What makes a good cataloguer?

This is a bit of a follow-up from my last post, I can’t replace my cataloguer with another cataloguer?

So, let’s forget the training or education for a minute. Let’s even forget reasons for why we want trained cataloguers or how to catalogue *cheaply* but still maintain quality records. When it gets right down to it, what characteristics, skills or traits make a good cataloguer? We’ve all met cataloguers that have library or library tech degrees that weren’t the best cataloguers. Why? What sets apart a good cataloguer from a not so good cataloguer? What makes a great cataloguer?

This was Heather’s comment from my last post:

I’m coming a bit late to the table (for which, apologies) but I’d like to add some comments from a UK perspective.
To start with, most of our library schools teach little or no cataloguing. Therefore we cannot make the assumption that a qualified librarian is able to catalogue. They may have learnt a little bit of theory on “knowledge management” and/or done a few paper exercises, but they will nearly always need training in AACR/RDA, MARC and classification (and the principles on which these rest). When cataloguing isn’t part of the professional skill-set, it makes it very difficult to make the case that a cataloguer should be professionally qualified.
At the same time, the sector is shrinking – there are very few cataloguers in the profession (especially in public libraries) and even fewer in the job market. And in any case we are increasingly required to save money by recruiting on non-professional grades so we are not going to attract experienced staff.
So, faced with candidates who are neither skilled nor experienced – how do I identify the ones who would be good at cataloguing?
Anyone who applies for a cataloguing job will express a deep interest and passion for cataloguing, even when this isn’t really the case and what they want is any job that will pay the bills. (No blame – in their position I’d do the same). Putting aside the ones who shoot themselves in the foot by telling me that they catalogue by Dewey, or make other unforced errors, I am thrown back on trying to recognise the character and kind of mind that will be able to assimilate and practise cataloguing.
Accuracy and consistency are usually cited as the qualities a good cataloguer needs, but I have too often seen these tip over into pedantry and inflexibility (and a very slow work-rate). Common sense and good judgement are just as important. Noone is going to make a good cataloguer who isn’t a catalogue user. I have a theory that linguists make good cataloguers because they are analytical and good at expression, but I can’t prove it.
Has anyone got the answer?

Heather’s comment really got me thinking about this, and I’d like to know what the rest of you think. What do you look for when you’re hiring a cataloguer? Is it all about training or education? What do you think makes a good cataloguer? Has the rapid growth in technology and changes in cataloguing (in the recent past and in the near future) changed the qualifications and qualities you look for in a cataloguer?

Here are some things to consider:
Level of Education
Type of Education – Do individuals educated in music, math or languages make successful cataloguers?
Personal Qualities – Should cataloguers be creative? Well-read? Curious? Well-rounded?

Here are some past posts of mine that may interest you. Some are more closely related than others to the topic discussed above, but I feel that they all have some relevance. I welcome other posts or comments that can be shared with everyone!

**Focus Group: The Results (Includes a wish list of criteria that librarians look for when hiring into the profession)
Creativity? In Cataloguing?
Pride and the Cataloguer
Librarianship can be a struggle when it’s your second career
Quality v. Quantity


Filed under Our Profession, The Cataloguer

19 responses to “What makes a good cataloguer?

  1. Emma

    As a former linguist and library student who loves cataloguing, I do think we make good cataloguers!

  2. Lynn

    When I hired cataloguers (lo these many years ago), I typically tested them.

    First, they got a sorting test (put this stack of cards in order based on a set of filing rules given to them). Then, they got a descriptive cataloguing test and finally a classification test (including assigning call numbers and subject headings).

    If the applicant claimed prior knowledge or experience I gave no instruction beyond a local practices document and access to reference materials. If the applicant claimed no prior knowledge or experience, I gave some instruction and the test was staged over several days (and would be conducted via email if desired).

    The traditional interview was for determining “fit” into the organization and department and to allow them to explain their reasoning for making the choices that they did on the various parts of the test.

    Although this was a lot of work for me (and the organization) it worked well. I will note that I have never hired an MLS-degreed cataloguer, though some of my hires did have other degrees.

