Flash-Mob Cataloging

There’s a new post on The LibraryThing Blog that caught my attention – Flash-Mob Cataloging.  What is Flash-Mob Cataloging?  According to LibraryThing, it’s “when a horde of  LibraryThing members descend on some small library with laptops and CueCat barcode scanners, catalog their books in LibraryThing, eat some pizza, talk some talk and leave them with a gleaming new LibraryThing catalog.”

Has anyone else heard of this concept?  What do you think?  

While I wholeheartedly support social catalogs and user-generated tagging, review writing, reading suggestions/recommendations and so on, I hesitate at the idea of good-intentioned lay people (albeit computer savvy, book-loving lay people) descending upon a library or knowledge institution to catalog their collection.

Who decides a “good” record from a “bad” one?  What about authorities and the proper use of tags?  While many of these records are taken from libraries (even the Library of Congress), there is also an element of professional judgment involved in choosing a record.

While there is research available to prove that when a large number of tags are created, uniformity and patterns in tags do appear, that does not mean that rules for use of the tags are also created.  How we apply subject headings and access points are part of our expertise. If records are pulled in from multiple sources, subject headings and access points will be far from uniform. Will a project be undertaken to clean-up the bibliographic and authority records?

The emergence of discovery tools also brings in an interesting problem.  These smaller institutions will run into difficulties when attempting to overlay their catalogs with discovery platform tools.  These tools rely on properly cataloged records to retrieve information.  The platform is only as good as the record.  If there are spelling errors or lack of uniformity in subject headings and descriptive information (think multilingual items!), the discovery tool will be less than successful.  And, discovery tools are known for exposing your bad records.We are all well-acquainted with the bare bones records of our past that still creep up in our catalogs today

One thing I absolutely agree with in the Flash-Mob Cataloging posts – Cataloging is FUN!! Yes, it really is. 








Filed under future of cataloguing, Social catalogue, The Cataloguer, The Library Catalogue

15 responses to “Flash-Mob Cataloging

  1. My (limited) understanding is that these small institutions generally have local, non-shared catalogs or are using LT as their catalog.

    Yes, cataloging to a professional standard can be demanding and involves judgment. But are you trying to say that we (prof. catalogers) have no typos, no misapplied SHs, and so on?

    Because the longer I spend doing professional cataloging the closer I get to the view (in my worst moments) that we generally aren’t doing much better than the “rabble.” Especially so in the days (decades now) of reduced staffing (professional or otherwise) in cataloging departments, re-purposed staff cataloging in any & every discipline at our research libraries, ….

    We do have some great conceptual tools which I will defend until my dying breath. But due to many real-world constraints these are only sometimes (frequently? often? mostly?) applied properly.

    I guess what I’m saying is that in the right context I wholeheartedly support flash-mob cataloging.

  2. Laurel Tarulli

    Hi Mark,
    Thanks for your comments! As a relatively new professional, I haven’t seen the reduced staffing and so on which you mention. However, I am not unaware of it and the problems we, as a whole, are facing as a result.

    Flash-mob cataloging can absolutely be useful in the right context. Lack of funding, expertise or the inclusion of the community on a project are all excellent reasons to consider doing something like this. But, there are also reasons against flash-mob cataloging.

    I do not believe the point is whether or not we make typos or misapply SHs. If that is all that we are educated for, then the death of our profession is already here. All professionals, no matter how highly educated, make errors in their daily work. I have learned that with a willingness to try, an interest and a bit of education, one can easily assume the responsibilities and skills of another professional.

    However, weekend catalogers are similar to weekend lawyers. They may do many things right – in fact, better than some professionals, but does that make them a professional, with the necessary expertise to carry out the duties during the week?

    There are alternatives to flash-mob cataloging, which include working with students at the local library school programs to assist with these projects while providing new professionals with hands-on experience. And, there are local consortiums that can be quite affordable.

    I am not against flash-mob cataloging, and support it, like you, in certain contexts. However, I do hesitate to believe that untrained individuals can perform the same quality of work that a professional can, even with the limitations we may face in staffing. And, I think it is important to recognize the difference.

  3. Sean

    I think these people need to get a life.

  4. This would be a excellent research project.

    I think Mark has a point in that some of the professional cataloging may result in not very high quality data–due to various reasons–just a flash-mob cataloging probably does. But, as Laura points out, in the right context it may be just what is needed.

