From the catalogs of babes

{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 Our titles are just as outdated as our subject headings.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.

{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.

{December 22, 2008} shut down

I just read that the Library of Congress requested pull the plug. I’m pretty much in shock, as I just recently discovered and it has saved my butt quite a few times in the few months that i knew about its existence.

See, my library has a subscription to ClassWeb, which is a paid service from the LOC providing searchable subject headings and classification. Ours expires every year in October. Every year, In October, we send them a payment to renew our subscription. And every year in October, they cut off our access, telling us that our subscription has expired. They are nice enough to cut off our access with no warnings or reminders, so that it always happens that one day I go to log in and BAM!: access denied.

So every year we make numerous phone calls to the Library of Congress, playing lots of phone tag and wasting our time and theirs. After several weeks, when we finally get ahold of a live person at the LOC (and that’s a generous estimate–I won’t tell you how long it took us to purchase the Subject Cataloging Manual–no wonder libraries lack standards and are all over the map; if LOC really wanted to support standardization and use of their heading and classification products, you’d think they’d make them easier to get and use), after waiting for weeks to talk to someone, they tell us, yes, we did pay (which we obviously already knew) and that it will take a few weeks to reinstate our service. (And in this day and age, I’m agog at any web subscription that takes 2 weeks to reinstate.)

Over the course of the past several months, I’ve been using to do my work. We don’t have hard print copies of LCSH anymore (who does? and why would they use them even if they did?). I could use the LOC Authorities, which I sometimes do, but I find their search function cumbersome, with high recall yet low precision retrieval. While I do like that LOC recently added subject heading strings to its authorities search, it does also open up the possibility of retuning unauthorized entries, with which I have had problems in the past, especially since unauthorized headings have been one of the biggest problems in our local catalog and something i have been working very hard to correct. In contrast, was clean, with an easy-to-use search function and a nice retrieval display in order of relevance. To me it wasn’t even about the experimental techniques, though I grant I was interested in those as well, though I never had much time to explore them before the December 18 shut down. It was a simple case of access and availability– made subject headings available to my library and allowed me to accomplish my job when a paid service from LOC could not.

I have never understood LOC’s tight grasp on LCSH. I do understand and respect that LCSH wasn’t originally designed for such widespread use–it was designed to catalog the LOC collection, not for every American library everywhere. While I often rail againt the terminology and diction of LCSH, its outdated (and sometimes offensive and prejudicial) terms, and its demonstrated user-unfriendliness, I do respect that it was never intended to butt up against sue situations where that would be a problem. LCSH is user-unfriendly because the people who currently use it never should have become its users. But somehow or another we are it’s users–librarians and patrons a like–and if you want us to keep using your system, we have to have a motivating reason. For years it’s been nothing but inertia: we use it because we always have used it and we’ve gotten so many materials and so deeply entrenched in it that it’s easier to keep rolling along with it than to change it. But someone needs to stop this rolling rock, because we passed the library turnpike a long way back. LCSH has never served my library’s users well. It certainly handles fashion poorly, and I’ve been looking for a specialized vocabulary to use instead and not found anything yet.* While we are a special case, I argue that public and academic libraries as well need to leave LCSH behind. Everyone knows the “Cookery” example by now–how many ridiculous, outdated subject headings do we need to see before we decide it’s time for a change? how many patrons need to walk away confused, or have their catalog searches yield zero results because they didn’t know to search for “Caffeine habit” rather than “Caffeine addiction” (note the lack of UF).

I have long held that if you want someone to use your product, whatever that product may be, it should be easy to use and easy to access, as well as easy on your wallet to purchase. I hate craft shows that charge an entrance fee–it find it makes purchasing goods more difficult when I have to pay to get in the door. I hate buying from websites where I can’t figure out how to use the shopping cart–and sometimes I end up being physically unable to purchase, if I can’t make the damn thing work. If I buy a toaster and can’t understand the instructions, it’s not going to get used. These things all go for LCSH or any cataloging standards (MARC, AACR, etc.), in my opinion: if you want people to use your system in their libraries, it should be freely accessible and easy to use. The only thing  big organizations like OCLC and LOC have going for them right now is inertia. And while that will carry you far, eventually it will run out.**


*I had planned on writing my thesis on this, but ended up doing an electronic portfolio instead. I’m still interested in the project and refuse to let it go.

**Unless you’re in a vacuum, which I think we’ve already established they are not.

et cetera