Guest post: Do we need cataloguers?

Today’s guest blog post comes from Esther Arens, Database Librarian (Stock Services), Leeds Library & Information Service, Leeds, West Yorkshire

[Disclaimer: This is not a scientific argument for professional standards in cataloguing, classification and indexing, nor a defence of those pitiable backroom bods but some personal, (hopefully) common sense thoughts in plain-English about the future of a particular breed of librarians.]

The simple answer to the above question is yes. Cataloguers are experts in describing resources in a way that makes them easily retrievable for their users. The traditional cataloguing, indexing and classifying is now captioned as ‘providing metadata’ which basically serves the same purpose – accessibility. (In the following I focus on the value for the user; good cat & class & index is of course important for effective collection management too.)

You might ask what is so difficult in describing a book or DVD. Why do we need professionals who have digested volumes on rules and their interpretations, classification schemes, data models, formats etc? Because the stuff we describe is so varied. Complex content requires complex description – and that is only taking into account the resource side of a description, it gets even more complicated if you tailor your descriptions to meet the needs of particular users. E.g. a textbook on biology has a different place in a school library than in a teacher training institution, or a business report is viewed differently in a law firm than in the local studies section of a public library.

Since the digital revolution the types of material to be made accessible has exploded and people (= our customers) expect to find them. It s not only the electronic formats themselves that now need description but because of the advanced technologies for retrieval many non-library objects get documented. Just think of institutional repositories in HE or all the ‘stuff’ in museums and archives or the material in a health library. And the metadata for this diversity must be consistent otherwise you would not find everything you want… or (as could well be the case) MIGHT WANT because the most wonderful thing of a good catalogue is that it can point you to a resource you never knew you needed!

In a way, the technology driven developments have outpaced us – despite all the efforts to adjust our standards, to accommodate objects as well as publications, to tweak rules, formats and systems to customer needs, to make use of automatically generated metadata etc. And I am the first to admit that our tools are lagging. (For a funny though cringe-worthy take on this see Mike Taylor’s Bibliographic data : MARC and its vile progeny) It’s a bit like farming an enormous field by hand when you’d really need a plough tractor and combine harvester. But that does not mean that the task has become obsolete – on the contrary, expertise is needed even more – and more expertise is needed.

If we want to help our customers to master the chaos that is on (and that IS) the internet we can both teach them how to use it (aka information literacy) and we can tackle the chaos itself by adding value to the resources, so users are able to decide what they want, whether it is good enough, appropriate for their purpose, how they can access it etc. That is the added value of cat & class & index – if this is not done by professionals it retaliates. Here is another blogger echoing my own experience:

“For years we have been passing more and more of the bread-and-butter cataloguing to non-professional staff and in the process have necessarily been simplifying what we ask them to do […] In the context of our old Opac, which didn’t make any use of such things, this made perfect sense – why fuss about something that wasn’t being used?

Now I am looking at an Opac which depends on accurate and detailed coding of the fixed length fields in order to express format and form and all sorts of other very useful stuff (all of which I very definitely want my users to see). […] But what my wonderful new Opac shows is the inadequacy of what we have done […].”

By the way, even if the world would stop producing content (unlikely) there is still a staggering backlog of ‘hidden’ collections that have not been catalogued at all i.e. nobody knows what treasures might be in them – Dunia García-Ontiveros’ paper on retrospective cataloguing at the recent CIG conference in Exeter (#cigx) identified already 10.6 million inaccessible items so far and 1.2 million records requiring updating (ongoing survey in 75 UK libraries, mainly academic but across the board).

Guest bloggers are not affiliated with VftL, and all views and opinions are their own.

9 thoughts on “Guest post: Do we need cataloguers?

  1. Kay Wellings

    I totally agree. I work with library software, and although there are many sources for cataloguing data and systems can assist with import and validation, this can only cover a proportion of materials in collections. Nothing can replace the expertise of a professional when it comes to accurately cataloguing local materials and enhancing standard records to give better information or access suited to the target audience. More and more library catalogues are suffering from lack of cataloguing control.

  2. Library Web

    Some current exciting stuff from cataloguers:

    “Coming of age: the new library catalog.”

    I for one would like to see cataloguers tackling the semantic web as well.

    The antithesis is to be found in this article (though note my comment):

    The number’s up

    For an analysis of keyword search v classification, I can recommend The Oxford Guide to Library Research, Thomas Mann.

    The conclusion I think has to be that cataloguing could well be about to embark on its second Renaissance 🙂 And they will be very popular for it.

  3. Sean Fullerton

    As an elementary school teacher-librarian with only a little training in cataloguing, I’ve been looking at my OPAC and realizing that it omits much of the content that my patrons (students, teachers, & parents) really want.

    In our instant-access oriented age, shouldn’t a school’s OPAC include records for the best of the open web? If my patrons want websites, flash activities, online video, mobile apps, etc., why shouldn’t our catalogues include records for this digital collection? Why not enable one search in the OPAC to lead patrons to access for both physical items (books, DVDs, etc.) and suitable digital resources?

    To accomplish this, however, could require some creative cataloguing–something that we may need guidance to implement well.

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  5. lynne

    I have always tried to encourage my cataloguers to complete more of the MARC fields than less, so that when we do get an OPAC that can search on 008s or can display more of the information then that information will be there to be searched or displayed; if we didn’t put it in in the first place, there is no chance we can ever get it out! Sometimes this is a difficult point to get across, especially if you are working with the traditional library cat/class “backlog”!

  6. AW

    Off course the answer is yes, have you ever seen the mistakes that suppliers make when they supply shelf ready stock? We often have to send it down to cataloguing so that they can rectify the mistakes, what a waste of time and money. I’d rather pay an experience cataloguer anyday than pay a premium to a supplier.
    Cataloguers, and i did work as one, have an in depth knowledge of local library stock and are invaluable resource when it comes to stock planning and buying.

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