    What an excellent way to gather data about how a user would catalog compared to how a professional cataloger does it. I am especially curious as to how subject analysis and representation by non-catalogers pans out.

  5. Shannon

    I want to speak up as a cataloger who participated in the most recent cataloging flash-mob. (Actually, I’m a cataloging assistant, still being 12 credits from finishing my MLS. However, I do full-time cataloging work as a day job.)

    I agree that the quality of data in a record is what makes that record valuable, but I think that sometimes too much is made of the professional judgment required to assign a good record to a work. I would argue that a layperson who cares deeply about the subject of a work can be more dedicated to getting it right than a librarian with limited subject knowledge. Risking flaming, I would also contend that cataloging rules are fairly straightforward and that a layperson is capable of identifying information on a title page, comparing physical descriptions, and discerning publication information for copy cataloging.

    As for subject access, LibraryThing is a discovery platform that combines multiple records under one canonical work, effectively unifying subject headings from a variety of sources. Tags are also associated with a work, providing a full picture of the work’s ‘aboutness’ while allowing each library to provide useful access to its own manifestation of that work. In the case of the Rhode Island Audubon Society, the first tag we assigned was always the call number from the library’s in-house classification system. This becomes an access point, along with the subject terms identified by the library and used consistently by each volunteer.

    My experience participating with the flash-mob reinforced an idea that has been growing in my mind: that subject affinity is an important component in accurate cataloging. I’m curious what other think about this?

  6. Dan

    I agree with the last line of Shannon’s comment, ” that subject affinity is an important component in accurate cataloging.”

    There are many times, in a small, nonacademic library, that a Library Thing catalog may be useful to patrons.

    Most of my time is spent reading non-fiction. Readers of peroid romance, or thriller fiction would better know which books go into each genre than I would.

    Currently, avid readers have a complex hive of resources from which they draw to choose their books. While I would not abandon the professional cataloguing standards even in a small library. Flash-mob cataloguing may pique the interests and serve the needs of casual readers in non-academic environments well.

  7. Laurel Tarulli

    Shannon and Dan – thanks for your comments.

    Shannon – as someone who has participated in flash-mob cataloguing, I’m glad you decided to comment. I, too, agree with the concept “that subject affinity is an important component in accurate cataloging”.

    However, as Dan also indicates, I would not abandon professional cataloguing standards in any knowledge organization unless funding and resources dictated that I do so.

    Flash-mob cataloging is an interesting concept and I do believe it has its place, in the right context. Shawne’s idea of a research project in this area would be very interesting!

    “Risking flaming, I would also contend that cataloging rules are fairly straightforward and that a layperson is capable of identifying information on a title page, comparing physical descriptions, and discerning publication information for copy cataloging.” – Perhaps. But that is a lot like saying if you can read the Rules of Court (which, by the way, are quite straightforward), you can be as good a litigator as a professional lawyer. As a general rule, probably not. There are some tricks to the trade 😉

    As one librarian who does care greatly about subject analysis – I’ll let you all in on a dream I often have:

    When my alarm goes off in the morning, it is set to CBC Radio 1 (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). Most of it is talk radio. Often, before I wake up, I’m listening to the topics/news being discussed and assigning subject headings and Dewey numbers to those topics – not allowing myself to wake up until I do. Many times, I’m frantic, trying to figure out the right subject heading when they’ve moved on to another news story! Finally, I realize that I’m dreaming and I can wake up, without cataloguing what I’m listening to. Phewww, just another day in the life of a cataloguer!

  8. I think all have made valid points in their comments. I most certainly am not against professional cataloging as I proudly strive to be one.

    Also, my view is, perhaps sadly and currently, narrow as I deal with old serials needing bib maintenance/original cataloging before they move out to our remote storage facility. Past practices, even if right at the time, have changed repeatedly. Add in some bad cataloging, restrictive shared cataloging policies (am loving the Expert Community Experiment, but it’s not enough), having to work from partial runs or wait for the others to become available so I can request them back, and so on, and one quickly becomes disillusioned. The problems abound.

    I truly like serials cataloging but I often wish I were back in monographs, at least for a few moments.

