What’s the big deal, you just import it, right?

It never ceases to amaze me that some new librarians (and not so new) continue to believe that cataloguers just import and “dump” records into the catalogue, without any editing.  After all, who gives a fig about uniformity, misspellings, local subject headings and access issues?  Oh wait, they do – but only when faced with it at the “front-line”.

(I know that there is an ongoing debate regarding the editing of each individual record, localized headings and so on.  I follow this debate as well – and am waiting for day that when I import a record, inches will convert to centimeters, “Indians of North American – Canada” will change to “First Nations”, “African Americans” will convert to “Blacks” and American spellings will add a “see also” for Canadian spelling.  These are only a few “wishes” on my cataloguing wish list.  However, until our systems are at that point, we continue to go in to records and convert, add or remove information as required by our cataloguing practices.)

But, back to the point.  Where are library schools in this?  For the recent graduate, new librarians should know that many records that are imported need to be edited.  They should be taught to analyze records and know the difference between a good one and a bad one.  Why aren’t they aware that libraries have local practices, or that some libraries use different subject headings than others?  Where does this “it’s just copy cataloguing” mentality come from?

As for the more “mature” librarian, I find it very frustrating when I hear the comment “What’s the big deal, you just import it, right?”  Yeah, right.  That’s what we went to school for.  Although this “attitude” can be blamed partially on a lack of interest in cataloguing (or the fact that we work so quickly and efficiently that’s what they THINK, because we’re so good!), I think it also stems from an unconscious desire to minimize the importance of cataloguing. 

There’s a great divide between front-line staff and “the backroom”.  I’d like to blame this attitude solely on library schools and those on the front-line who devalue our services to promote the survival of their own.  However, I think it’s partially our fault, too.  While we discuss the future of cataloguing amongst each other and in technical terms, we’re not selling what we do to management and front-line staff. 

I’ve heard about an orientation that some cataloguing and technical services departments are developing to assist with this problem.  I’m hoping to adopt this in our library as well.  New librarians will be asked to spend a morning in cataloguing, to experience first-hand what goes on behind the scenes to get the items out to the branches.  I’m also hoping to make it out to all of our branches as a representative of the cataloguing department.  While visiting, I’d like to show them some strategies for using the catalogue, let staff know how we can work together and generally, provide them with a face to the catalogue.  I’m also interested in gathering their input and ideas.

If we aren’t willing to put ourselves out there and explain just what we do to non-cataloguers, we will become a lost profession.  I want management, front-line staff and patrons to think we’re more than just editors with “cut and paste” skills.



Filed under future of cataloguing, In the Cataloguing Department, Our Profession, The Cataloguer, The Library Catalogue

21 responses to “What’s the big deal, you just import it, right?

  1. Hi Laurel,

    I’m confused by your reference to “inches” since AARCR2 requires us to records dimensions in centimeters. Do you find some catalogers using inches instead?

    I continue to enjoy reading your blog!

  2. Laurel Tarulli

    Hi Chris,
    We import a lot of records that continue to use “inches”. This mostly happens with CDs, rather than books, but it swallows up a lot of time which could be spent in so many other productive ways!

    Thank you for your kind words. I enjoy reading your blog as well and have recommended it to quite a few colleagues.

  3. Bryan Campbell


    Do you think it’s possible to write a macro to do the conversion from inches to centimeters?

    It’s interesting that you mention inches because, unless they undergo conversion, many ONIX records show dimensions for books in inches. (see http://roytennant.com/proto/onix/ for samples). If we tend to rely on data from those records, then we’ll probably need some kind of conversion program. But if we are going to the trouble to do that, then maybe we should also keep all three dimensions in the record or at least behind the scenes for reuse for automating more stacks management (e.g. planning shifting projects, anticipating space needs, or automated assignment for off-site storage–just dreams
    for now).

  4. Hi Laurel,

    Although I never thought I would do much cataloging while attending grad school in the late 1980’s, it ends up that the first full-time position I landed, I catalog thousands of items. There are a lot of tools available now that can speed along the process but as you mentioned there are also many rational decisions that have to be made. In my case, there is also a great deal of original cataloging…
    Interesting comments that hit on a sore point in many libraries I’m sure. Like other aspects of life and jobs, you really don’t know what it’s like unless you have walked in the other person’s shoes.
    The Probverbial Lone Wolf Librarian http://lonewolflibrarian.wordpress.com/

  5. Laurel Tarulli

    Thanks for your comments. This is a sore point among cataloguers. Prior to cataloguing, I never realized how much original cataloguing does occur in libraries, and at times, it’s almost quicker to do an original than copy and edit an existing record.

