From the catalogs of babes











I have a little bit more I want to say about reference, and then I’ll get back to cataloging, I swear. Really.

To me, reference and cataloging go hand in hand. Like peanut butter and jelly (or peanut butter and bananas or peanut butter and potato chips, if that’s how you roll). Like oil and vinegar, treble and bass, salt and pepper. They’re the heads and tails of the coin of library service. Sure, reference can be done without the catalog (and by extension, cataloging)–if you’re one of those intense know-it-all reference librarians with the answer to everything at your fingertips (less and less likely these days as more and more information is created, published and distributed). And sure, cataloging, at its very most basic data-entry skill level, can be done without reference. But really, what good is one without the other?

Cataloging and reference are two halves of the same whole. I know from my personal experience (which includes 8-10 hours/week working reference out of the 40 I spend in the library) that my direct reference interactions have made me a better cataloger. Where else could I see first-hand exactly how our patrons look for materials? Where else could I hear exactly what words they used for search terms? Sure, I could get that kind of information from others who work the reference desk, or from reports or surveys or OPAC search logs.* And I would use all of that, too. But it’s so much more immediate and makes such a stronger impact to hear people tell you in person, to your face, how they search in their own words. It’s interacting directly with our students and faculty that led me to investigate library reclassification, develop alternative subject vocabularies, and brainstorm improved catalog software interfaces.

Not only that, but once I take these gleaned insights and incorporate them into the catalog, I then know a new trick or two about how to use it, which in turn helps me help patrons. Understanding how the catalog works from the back end leads to easier use of the front end interface. Many of the reference librarians I know speak highly of their cataloging classes in graduate school–even if they detested them at the time, they almost all acknowledge how beneficial those classes turned out to be when using catalogs to help people on a daily basis. Knowing about LCSH and how headings are structured helps them find more (and more precise and appropriate) materials for patron. Knowing where to look for a language note, illustrations, or editions can make or break matching the right resource to the right person.

I firmly believe all catalogers should work reference. I also believe that all reference staff should do some sort of cataloging. Now, I know that’s not feasible in some libraries, like large institutions with entire cataloging departments and teams of specialty reference staff. That’s okay–every library should, first and foremost, do what works best for that environment, for those users. But I think a lot of libraries could benefit from doing away with the whole reference vs. cataloging,  “public services/tech services” divide. Libraries are about user service, period. Reference is a user service. Cataloging is a user service. Circulation is a user service. Instruction is a user service. Everything we do should be a user service–if not, why are we doing it?

I’m sorry for all those catalogers who got into the job because they weren’t ‘people persons’ and didn’t want to interact with the public. That’s a very narrow (and selfish) mindset, imo, and a sorry excuse for pursuing a career, especially one in a service profession. I think the time has come for catalogers to integrate further into other library areas. We can work better together than we can apart. Catalogers cannot see themselves or be seen by others as the solitary data wrangler in the back corner of the basement. How do you know if your catalog is helping provide reference service if you’re never out there at the reference desk?

*Well, some people can. We don’t have access to that kind of high-falutin’ technology here.

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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.



et cetera