    Thanks all for a good discussion. 🙂

  9. Julie

    I also participated in a flash-mob cataloging party with LibraryThing. I am a cataloger in an academic library in ‘real life’, so I understand your concerns about choosing the right record and so on. But I believe that is comparing apples and oranges. The way we ‘cataloged’ the collection at the Audubon Society is much more like holding a book in your hands, finding it in Amazon.com, adding it to a shopping cart, then applying a few very broad tags. It’s not exactly like ‘real’ cataloging. (You could do quite detailed cataloging in LibraryThing, but that was not the point of this exercise.)

    What was the point then? The collection is technically available to the public, but the institution could not afford to join the public library consortium to have a ‘real’ catalog. They have a card catalog, but they had no way of making their collection searchable to users across the state. Having us add the books to their LibraryThing account enables them to have a searchable catalog to share with the public. As I recall, their collection has about 2400 items, so sorting that collection with very broad tags allows users to browse through a list of books on a particular subject. (I do not think this would be helpful in a collection of more than, say, 4,000 volumes; there would be too many results with each tag.)

    We were provided with a list of tags to use, and it was left up to each participant to apply the tags as they saw fit. One thing to keep in mind, too, is that their staff members can go back later and adjust tags, add tags, etc. (Some participants in the flash mob volunteered to follow up with additional cataloging and tag adjustments.)

    This kind of cataloging is not what I consider ‘cataloging’ per se. I would not ever recommend that a group of untrained (albeit book-loving and computer savvy) volunteers show up at a public library and attempt to select MARC records to be downloaded to the local ILS, without weeks and weeks of training. Using LibraryThing is much more simplified and much more lax with what catalogers would consider to be important data.

    One could argue that having messy data of this sort (what if a volunteer used a record for the wrong edition? publisher?) is not helpful at all. Well, it certainly is not helpful if a researcher needs to see a particular volume (e.g., 3rd ed., not the 2nd.) But I don’t believe those are the kind of users that are the primary concern for the institution. They are more interested in serving patrons who needs books about birds of North America, or coastal grasses, and that’s about as specific as the users’ needs are.

    It would be great if they could find ‘real’ catalogers to enter their data into an ILS for them. But they don’t have that option. So, their choice was to keep their publicly-available collection offline, or to go with a bunch of volunteers who don’t mind looking at someone else’s library for a few hours, who would create a less-than-stellar-but-pretty-useful “catalog”. (And for the commenter who said that “these people need to get a life”, I hope he considers that volunteer work comes in many varieties. Also, if you’re the type of person who likes to see what’s on someone else’s bookshelf when you’re visiting their home, then you’re the type of person who would enjoy doing this.)

    So, in a very limited environment, I think that this is helpful. For a small, cash-strapped institution, like a church library, this could work well. I should also mention that there were experienced catalogers and LibraryThing users there, so whenever someone had a question about cataloging an item, there were people to ask. I would certainly volunteer to do it again.

  10. Laurel Tarulli

    Julie – Thank you for your comment! While recognizing the importance of “real” cataloguing, you have provided all of us with a clear understanding of the spirit of flash-mob cataloguing – to the point where I would like to participate in such a venture too. Thank you!

  11. Katya

    After attending two such events, I’m inclined to agree that group subject tagging probably isn’t a good idea, due to a lack of standardized application when cataloging on-the-fly. However, as Julie mentioned, it’s relatively trivial for a staff member to go back and re-tag books with whatever standard subjects they want to bring out.

    As far as what constitutes a “good” record, we made a brief list of libraries with open Z39.50 connections that were likely to have high quality records in the subject areas needed. (For instance, the library of the Woods Hole Oceanographic institute proved to be very useful for this collection due to its emphasis on natural history.) And yes, many records came from Amazon, mostly for children’s books which weren’t likely to be in the holdings of major academic institutions. We also had to do some “original cataloging” for books and articles which weren’t in any accessible database (or in WorldCat at all).

    The thing to remember is that LT catalogs don’t employ full MARC records; they’re more like MARC -> DC crosswalks, so the amount of bibliographic data recorded is more basic. And the fixes to bad authority control are actually pretty easy, since anyone can “combine” different variants on an author’s name to get around misspellings or other variations in presentation. (None of this maze of “See” and “See also” links. 😉 )

  12. Laurel Tarulli

    Thanks Katya. May I ask, for all of those who have participated in flash-mob cataloging, how did you get involved? For those who are planning to do it a second time, or have – what did you enjoy most about the experience (cataloguing issues aside)? I would like to hear about the experience itself.

