I’m not involved much with this process, being on the tech services side of things, but a while back when asked for ideas, I suggested using one of the displays to highlight “how to” aspects of the library: how to find a book, how to search the catalog, etc. I’m pleased to say that the idea was well-recieved and one of our bulletin boards is now dedicated to that topic.

I am, however, slightly less than pleased with the actual manifestation of the concept. I know that I can’t have my finger in everything, and goodness knows I don’t want to be saddled with yat another task each quarter on top of all the work I already do. But it was my idea and I do have graphic design and retail merchandising experience. I confess I’ve been counting the hours waiting for this display to come down:



 What’s so bad about it, you ask? Well, I’ll skip the diatribe about the design and get straight to my point. Pretend you’re an 18-yearold design student in your first quarter of college with little-to-no library experience. You see this display entitled “how to find a library book” and step one is some fingers pointing at a computer that says “opac.” What does that mean? What do I do? What the heck is opac? It sounds like some sort of air-conditioning duct system, or a rodent-type animal from Peru.

I hate the term “OPAC.” Hate it hate it hate it. It’s probably one of my biggest pet peeves and it pushes all my buttons. No one but librarians knows what an OPAC is or what it stands for, and at this point an acronym for “Online Public Access Catalog”  is outdated anyway. But most of all, our patrons have no idea what it is, and so the image included in the wall display is prohibitively unhelpful.

I personally make it point to say “OPAC” as rarely as possible, and never around patrons. (It’s even driving me nuts just to keep typing it in this entry.) I know a lot of people equally as appalled as I am about the term “OPAC” who now just say “the catalog.” Which is fine, to a certain extent, and I do it too. But it got me thinking–the word “catalog” (as a noun) implies a list. Traditionally, a library catalog is a list of all the materials a library holds.

But what we have now is not a list. An OPAC is not even a list. We have long surpassed tallying our holdings as simple lists, and believe me, I’m grateful for that. So if we don’t have a list or a catalog, what do we have? We have a database. We have a collection. Those are the words I choose to use during reference interviews and instruction. I’m not sure they’re the ideal choices, but I think they’re miles better than “OPAC.”

We’re a profession not just steeped in terminology, but based in it. Vocabularies are some of the underlying tools of our trade, especially cataloging. We lobby to change and update vocabulary terms to be more current and patron-accessible, why shouldn’t we do the same for our services? Catalogers complain that “no one understands what we do”–maybe that’s becuase we’re using outdated terms and descriptions that those people don’t understand and can’t relate to. I’m left wondering about the marketability and “rebranding” opportunities that might be possible–might reach more of our patrons–if we stopped using outdated, unfamiliar terminology not only in our job titles and subject headings, but in our services as well.

friend of mine invited me to call in to a web talk show about “who curates the real time web?” after I posted some characteristically snarky answers to the question on his Facebook page. I tried to call in, but between my phone-phobia, my partial deafness (I have a really hard time hearing on the phone) and the time constraints of the show, I didn’t quite make it on-air.

The initial summary of the session (the irony of it being no longer available on the site, as far as I can find, is not lost on me) included the authors’ suggestions for some sort of curatorship, software or human. My haunches bristled when I saw the use of the word “curator.” Other words bandied about during the talk were “archiving” and “taxonomizing.” They didn’t know it, but what they were asking for was a librarian. And we already exist. Here a bunch of much-lauded tech-entrepreneurs think they just came up with the most brilliant idea in the world to help users navigate information. Well, I hate to break it to you, buddies, but we’ve been around for thousands of years, and that’s what we do: we select, process, organize, deliver, manage and mediate access to information, and instruct users how to locate, evaluate, and effectively use this information.

 But there’s obviously still some sort of need, or else this whole discussion wouldn’t have been happening. Why?

Needlelane Silos by jhritz

Needlelane Silos by jhritz


In library jargon, a “silo” generally refers to a disparate, stand-alone resource that cannot be searched in an integrated way with other resources. A common example is the inability to ingrate subscription databases of newspapers, magazines, etc., into the online catalog. A patron has to search the catalog for books, then a separate database for newspaper articles, a third for magazines, etc. In business, I generally hear silos referred to in terms of departments functioning independently, in a “one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing” kind of way. I think the same thing is happening here, with libraries and librarians in one silo, and the tech-savvy entrepreneurs in another.

Let’s look at this discussion: who were the speakers, and who was the target audience? Businessmen, tech-geeks, entrepreneurs. Middle-and upper-class educated users and developers of technology. People motivated by sales and funded by venture capital. Basically, what I’d call the “technical elite.” As far as I could tell, no librarians, curators, archivists, or taxonomists were invited to be on the discussion panel. Libraries and librarians are not part of the tech-elite demographic. While there are nuggets of progress here and there, librarianship overall is a slow-evolving profession and often last to the gate in terms of technology. I’m not in denial about how backwards we are. How long did it take us to move away from the card catalog? Have you compared a library OPAC to Google, Amazon, Netflix?

These companies spend tons of money and market research on giving their users what they want, making it easy for users to find what they seek. Libraries want to do the same. But they don’t have the same resources and motivations. They don’t turn a profit and don’t have investors. Traditionally underfunded to begin with, many libraries and librarians are seeing their budgets cut further and jobs cut altogether. Libraries don’t have the same financial resources and motivations as tech entrepreneurs.

Libraries and librarians aren’t limited to a certain target market or demographic.  I felt a blatant bias in the talk show participants–talking about how “everyone” gets up in the morning and checks Twitter and how “everyone” is on Facebook. According to Pew, only 35% of American adults have a social networking profile, and only 22% of those people are on Facebook (MySpace still leads at 50%, but interestingly enough, I never heard it mentioned in today’s discussion). A mere 11% of online American adults use Twitter. I can forgive the speakers a bit due to their intended listening audience. I understand a business targeting the tech-savvy demographic, since they tend to have more education and disposable income. And I understand that these are the people on the forefront of things, and even though only 11% of people use Twitter right now, that number could be expected to rise as the service becomes more ubiquitous. So I’m willing to cut a little slack there. But talk about closing yourself off in a silo! Who’s curating the web for the rest of America?

The librarian silo is starting to crumble at the bottom from rotting woodwork. The tech-business silo can’t be built any taller without more resources and materials. I can’t help but think maybe if we were all in the same barn, instead of off building our own silos, our Twitters and our OPACs, we could achieve real progress, for both sides of the spectrum. Librarians have immense value to offer. We know how to organize, annotate, and recommend materials and information. We have a history of credibility, authority, and reliability (unlike “brands” that were recommended as reliable sources).  We have exactly the skills called for in today’s discussion. But we just don’t have the money, the support, or the technological skills. The tech elite wants their web organized, and they have resources to throw at it. They just don’t know how to do it. Imagine what we could do if we broke down those silos and worked together.

et cetera