  3. Bill (a cataloger)

    A few vague and somewhat high level thoughts.

    Knowledge of rules (often several sets of rules!) so one can bend and even break them intelligently (and an idea of possible consequences when one does fiddle with the bibliographic order of the universe, well our universe anyway).

    A sense of pragmatism in applying and bending the rules to serve the needs of the all the internal and external audiences of our data, balanced with a willingness to “play well” within the constraints of a data community (e.g. our local catalog vs. data we contribute to a larger community).

    A willingness to participate in examining and retooling constraints, rules, workflows, etc. locally, within and beyond the library community to current and future needs and capabilities.

    My own background is in Classics. Helpful on the linguistics front, and Greek and Latin grammar certainly imparts a level of rigor that can only be useful when facing one’s first cataloging class.

    I’m also a tabletop roleplaying gamer (Hear me out on this before you flee!), and I’ve found this hobby to impart a certain affinity for rules as well as a level of comfort for complex data records (as anyone who has seen a player character sheet or monster stats writeup will know). “House ruling” from an established rule set to suit local needs is a tradition among the RPG community.


  4. Francene

    To me these questions and your latest blog posts are not an academic discussion; I am in the midst of actively searching for a new cataloger for our department. I’ve trained a number of staff members over the years how to catalog. In fact the opening we have now is due to the fact that the staff person got her MLIS and took a faculty cataloging position at another school. I’m proud that we helped her grow her skills and gain confidence and knowledge enough to move on to a new challenge. But I’m left with a big hole to fill. So what kind of questions, characteristics do you use to find out a cataloger personality as part of your interviewing process?

  5. Heather

    I hadn’t realised I was going to kick off such an interesting discussion! I have been interested to read all the responses.
    I think the crux is in Francene’s last question: [assuming we can agree what characteristics we are looking for,] “what kind of questions, characteristics do you use to find out a cataloger personality as part of your interviewing process?”

    I also used to do practical tests – candidates would be sat down with three books and a copy of AACR and required to catalogue them (on paper, so as not to favour those with knowledge of our own LMS) to Level 2, within 30 minutes. No classification or subject headings were required – I was testing descriptive cataloguing and access points. Frankly some of the results were amazing, even from people who had worked in cataloguing posts before – and often betrayed that they had only “filled in” online forms without any understanding of underlying principles. Now I incorporate the test as part of the interview, so we can talk about the decisions they make as part of cataloguing. (This is also wonderful for educating the other members of the interviewing panel and making them realise how complex cataloguing actually is!)

    I don’t know whether it is the same in the US, but we are required to define a “person specification” for posts that are advertised, and demonstrate firstly, that the criteria are a real and reasonable requirement for the post and secondly, that we appoint according to those criteria. Which is fair, and fair enough. But it makes it very dificult when what we are going on is “hunch”. I absolutely agree with Bill about the classical education and I’ve already said that I have a personal preference for linguists. Even so, how can I make a case that my cataloguing posts require a knowledge of foreign languages when almost all the stock we handle is in English? There must be plenty of good cataloguers out there who aren’t classicists (and I’ve employed some of them very successfully).

    And when it comes to things like intellectual curiosity, which others have mentioned as desirable and which I would have put in my original post as an essential had I remembered to do so – how on earth can that be tested?

    There has to be some rational justification for the qualities we require and some way of determining it in the very brief selection process – otherwise our preference for linguists or enquiring minds can (and should) be challenged alongside prejudices like not appointing people who wear white socks or write their application forms in green ink.

  6. LynneW

    My own theory is that people who are good at/enjoy geometry (I’m not one) make good catalogers. People who preferred algebra, not so much.

    Can I explain why? Not in scientific terms. But that’s one of the questions I ask potential candidates. And it does seem to be an accurate predictor …

    For the record, I’m an MLS who supervises and trains the paraprofessionals who do the actual cataloging, both copy and original, at the library; I credit my classes with Dr. Allyson Carlyle (now Associate Professor, Information School, University of Washington) for my appreciation and understanding of cataloging principles and best practices

  7. Lynn

    Heather, the phrase “person specification” wasn’t what was used when I hired in the U.S. – but the concept of having a rational reason for each criteria and appointing only those that met them was definitely used.