  13. Julie

    If you’re interested in flash-mob cataloging with LibraryThing, they now have a group devoted to the topic: http://www.librarything.com/groups/flashmobcataloging. They also have a wiki page with information about upcoming events: http://www.librarything.com/wiki/index.php/Flash-Mob_Cataloging_Party. The wiki includes information about how you could arrange your own flash mob cataloging party. (Perhaps you know of a small library that would benefit from this sort of help.)

    The first few flash mob cataloging events were in the New England area, but future ones are planned for other locations. (The New England focus was merely one of geographical convenience, since LibraryThing is located in Maine.)

    As for the experience itself, I participated in the one for the RI Audubon Society. The Society provided us with breakfast treats, tea, coffee, and cold drinks all day, lunch, and cookies in the afternoon. Of course, that is up to the generosity of the hosting group. LibraryThing provided t-shirts, stickers, and CueCat scanners, which are USB scanners for reading ISBNs.

    As for what the experience was like, well, we were a group of volunteers mostly unknown to each other, but it was a given that we all like being around books to some extent. Some of us talked up our libraries and programs, some of us talked about books and bookstores, some were just happy to comment on the materials at hand. I found myself sitting at a table of people I’d never met before – and I tend to be rather shy – but we had a good time. There were also (comfortable) periods of silence where we were all pretty much engrossed in working on the materials. (We worked for about 7 hours, and added more than 2,000 volumes to their account on LibraryThing.)

    It was a nice way to meet new people, and we had a good mix of people. Many of us had experience working in libraries, but only a few of us were catalogers by trade. I was pleased to meet people from other libraries in the state, and hear about their upcoming programs, special items in their collections, etc. (Sometimes it is nice to talk with other people who know your line of work but don’t work with you; there were a few conversations about budget problems, etc.) There were also participants who were not library employees but just happened to know LibraryThing and were willing to lend a hand. I sat next to a retired librarian who never used LibraryThing, and he was given a demonstration and was able to participate with ease. (Again, if someone is computer savvy enough to know how to use a shopping cart for an online site, and is book savvy enough to tell one book from another (generally speaking) then they know enough to help with this project, if you’re not worried to much about the finer details.)

    I felt very comfortable with the experience. It was an enjoyable way to spend the day. I have often wished that there were more volunteer opportunities that suited me, and this one certainly did. I have not participated in another one yet, but I will if I the opportunity arises.

    We started by touring the collection and learning a bit about why they wanted it added to LibraryThing, and then we discussed applying tags. When you started working on a shelf of books, you would put your name on a post-it note on the shelf. The entire shelf was your responsibility, and this let other people know to not touch the items on that shelf. We sat at a few conference tables with our laptops and piles of books. We were asked by the LibraryThing staff to keep a count of how many books we did, but this data was gathered at the end of the day, and was for their own information only. (They were just curious about how many books a person could do; no one was looking over our shoulders to make sure we worked ‘fast enough’.) Volunteers were also free to come and go at any time, so that’s nice if you’re concerned about being locked into a full day of volunteer work.

    I would certainly recommend giving it a try, if you can. The Society staff people were very nice and were thrilled that we did this work; the LibraryThing staff that were there were fun. We all had a nice time.

  14. Katya

    I got involved because I’m a heavy LT user and one of my friends from grad school works for LT, so I mostly went to the first one for a chance to see her and catch up. But I had so much fun with Tim & co. at the first one that I went to the second one, too, even though I had to take time off of work and drive a ways. (And get completely lost in Boston, but that’s another story.)

    I’m also involved in the LT Legacy Libraries project which is where we catalog the libraries of famous dead people. (I’ve personally helped with the libraries of Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Pushkin, Joseph Smith and Katharine Hepburn, to give you an idea of the range.) I guess I just like cataloging enough to do it as volunteer work, too. 🙂

  15. Laurel Tarulli

    Julie and Katya – Thank you for sharing your experiences! The LT Legacy Libraries project sounds extremely interesting.

    I’m so glad all of you have shared your opinions on flash-mob cataloging, as well as your experiences. I think this has really provided a complete picture of all aspects of flash-mob cataloging. Thank you!

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