Cataloguers not needed in the retention and organization of electronic government documents?

Several nights ago I went to a lecture at a local university. One of the speakers was from Library and Archives Canada (LAC), formerly the National Library of Canada.

LAC’s representative’s talk focussed on what LAC has been doing regarding the harvesting of electronic documents and archical issues regarding access, organization, copyright, quantity of information and record retention.

I agreed with the majority of the talk and found the issues regarding retention of electronic government documents incredibly interesting. However, there was one issue that really disturbed me. There were several times that LAC’s representative stated that cataloguers need to rethink their future, and perhaps, rethink their career choice. He seemed to think our days were numbered. He did not appear to acknowledge the need for cataloguers in the process of collecting and providing access to electronic government documents. My gravest concern is that his statements reflect those of Library and Archives Canada. If LAC doesn’t value cataloguers, is there anyone who does?

After attending the lecture, I have since written an email to LAC regarding what we do. I am posting the body of my email below:

I enjoyed your talk on October 25, 2007. I am, in fact, a cataloguer. I am the Collections Access Librarian for the entire Halifax Public Libraries system. I found your talk both informative and disturbing.

Understanding electronic documents, how to collect them and retain them once they have been harvested is critical. I am impressed by your innovative strategies to collect all things electronic issued by the Canadian government at all levels. It does appear to be an overwhelming job. Like all good ideas, it takes time to work through the kinks, but taking a long-term view, the work that you are currently doing has great potential. However, this is where I’d like to point out a few things about how cataloguers can assist you. In my view, cataloguers are as important to the work you are doing as the harvesting software being used.

Although I am a “cataloguer” I do not take the view that my only skill lies in understanding MARC. MARC is a tool, nothing more than the software you are using. If the software you are using didn’t exist, that wouldn’t eliminate your usefulness. It is your knowledge of technical services that makes you an asset to the library, as is my knowledge and understanding of how to organize information.

At one point in your discussion, you pointed out that perhaps cataloguers should be, or should have been, at the front-end of the harvesting process. I wholeheartedly agree. During this discussion, a reference librarian pointed out that THEY should be at the front-end as they know what the public wants. I beg to differ. Cataloguers are the buffer between tech services and reference. We are not there to “censor” information and see if the information is what the public wants or understands. Since when do they know what they want? Do they have degrees in history? English? Politics? Librarianship? A cataloguer’s job is to look at any and all information and be able to critically analyze how to make it accessible. It is up to collection development to decide if it is worth keeping and reference to help patrons find or understand the information that has been received. Cataloguers know how to organize information and how to appropriately assign proper access points. If all this information is collected, but it can’t be retrieved in an organized manner, it is useless. Time is a commodity and it has been proven that if patrons can’t find what they are looking for in a short period of time, they will lose interest or go elsewhere to fulfill their information needs. As a result, the harvested information holds no value to the public if it cannot be retrieved.

In an information age where there is more and more information available electronically, physical attendance at libraries has rapidly declined. I believe that cataloguers are the new face of libraries. We are forced to understand exactly how the software we are using works, how it can be manipulated and how to organize and retrieve all of the information that falls into our laps. And, as you know, there is a lot of information out there! Our job is to make information accessible and available to all people who are interested in finding it. We are not trained to hold patrons’ hands and critically interpret that information.

At Halifax Public Libraries, the cataloguing department is part of technical services. I think this is a marriage made in Heaven. From my understanding, this “marriage” is becoming quite common.

Cataloguers are under-appreciated and underestimated. I frequently receive emails from staff who have no idea how information is organized. Most of the emails I receive involve requests to move away from uniformity, how to manipulate the catalogue, search structuring, and the application and use of access points.

I urge you to get the cataloguers at LAC involved in your harvesting project. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the difference we can make.

We need to protect and defend our profession. I am sure all of you have stories to tell about threats of outsourcing and reducing the size of your cataloguing departments. I am interested in hearing them. As well, how you have taken steps against this.

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Filed under future of cataloguing, Our Profession, The Cataloguer

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