From the catalogs of babes











So what if libraries did take a page post from the Illinois Poison Control Center and chronicle every single reference query in a day, or a week?

Now, I’m not a reference librarian (although 20-25% of my job is, in fact, reference). But  I do feel like from my personal experience, discussions with other reference and non-reference librarians and staff, and reading articles and blogs, I can make some general assumptions about what types of inquiries might be included in such a list.

You’d get some “where are the bathrooms?” questions and requests for tech support. You’d get questions like “do you have this book…?” and “Where are your books about…?” You’d get some weird questions you’d never thought people would ask. You’d also get more informational-needs questions: the Internet Public Library has compiled a list of some examples here. There are lots of different types of reference questions.

It then occurred to me that every catalog query is a reference question. Asking for books by title or subject is certainly a reference inquiry. Catalogs are designed for holdings inquiries. The purpose of the catalog is to enable a user to find what materials a library holds by  title, author, and/or subject :

Charles Ammi Cutter, Rules for a Dictionary Catalog, 1904

But aren’t holdings questions reference questions? And–more importantly– does a patron know the difference? Do they know that a catalog only retrieves holdings, and not the answers to all of their different types of reference questions? And can they be expected to, in this day and age of Google, which does not return holdings, but rather information and data, the kind that reference questions are built on?

All of a sudden it hit me. I’d thought about it for a long time, but hadn’t yet be able to articulate the idea in words: the catalog has always been a holdings interface.Yet, many people expect it to be a reference interface. Patrons sit down at (or log in to) the catalog expecting it to be like a reference librarian or like Google and provide information to help answer all their questions. But it’s not. It returns bibliographic records, which are barebones representations of resources that may or may not contain the information that will help answer their question.

Should the catalog become more of a reference interface? Is that even possible? Evolving the catalog into a such a design would certain help move the catalog beyond the “find” and into the  “identify,” “select”  and “obtain” aspects called for by IFLA. As evolution of the catalog progressed, it might even lead into AI interfaces (anyone remember Ms. Dewey?) that could react and respond to each patron’s personal search queries and information needs. I can see a more interactive interface like this especially important/applicable to arts users, who generally tend to prefer human interaction over self-guided traditional catalog navigation.

If these lofty ideas are not possible (or should I say “feasible”, because I have no doubts that such things are possible, but perhaps not for libraries) then how can we bridge that gap? If catalogs truly aren’t designed to work like reference librarians or Google information searches, then it’s not fair to patrons who have that impression and expectation. It should be on us to make it clear that the catalog is a list of what the library holds and nothing more. Maybe we need to start referring to it as an “inventory” rather than a catalog? I don’t know. What I do know is that as long as patrons continue to expect reference answers from their catalog queries, they will continue to be disappointed.

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It’s the last day of the quarter at our library. The library is dead. I think maybe 4 people have come in all day, mostly to drop off books before we close for winter break. Our school is on the quarter system, and for about 2 weeks between each quarter, the library is closed to patrons, although we still come in every day to work on projects and backlogs that we can’t seem to accomplish when school is in session. I know we’re lucky; most libraries don’t have that luxury.

Sometimes, as the end of the quarter rolls around, and especially during the holidays, we get cards and gifts and candy treats from some of the staff and faculty, a very kind and thoughtful gesture of appreciation. Sometimes patrons will thank us individually, with a card or small gift, for personally helping them with a specific project, or always interacting with them in a positive way.  Yesterday, one of the circulation staff came in the workroom to share a nice gift he’d received from a teacher he always helps. And I confess, it made me a teensy bit jealous.

I’ve never been one of those outgoing, perky, friendly people who bonds with others right away. I think I’m pretty outgoing once I’m friends with someone and no longer have to interact with them in a professional manner. I suppose I’m old enough that to me ‘professional manner’ still equals a sense of some sort of formality–I’m not saying this is good or bad, it just is. I know I can come across as stand-offish, aloof, even stuck-up and snooty. I try very hard to be friendly, open, and approachable, especially at the reference and circulation desks, but I’m just never going to be one of those people with whom students and faculty have an instant rapport. Most of the time, I’m okay with that. As nice as it might be, it’s not my job to be the patrons’ friends. It’s my job to help them find the materials and resources they need.

And that’s what cataloging is: helping library users find, identify, select, and obtain(pdf) bibliographic resources. The purpose of cataloging is not to create a bibliographic record; that is a function of cataloging, but it is not a purpose. Bibliographic records are valuable contributions to cataloging and make up a majority of the work that catalogers currently do. But a cataloger’s job is (or should be) larger than that–they should use whatever appropriate means necessary to enable the library’s user to find materials, to identify and/or differentiate between materials, to select the best or most appropriate material for their needs, and to obtain or acquire that material. To enable library users to accomplish these tasks takes more than bibliographic records. It takes more than authority control, more than subject analysis, more than classification, metadata, stacks management, holdings, circulation, reference, bibliographies, reader’s advisory, inventory, needs assessment. It takes all these things and more to get to a point where users can not only find, identify, select and obtain materials, but can do so seamlessly–without errors, hassles, broken links, missing materials, unnavigable interfaces, and all the other obvious obstacles that users see on a day-to-day basis.

And that’s the problem: cataloging, and all its related functions, when done property, should never even be noticeable. The only time we’re brought to the attention of patrons or other library staff is when things aren’t working. What kind of reputation does that give us? It lends the impression that we’re all errors, all the time. I have a friend at another library where they recieved a report of some broken links to articles on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, and the faculty member who filed the complaint had the nerve to complain that it took 4 hours to get it resolved. 4 hours! During a holiday weekend, when the library was closed and no one was working! To me, that shouldn’t warrant a complaint, it should warrant a bonus. But the staff fixes errors so rapidly on a regular basis that  I guess 4 hours must have seemed outrageous.

What catalogers do goes on behind doors, in basements and workrooms, away from the public eye. Ideally, the tasks we perform make library functionality seamless and transparent. Many do not understand what is we do all day, or how it applies to tangible library services or manifests in patron services. Patrons rarely (if ever) see us, yet we touch so many of them directly though records, indexes, subject headings, and other services. Patrons don’t bring us gifts for making their searching easier. Every thank you note I’ve ever received has been for instructional presentations, never for increasing findability.

I’m not trying to fish for sympathy. Despite some of the bad days, when it’s finals and students are stressed and teachers are disorganized and frustrated, I think most of the time, our patrons really do appreciate us. We’re always appreciated for our public face–our thorough and knowledgeable reference service, our extensive collection of materials, our flexibility in terms of circulation and accessibility. I don’t need recognition from patrons to know that I do my job well and I improve library services. I observe it everyday, when I watch people look for books and DVDs. I’ve seen students retrieve books in searches that I know only turned up because I added keywords or headings to the record. I’m not in this for applause or reward or grandeur (although I sure wouldn’t turn it down…), and I know many other catalogers feel similarly.

But if you have a minute, maybe you can stop by your cataloger’s desk and say thanks. Tell them you appreciate what they do. If you don’t know what it is exactly they do (and it’s hard to appreciate something if you don’t even know what it is), maybe take a few minutes and talk to them about it and ask them to explain it to you. It could be a beneficial and enlightening conversation for both parties.

And hugs to all my cataloging friends out there. Keep up the good work!



et cetera