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.

{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.

Once upon a time, about 2 weeks ago, a friend of mine posted an interesting link on Facebook to a post from the Illinois Poison Control Center blog. It’s called “A Day in the Life of a Poison Center,” and the entry is simply a chronicle of every single call and inquiry the center received on a given day: February 10, 2010. The center received 282 calls and abbreviated each one to a 1-2 sentence anonymized summary which was listed in the blog as it occurred.

The day-in-the-life blogathon was motivated by state funding cuts to the poison control center (surprise, surprise). By listing tangible, concrete examples of the services they provide, the poison control center effectively demonstrates value and return on investment to the community–I mean, isn’t saving a life worth a little bit of state financial aid?

But whether or not they intended to, the poison control bloggers demonstrated more that just why the center needs funding–they also clearly demonstrated exactly what their staff do all day and why it’s important to have trained, specialty professionals handling those tasks.

Let’s say your child just drank some drain cleaner. Who do you want answering your questions: a professionally certified poison specialist with training in toxicology, or some random, minimum-wage worker hired off of Craig’s List?* Sure, we can save money by hiring less qualified staff–and we might need to after being subjected to drastic funding cuts. But is it worth it?

Reading through the summaries, I learned lots of things I never knew or realized about poison control centers before. I had no idea that EMTs and ER doctors and nurses consulted poison control centers for information and advice–or that such a high percentage of calls to the poison control center were from those sources. I guess I always just assumed poison control centers were designed for end-consumer, average individual use. It certainly makes sense, though–I can’t expect an EMT or ER staff or general physician to be familiar with highly detailed, in-depth specialty knowledge about the immense amounts and varieties of poisonous substances that exist in the world. It’s critical that they call someone with specialty knowledge of the subject–people’s lives depend on it.

Now, I might be biased and it might be a stretch to say that librarians save lives,** especially in the same direct ways and methods as poison control specialists. But the two situations seem to me to have much more similarities than differences: they both fulfill information needs from reliable sources.They both require specialized knowledge and training to perform this task. Their job duties are both often misunderstood by the general public and they both suffer from funding cuts–from tax money that comes from that same public. The Illinois Poison Control Center publically documented every single question they received in a given day in a direct attempt to  change the former in order to change the latter. What if we did the same thing with library reference questions? Could it help show exactly how we help unite people with the critical information they need and answer that annoying age-old question: “why do you need a master’s degree to be a librarian?”

*(Now, I realize that’s a bit blunter and more cut-and-dried than the real world, where often times people without degrees and certifications can still hold expert knowledge, and people who hold those qualification can still be ignorant. But in general, there’s a reason such degrees and qualifications and standards exist, and the poison control center is an excellent example.)

**Just for the record, I totally and utterly do believe that librarians save lives. It’s not as hands-on direct as doctors and EMTs, but getting the right information to people is just as critical and often has the power to affect life decisions of all levels of significance. If I didn’t truly believe that, I probably wouldn’t be a librarian.

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.

{June 15, 2009}   ebb and flow

I haven’t been writing much for this blog lately. I haven’t been following other library and cataloging blogs as much as I usually do. I’ve pretty much stopped reading AUTOCAT, RADCAT, and the like. I’ve not been very inspired lately nor have I had the energy to write about the few topics that occur to me. I haven’t even decided yet if finding that missing book the other day thrilled me or just made me so much more frustrated that it sat on the wrong shelf for 2 months with no one noticing.

I feel kind of lost and unmotivated at my place of work. Without saying too much, there were basically some promises made to me regarding my position that, for no given reason, were recinded at the last minute. I’ve been frustrated and unmotivated ever since. I still like my work, I like what I do–I even, for the most part, like the place where I do it, the school environment, the subject focus, the students, the faculty, and most of my co-workers. I’m just finding it hard to invest a lot of effort in setting a fancy table when at any moment the tablecloth might be yanked out from underneath, you know?

I hope its not terribly uncouth of me to say such things. I do feel a little strange posting this kind of thing on a “professional” blog, but hey, the profession isn’t always sunshine and lollipops. It’s all just a cycle–sometimes it’s up, and sometimes it’s down. I’m in a ebb tibe right now. I came back from Midwinter very inspired and full of ideas, but who can hold such a high state of energy 24/7? It waxes and it wanes, and that alone leaves me with hope that things will turn back up again soon. I’m not worried. I’m already getting excited about going to ALA in Chicago, so I know the upswing is beginning to start again. Plus, it’s always just a matter of time before I get so bored with the day-to-day mundane cataloging duties that I start pondering innovative projects and ideas again…

{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