    I was actively training to ignore “hunches” when hiring because they had a very strong chance of being tainted by unconscious bias (which all of us have). It was difficult at first to do this when dealing with “organizational fit” questions – but it is a valuable exercise to do this as a manager.

  8. Peter

    > My own theory is that people who are good at/enjoy geometry (I’m not one) make good catalogers. People who preferred algebra, not so much.

    I can’t agree with the mindset, especially since I gave up on math when goniometry came along.

    I do think that people who feel comfortable with working with abstract concepts and relationships make better cataloguers, but this does not need to be the same skill as working with the spatial concepts that geometry involves.

    Easy adaptation to the grammar of foreign languages usually is a sign of potential greatness too.

  9. Laurel Tarulli

    Wow! I am enjoying the feedback and responses that all of you are contributing. While I admit to a serious dislike of math, I do remember that my best year in math was geometry – I loved doing proofs!

    I think that all of the criteria and suggestions that have been mentioned are very reasonable and I’ve seen a lot of them in practice. Even for my own position, I was required to take a cataloguing “exam”.

    I’d like to add a few suggestions of my own into the mix too. Candidates who stand out in my mind are those who ask ME questions in an interview. It shows me that they are interviewing me, have researched the library/position and have taken the time to check details and inform themselves about their potential employer. Often, this leads to additional questions on both sides. But this curiousity on the side of an interviewee is always attractive.

    Often, a resume can shed some light on whether or not the candidate is well-rounded, through their employment history, or if they’ve included hobbies/volunteer information on their form. Pretty basic, but the value of the traditional resume shouldn’t be overlooked.

    More and more employers are also moving to situational interviews, rather than theory based. From what I’ve heard, situational interviews, especially when interviewing a candidate with little directly related experience, can tell you a lot about a strong candidate. Does anyone have experiences in this regard?

  10. Bryan

    Heather mentioned giving tests on paper, but I think it makes more sense to have the candidate create the records in Connexion or at least some other kind of online work-form. I say this because the online environment is where we work, so it might feel unnatural to use a paper form; besides, MLIS students these days are probably not using paper work-forms in class. I know that I am not. Recent graduates of library schools may have had only online access to cataloging tools, so that’s something else to consider. Sign of the times. If I were interviewing someone, I would ask “which cataloging rule or aspect of cataloging would you change and why?” The answers could be revealing.

  11. Francene

    In the past, I’ve not had the luxury of interviewing MLIS grads or anyone with formal cataloging training. Often, I’m helping review different staff candidates who will be in charge of a particular part of our collection, the Curriculum Center or the AV area. While their main focus will be their collection, they are also asked to help out with cataloging materials that will be in the collection. So I’m looking for “fit” or cataloging apptitude. I don’t have the opportunity to ask them to catalog on Connexion or using AACR2 because at the moment they are hired they have no idea what those things are or how to use them. So characteristics that help identify personality traits that make good catalogers are invaluable to me as an interviewer.

  12. Mary Kosta

    I second Emma’s comment – I am a linguist who is now attending an MLIS program, and I can’t stop thinking about all the fascinating issues in cataloguing! Right now, the issue of representation through naming is engaging me, and I am very interested in your work on subject headings for FNMI peoples at HCRL. I think we also need to think about revising subject headings for aboriginal languages. The difficulty is in agreeing upon standard spellings since many aboriginal languages have alphabetic writing systems with characters and diacritics not found in English, or, in some cases (e.g. Inuktitut, Cree) also use syllabic writing systems.

