What’s in a name? Descriptions, Titles, Influence and Perceptions

Even before completing by undergraduate degree, I knew I wanted to attend graduate school. My intent, however, was not to become a librarian, but a museologist. A what? Even Microsoft Word doesn’t recognize the word. A degree is museology, or museum studies, would have allowed me to work in any type of museum, designing and organizing collections. Even after I received my MLIS, I still toyed with the idea. I’ve heard of cataloguers who travel with the exhibits, cataloguing the condition of the items as they travel, in addition to many other details. What a dream job!

But why did I have such a passion to be a museum curator? Or, perhaps, why, then, did cataloguing suit me so well?

In my last year of undergraduate studies, one of our required reading texts in my museum studies class was Carol Duncan’s Civilizing Rituals: Inside public art museums.

The buildings and structures in which we house collections combined with our use of classifications, exhibition layouts, themes and accompanying descriptions to objects all work together to create an experience to visitors. Indeed, a curator’s clever description of a work of art can influence the thoughts and feelings of the observer more powerfully than the title of the work or its original intent. The idea that museums have always influenced their visitors, or had the power to change perceptions or ideas through a variety of methods intrigues me. In some cases, it can be as simple as adding prominence to one painting over another. In other cases, it’s the structures ability to add a level of spirituality or reverence to an otherwise unremarkable exhibit.

When I decided to obtain an MLIS, I remained fascinated by this idea of buildings and descriptions playing a role in patron perception, attitudes and behaviours. In fact, I revisited Duncan’s book several more times during these years, and added to the mix Hope Olson’s The Power to Name and Exhibiting Cultures: the poetics and politics on museum display by Steven D. Lavine.

When I chose to pursue a career in cataloguing, it took a while to realize that cataloguing had chosen me years before, when I first reader Carol Duncan’s book.

While we cataloguers try to remain unbiased in our efforts to classify, we know that our own experiences, range of interests, knowledge and interest shape how we describe the item we catalogue. Many of us are also aware, although we don’t consciously think about it on a daily basis, that our choice of subject headings and bibliographic content also influences our patrons’ perceptions. Do we ever think about how the publisher’s information, including the title, text size, font and cover have influenced our cataloguing decisions and perceptions of the item we’re cataloguing?

I suppose that, given the weather in Nova Scotia today (rain) and the fact that I’m writing this while the power is out at my house, I am in a reflective mood. But, it’s always interesting to think about how descriptions and titles change our perceptions of the items we view or have in our hands. I think about my own experiences with professional articles. How text heavy is it? Does the title lack that catching “something” or ….(fill in the blank)? And, when we draw our conclusions about items, such as what articles to read, which ones we like or find useful and so on, what factors influence those conclusions or perceptions? Have we ever questioned them?

After reading Carol’s Duncan’s book (and having had the chance to meet her and hear her speak), I have always viewed museums, galleries and yes, even libraries differently. I question the exhibits, the exhibits’ names and even the layouts. What am I supposed to think and feel? If I didn’t have these “signals” presented to me, would my experience be different?

Carol Duncan’s book had a profound influence on me. It continues to influence my work as a cataloguer, and as an enjoyer of public institutions. While you may not all enjoy her work, it is a quick read and I encourage all of you, if you have a chance, to read it. While it is devoted to museums, there is significant application to cataloguers and librarians.

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Filed under Access Issues, Our Profession, Subject Headings, The Cataloguer

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