    Bryan, you bring up an interesting point about creating a macro. I can see this as some sort of “in-between” program that you can run between downloading the records from other libraries and before importing them into the catalogue. With this software, the records could even be run through a “find and replace” macro, which would be able to replace subject headings as needed to fill local requirements.

    Unfortunately, my skills in creating such software are limited. However, I can’t see it as that difficult, as we already have software like MARC Edit, which you can create “find and replace” macros for. However, I see MARC edit as more of a “oops, let’s go back and make these bulk changes”, rather than a solution to editing before the records are imported.

    Hmmm, definitely food for thought.

  6. I’d be curious to see more of your wish list for a cataloging tool. From my perspective as a programmer, it seems that most cataloging editors (include the one I work on) are essentially overgrown forms; although many have macros, authorized headings checks, and so on, I’m not sure that any really support the total cataloging workflow – they just handle blobs metadata, one record at a time.

  7. Bryan Campbell

    Galen makes a good point. For example, say I want to increase granularity by creating in-analytic records for the book Radical Cataloging : essays at the front (see http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/
    173241123) based on that text blob TOC in the record. WorldCat.org already demonstrates that analytic records (i.e. article records and the like) can peacefully co-exist with records for other formats. To my knowledge, there is no function in Connexion or my ILS that lets me slice and dice that text blob TOC into analytical records. I want something that let’s me highlight and convert (a la LC’s David Williamson’s “On the MARC” program) the author and title information, authorizes the names and whatever, fills in some of the rest of the analytical record based on the underlying bib, in the way that one can automatically derive a name authority record based on an underlying bib record, and then summarizes what’s missing. Or let’s say that I have a handful of records that are all related in some specific way (whole-part, accompanying, just run down Tillett’s taxonomy of bibliographic relationships). It would be cool if I have some kind of push-button relationship-building tool bar in my editor that let’s me take those records, select the relationship, be notified if I need more information to define the relationship, and connect the records without
    having to code it all by hand. These are just a few of my wishes.

  8. Laurel Tarulli

    It’s great to have a programmer on board. I’ve invited my cataloguing staff to come up with a few ideas as well, and will reply shortly with a complete wish list.

    I think, for me, the key factor would be some type of template or program that would allow me to enter criteria and commands for local headings or spellings. This would, in essence, read the records and convert records based on our commands prior to being imported into the catalogue.

    In a way, like a “find and replace”. For instance, I can enter subject headings like “Indians of North America–Canada” and a command to replace with “First Nations”. Also, the ability to have a system recognize spelling. As a result, when I import records with US spellings, a Canadian/English spelling is also added. For example, if a patron searches “humour”, the search defaults to “humor”.

    And, of course, a formula to change inches to centimetres (especially for CDs).

    This type of tool would allow us to enter this information only once, rather than having to touch each record.

    That’s just a few ideas. However, I’m hoping to add additional “wishes” to this list.

  9. D Moore

    Our library staff association offered an hour long presentation on “what happens in tech services” – – everything from ordering a book/serial title, to cataloging, to getting it on the shelves. Often times tech services is a mystery to public services people (support staff in addition to librarians), and the town out of the session was quite good. Presenters spoke about what their role was in the process, had examples, etc. It was a good way to reach a lot of people and only spend an hour’s time doing it.

  10. Wendy

    Has anyone actually said to you, “it’s no big deal. You just import it?” In my consortium, the catalogers are recognized as the people to go to when anyone has a “how-to” question. They’re highly respected, and viewed as leaders. I’m sorry that your experience has been different.