  13. Frances O'Regan

    Hi Laurel,
    Love your blog! I actually stumbled upon it while researching blogs for a descriptive and access cataloguing course I have just finished. I must confess that while doing my masters of information, I avoided all and any library courses, especially cataloguing, like the plague. I eventually graduated with a MISt in Archives and Records Management. I felt that something was missing however, so I embarked on several library courses, cataloguing being top of the list. I actually discovered that I really really like cataloguing (after I got past memorizing the MARC fields that is!). So, now that I am hooked on all things cataloguing, I follow your blog fairly regularly. I read with interest the blog about not being able to find qualified, in both skill and personality, cataloguers. I am having the opposite problem…..I cannot find any job postings for these positions. Am I missing something or are there just no cataloguing jobs out there right now?

    Enough of my rant. Rick Mercer does a much better job of it anyway.
    The underemployed cataloguer……archivist…….librarian…..

  14. Laurel Tarulli

    Hi Mary, Hi Frances,
    Thanks for your comments!

    Mary – Your idea about revising subject headings to reflect aboriginal languages is a difficult one although I agree – interesting! For many Canadian libraries, we haven’t even mastered having a French AND English version of our catalogues! However, I have a friend and colleague you’d be interested in contacting if you’d like to further explore Aboriginal needs within the library. Reegan Breu has a blog called The Prairie Librarian http://prairielibrarian.wordpress.com/ While she hasn’t written on her blog in a bit, feel free to contact her. She’s a wealth of information! My project was on a much smaller scale but still necessary. While we’re still using the Romanized letting and English spellings of the terms, I felt it at least necessary that we try to accurately reflect our Canadian traditions with the Aboriginal Peoples here in Canada – for example, using First Nations and dropping the “Indian” and “Native” terms. Like you – I’m fascinated by the naming and describing of items for access – and how our terms and descriptions influence our patrons and communities (as well as reflect our own biases). Two books you might find interesting include: Carol Duncan’s book Civilizing Rituals and Hope Olson’s book The Power to Name.

    Frances – Great to hear about your new love of cataloguing! It’s such an awesome area of the profession.

    Ahhh, the job hunt! If you aren’t a library technician, the job hunt is a bit harder because there are only one or two cataloguing librarian positions at any given library in Canada (if you’re lucky!). I guess it depends where you’re looking for a position. Out in the Maritimes, there has been some movement and position openings within the past year. If you are located out here, I highly recommend subscribing to the listservs that Dalhousie recommends (especially the LIS-Joblist one): http://sim.management.dal.ca/Employment%20and%20IM%20Resources/IM_Resources.php

    I’ve also found postings through AUTOCAT – although most of those are American based.

    In the meantime, if you aren’t absolutely sold on having to work in a public/academic library, there are quite a few options that require cataloguing skills in the public sector too. They include library vendors (such as NoveList, OCLC, Whitehots, etc), law firms and hospitals. And, with your Archives and Records Management focus, historical museums and art/history museums may also have something. I wish I could offer more advice than that – but I do wish you good luck!

  15. Frances O'Regan

    Thanks for the advice Laurel. I have seen those job postings for a variety of great librarian positions in the Maritimes. I wish I could pick up and relocate – my sister lives in Antigonish – but family obligations prevent me from doing so (I am in Toronto). I will certainly look into the alternate areas you suggested for the job hunt., but you are correct, location has proven to be an issue for me.
    Happy Holidays
    Thanks again,

  16. Laurel Tarulli

    Thanks Frances – Happy Holidays to you as well! And if I hear of anything or come across anything on the job front – I’ll send it your way.

  17. I am so, so late to this discussion, but I am glad I found it and find it very interesting (as a cataloguer). When I went to school, I was in a track for “Resource Description and Access” and felt I had a pretty good skill set upon graduation. I was saddened when I recently learned that the program I was in has done away with the cataloguing track and no longer requires students to take even the most basic of classes. At any rate, it might mean job security for me…?

  18. Pingback: La importancia de llamarse catalogador (y de asumirse como tal) | InfoTecarios

  19. Daryl

    A good, or should I say excellent, cataloguer is someone who is not only precise, or should I say perfect, in terms of using general cataloguing rules eg. Resource Description and Access or MARC tags, but also maintains consistency with his/her Dewey classification of resources in correspondence to the Library or institution he/she is hired in.

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