From the catalogs of babes

If for some reason you might be crazy enough to want to apply for my previous position, despite all you’ve read about it on this blog, here you go.

(Relocation not provided, sorry.)

{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 18, 2010}   I am not a librarian.

I am not a librarian.

You heard me. I’m not a “librarian.” I never have been.

Officially, my job title is “Catalog Coordinator.” It’s a title I despise, for several reasons. Some of them petty—I went to graduate school and got my MLIS, and now I want to be a librarian, damnit! Some of them logical—try telling anyone outside of libraries (and sometimes even within the field) you’re a “catalog coordinator” and they want to know how you decide on product photo placement for this year’s Lillian Vernon. Heck, even “cataloging coordinator” might be a little bit more accurately descriptive (and grammatically correct) to reflect what’s actually in my job description: things like cataloging materials in all formats; developing and creating library cataloging standards; oversee local technical processing; oversee cataloging across 4 campus branches, including standardization, education and training.

I know there are lots of titles for this type of job in use, some of them without the word “librarian” in them, even: Cataloger, Cataloging Supervisor, Metadata Manager, Technical Services Coordinator, and everything in between. And, sure, some of those titles encompass different duties and are not all equivalent (for instance, “Head of Technical Services” covers plenty more than just cataloging, and would be an inappropriate title for what I do. Although “Technical Services Librarian” might, depending whether or not it included all aspects of technical services).

So sometimes I wonder: if we librarians are supposed to be all about vocabulary control, why can’t we control this? Our titles are just as outdated as our subject headings. I’ve already gone off about the terms “OPAC” and “catalog” and changing them to more appropriately descriptive titles, why not our job titles as well?

For many, “librarian” conjures up a stereotypical image of the woman with the glasses and hair in a bun, shushing library patrons and stamping due dates in books. You and I know better—we know that librarians are so much more. We lament it all the time and try to find ways to explain to people what we do, that we do more than shush people and read books all day. That yes, we do need graduate-level educations to do our job. So maybe we need an updated ‘subject heading’ for what it is exactly that we do nowadays.

The New York Times recently mentioned “metacurating” the web: users controlling and vetting streams of information tailored to their personal interests. “Metacurator” might not be so far-fetched as a job title in the future.  Even if we don’t drop the “librarian” bit (and I can certainly see reasons to keep it), perhaps we can still clarify. What does “cataloging librarian” really mean to people? Even within the profession, I find that people have a narrow understanding of the job. Heck, I don’t even understand professional designations myself sometimes—I still can’t figure out the difference between ‘cataloging’ and ‘access services.’ If cataloging ain’t about access, I don’t know what is. Personally, I always tried to convince my boss (with zero success) to change my title to something more descriptive regarding what it is I actually do: I was gunning for “discovery librarian” or maybe “findability librarian.” But no dice.

In the scheme of things, does it really matter what my job title is? Probably not. And so perhaps I’m just being a petulant child about being a “librarian.” But that’s what I want to be, that’s what I went to school for, what I trained to do, what I’ve been devoted to accomplishing, and it seems like it will never happen.

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.


This morning I happened upon a job posting from the Toledo Museum of Art that included the following as one of the “essential dutites and responsibilities” of a catalog librarian position:

• Enhance the usefulness of the library catalog by assisting users in applying cataloging principles to retrieve materials more efficiently.

I have to say, I’m a little disappointed. I can see what they’re getting at–basically, help users use the catalog–but they way they’ve written it sounds like they feel that the catalog librarian should be responsible for teaching patrons the inner detailed workings of AACR2r in order to successfully use the catalog, when I think it should be the other way around–the catalog librarian should be responsible for making it so the users don’t have to know a lick about AACR2r in order to find what they’re looking for.

It’s hard enough to teach librarians and library students the inner working of cataloging rules and standards, and here we’re talking about teaching them to patrons? That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve read all day. (The fact that it’s from an arts library to boot is even more disappointing. They don’t seem to have done much reaserch about their user base.) Teaching cataloging standards to patrons would not only be an immense challenge, but it emphasizes the idea that patrons need to adapt to the catalog instead of the other way around. The catalog is a tool. The patron is not. If your tool doesn’t work for the purpose you need, you get another one that’s more appropriate to the task at hand. If your saw is dull and doesn’t cut, you replace it with a new, sharp blade. If you have a wall of screws, driving them in with a hammer will not be successful. We need to change the tools we’re using to suit patrons’ needs–not the other way around.

I’m superceding today’s rant to bring you public service announcement: we have an open position at our library in Los Angeleswe need to fill, and I have a strange hope that someone reading this blog might be interested. Full disclaimer: it’s a paraprofessional position, not a professional librarian job, but it’s a decent job, working with magazines and other serials.

In today’s economic climate jobs can be hard to find. I keep reading everywhere about library closures and layoffs. I’m constantly surprised at how little our school seems to be affected by such recessions (knock on wood). Here we are, a private trade school for the fashion industry–you’d think that people would be hesitant to spend such a large amount of money on tuition for a degree that may or may not be of any actual benefit in an industry that by its very nature seems so frivolous that it should be on of the first things people stop supporting, rather than the last. Yet I’ve been here 3 years and enrollment has done nothing but rise. I sometimes worry that it’s merely a delayed reaction, and we’ll take the full brunt of this hit a few years down the line. But part of me wonders if the reason people support and strive to study fashion isn’t so much the logical progression of degree–>job, but rather a dream, a fantasy, and that’s something that can never die.

I won’t lie–we’re a crazy sort of dysfunctional family in our library, with a unique set of characteristics in our patrons that I’ve yet to encounter all together anywhere else. The pay ain’t spectacular–find me a library where it is (and maybe I’ll apply there, ha!)–but it’s decent, and there are lots of other unoffical benefits. And heck, it’s a job, which is more than some people have these days.  I’m not in charge of hiring for this position, but I’d love to have someone with some bit of cataloging background; doesn’t have to be a lot. Library science students are definitely encouraged to apply.

If you’re seriously interested, please send your resume and a cover letter to the email address in the link. Feel free to say you saw it posted here.

et cetera