    To your other point re library school, I graduated last year from FSU’s online program. No true “cataloging” is taught in online courses, probably because it’s too difficult. Fortunately, I did an internship and catalogued for about a year. Otherwise, I’d have barely any concept of it at all. It’s not something I would choose to do (just not a good fit for me), but in terms of understanding MARC, it’s certainly the basis for much of everyday librarianship. A good cataloguer is someone who can make decisions and think long-term and comprehensively, hardly the attributes one looks for in a “cut and paste” position. So feel free to toot your own horns, cataloguers–you keep us all functioning. 🙂

  11. Sonny Dulfo

    Aloha catalogers!

    I appreciate your article about cataloging.

    I think over the years people assumed that since it’s copy cataloging, it should be simple. Thanks to OCLC and catalogers (with MLIS degree), they have made cataloguing less complicated and chaotic than in earlier years.

    Copy cataloguing should not be construed as almost like cheating. There are different levels of copy cataloguing like there are different levels of coursework in mathematics or biology.

    Cataloguing requires intellectual skills and analysis. An expert cataloger is not made overnight!

    As a cataloging manager for an academic library, I hope I can be an example to my catalogers and the library in furthering the work that we do. I’ve seen academic university downsizing technical services or catalogers for that matter. Working less with more could have some disadvantages in our world. I sure hope librarians in leadership positions understand our role and the professional job that we do.

    Kudos to all catalogers!

    Sonny Dulfo,
    Salt Lake City, Utah

  12. Laurel Tarulli

    Hi Wendy,
    Yes, I have had that comment – from several colleagues and library students. The comments basically go like this:

    “It’s just a matter of copy cataloguing”
    “You can just import most of this”
    “I’m sure most of these records already exist, so you can just copy catalogue”
    “Since so much of what you do is copy cataloguing, what else do you do?”

    It is refreshing to hear your comments, especially from someone who isn’t a cataloguer. It sounds like the cataloguers in your consortium have worked hard to earn that outstanding reputation.

    As for these comments creating a somewhat negative experience – I don’t really think of it along those lines. As with any profession, there are those who understand it more than others. I always like to compare it with the legal profession. There are many people who believe the need for lawyers has diminished (and will continue to do so). This is especially true now that legal kits, information and tips can be found everywhere. In a way, it keeps us on our toes and reminds us that, as public figures, we are accountable for our actions and should, at times, be called upon to defend our positions. We should never take it for granted that are jobs are essential without having to explain why.

  13. Susanna

    As a frustrated cataloger (ie: “I want to be a cataloger but there just aren’t any openings in my neck o’ the woods”) I am completely sympathetic with your frustration. My past job was Technical Services Librarian, and I did ordering and cataloging in a small liberal arts college library. When we got overwhelmed and asked to hire another – at least part time – librarian, the VP in charge of our area suggested hiring someone from a temp agency to do the cataloging. (!!!!!) After seeing the shocked look on our faces and hearing our stories about what it is we actually do, he said “OK, maybe that was a bad idea”. Heh.

    BTW – Wendy, I also got my degree in 2006 through FSU’s online program, and I was able to take both a cataloging class and a subject access class. I’m sorry you didn’t have the opportunity to do that too! 8-(

  14. Joel Hahn

    1. AACR2R 6.5D mandates that music discs, cassettes, cartridges and reels be measured in inches, even for British, Canadian, and Australian libraries. (Even the NLC RI don’t include an exception for that rule.) You can probably blame the powerful music librarians’ lobby for insisting on continuing their old way when the rest of the cataloging world switched to the metric system (probably in part so that they could keep calling 12″ LPs by the dimension).

    2. Possible additional factors in generating and reinforcing the mindset, one for older librarians and one for newer librarians:
    * In the days of yore, libraries simply filed cards printed by LC, so why can’t catalogers just import LC records now?
    * Since any average person can completely catalog their home library in just a few minutes/hours using LibraryThing, why would cataloging ever consist of anything more than that?
    Both of those are logical fallacies (there has always been material a local library owns that LC doesn’t, and libraries generally have different needs than the average person does), but that doesn’t stop people from believing them.

  15. Dave Newell

    I’ve never been a librarian. I’ve never worked at a library. I’m overwhelmed with the amount of technical jargon librarians have. Had no clue! Very interesting stuff.


