Coming out from behind the catalogue: Cataloguers and Readers’ Services

When I think of cataloguing, I typically conjure up images of the old card catalogues or online catalogues. I think of organizing information and creating access to that information through some type of format for patrons to refer to.

There is an image that cataloguers are the behind-the-scenes choreographers of the library. Not a bad image, however that leads “public service” staff to view us as detached, and removed from what is going on in the library. To them, we are out of touch and out-dated. I am not satisfied with the image that we are separate and apart from “public service”. Cataloguing is a public service and therefore, cataloguers are “public service” staff. I prefer to call those staff members who deal with patrons on a daily basis “front-line” staff, if any distinction is required.

In considering ourselves as public service staff, I have come to the conclusion that our responsibilities should extend beyond the traditional confines of a catalogue.

Because we appear to be chained to our catalogues, there seems to be an overriding sense that we can’t organize and provide access to information beyond AACR2 or MARC. I do not believe this. Cataloguers did not always have AACR2 or MARC, what they had were organizational skills and foresight.

While I frequently find that front-line staff operate in the “now”, cataloguers tend to look at future implications that include new technologies, demographic shifts, collection changes and impact on resources. That is not to say that front-line staff are careless, but they tend to think “what is good for the patron today?”. The problem with this is that many staff members don’t think about the patrons’ needs of tomorrow and the impact that has on all that goes on behind the scenes. They’ll deal with tomorrow when it comes.

Of course I am generalizing, but this argument needs to be considered. Should cataloguers’ expertise be expanded to areas outside of “cataloguing”? Should we become more involved in readers’ services? Aren’t we already integral to the development and promotion of readers’ services? Should we be taking it one step further?

How do patrons browse in our libraries? Do they browse? What collections do they browse? We have spent our careers understanding how patrons search the library – through the catalogue. We should start exploring how they fulfill their information needs without the use of a catalogue. Taking our experiences and skills “on the road” can potentially provide us with new ways to utilize our knowledge and help patrons who don’t use the catalogue. It will also allow us to assist front-line staff in organizing collections to enhance browseable access for these “ghost” patrons.

There are considerations to be made when increasing browsing access to a collection. Does the library want to become more like a bookstore or video store and less like a library? What is the long term impact? Will the collection be changing? Will all of the libraries follow the same browsing format, or will each library decide how they want to shelve independently? What terms should we use for signage?

When thinking of browsing access, I immediately think DVD collections. DVDs are in “hard copy” format today, but soon they will become downloadable, as audio books are. We have to balance “browsing access” today, with thought to future, electronic access tomorrow. How do you do that?

I don’t have the answers. However, I do believe that partnering with “front-line” staff to find solutions to in-house library access is important. While front-line staff know patrons, we understand the collection and how to organize it, no matter the format.

Sometimes I feel that the divide between front-line staff and cataloguers is growing. It’s an “us versus them” mentality. I don’t think staff fully understand what we do or the skills we have to share. And, I don’t believe that we’ve done all we can to inform them. I urge cataloguers to sit on committees and become involved in projects with front-line staff. I don’t believe our skills are confined to the catalogue.

Cataloguers should be considered desirable assets to any readers’ services team. Readers’ services is no longer just about recommending books, and cataloguing is no longer just about, well, cataloguing.

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Filed under Access Issues, The Cataloguer

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