  16. This discussion has certainly brought up a number of interesting details. Copy-cataloging has been going on a lot longer than some of you may think. It originally was done by ordering card sets from the Library of Congress to file into your card catalog. You just sent the LCCN (Library of Congress Card Number) to LC and they would send you the pack of cards (main entry and tracings) and then you filed them into the card catalog. There was also the National Union Catalog Where you might have search several years of volumes to find if the book in hand was already cataloged. Those were not fun.
    When I started as a professional cataloger about 25 years ago, OCLC was relatively new and there were big discussions if only librarians should do copy-cataloging or should we let Library Assistants do it also, under the supervision of a Librarian. Now it almost entirely done by library assistants and even some part-time students.

    People who make comments like “you just download it, right?” have not heard about things like authority control (which needs to be checked) for headings, names, series, subjects, etc. We have at least one librarian here who graduated library school without taking a cataloging class. Cataloging is no longer a required class in some library schools (oh, excuse me, I mean “Schools of Information Science”) The word “library” has become a dirty word, not only being removed from the school’s name, but even removed from some mission statements as well. The California State University, some 15 years ago, built a new campus at Monterrey Bay, and the Chancellor decided not to have a library on the campus “… because it’s all online anyway …” It took some time but he was eventually convinced to build a library and they do have one now. Unfortunately the major decisions about libraries and the future of the profession are not being done by informed experienced librarians, but often by people who have no idea what a library does now and is also viewed as a money pit because they have to keep putting money into it and do not get a “product.” On the university level, when a campus president puts money into one of the schools/colleges, he/she expects to get FTES (Full-Time Equivalent Students) in that college as a result, hence their “product.” Since libraries do not generate FTES, and the cost of books and serials and electronic resources continue to go up, we sometimes are not treat as the same as our teaching colleagues, even though we have to go through the same requirements as the teaching faculty in order to get tenure/promotion. At least that is the way in my institution.

    OK, enough of my ranting for today. Sorry if I went on too long.

    — Mitch

  17. I’m a high school teacher librarian in the States who reads your blog from time to time. This posting was featured in AL Direct and the timing couldn’t have been better. There is a discussion currently on LM_NET (the school library listserv) about the advisability of doing away with Dewey numbering on books and using a more “user-friendly” bookstore-style ordering system. I sent the list a message in which I pointed out that whatever you do it needs to be documented (whether classification or subject headings) and that cross references are essential as well. Many of our school librarians don’t use cross references because they haven’t been trained in how to set up authority files.
    As for the person who had a wish to be a cataloger–you could always become a teacher librarian–then you’d be expected to do everything from cataloging to teaching to readers’ advisory to ….
    As a school librarian I do a lot of original cataloging (no one, to my knowledge, sells catalog records for websites, for example) and I would never let a record survive for long in my database without checking to see that it was properly cataloged and cross referenced.
    I’m pretty appalled at what gets out of library school these days in terms of cataloging theory and skills and can only hope that it will improve as practitioners realize what they are missing.

  18. Laurel Tarulli

    Mitch – Thank you for your comments – I think much of what you wrote reflects what many of us believe. And, as you say, there IS a long history of copy cataloguing, and even with that history, it is still imperfect. I enjoyed your “rant”.

    Tom – I was introduced to the world of the school librarian when I took a course on it in graduate school. It amazes me how many hats you have to wear, and in an institution where you are seeking to justify your needs to educators, not librarians.

    I do have hope for those students coming out of library school. LC has created a task force on the topic (of which I sit as a member) and I am hopeful this will improve the education of cataloguers for the future.

  19. Pingback: Speaking of copy cataloguing… « The Cataloguing Librarian

  20. Amanda

    As a fellow cataloger, WITH a Master’s degree, AMEN!!

  21. Elaine

    I’m responding to the comments about cataloging in LIS programs. I’m a recent LIS graduate and a catalog librarian, and my point of view is that the LIS program I completed did not prepare me for my job. The program had one introduction to cataloging course and although it was required, the subject of cataloging is too complex for one class. An introduction to all the topics doesn’t allow for a true understanding of any of them. The cataloging class I attended introduced me to OCLC in two classes, subject headings were covered in two classes, and the topics of Dewey and LC classification numbering was limited to two classes each. The amount of material that was covered left no time for a better understanding and I was confused and frustrated throughout the semester. I did a technical services internship before graduating and that’s where I gained a better understanding of the job and the importance of putting into service a good record that would be useful to the local clientele. I never just copy.

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