In my last post, one of the comments sparked an idea for a new blog post. It is based on the comment “…what if the title of your post was ‘You let an RA catalogue a book??!!’? We would probably be having a similar conversation, acknowledging that public services staff have an area of knowledge and expertise, not to mention daily conversations with the public, that could compliment the catalogue.
These are conversations that cataloguers don’t hear and aren’t usually alerted to. In fact, unless you have friends working in branches who don’t hesitate to approach you with concerns or ideas, you won’t hear these conversations because you’re not invited to each other’s “tables”. By this, I mean, frontline staff often don’t invite cataloguers to meetings that spark collaborative opportunities and projects and vice versa. Even meeting agendas that appear unrelated to the “other side” of library work are often related. But when one party is excluded, there are missed opportunities.
While sweeping generalizations never work and this is not the intention of this post, (and yes, I am aware of libraries that are starting to welcome and provide a chair at each table) many libraries continue to see frontline services as strictly something that impacts branches and backroom services as something unrelated. As a result, each library “group” meets in isolation, while frustrated because each side sees deficiencies or has identified issues based on their own area of expertise and library service.
However, I do think, and maybe it’s just my perspective of sitting in the cataloguer’s chair, that we are actually very aware of what frontline staff have to offer with respect to their expertise complimenting what is in our catalogue. In fact, features of our new catalogues, certain changing aspects of cataloguing practices and an increased effort on the part of many cataloguers to join frontline committees to hear these conversations all reflect a growing acknowledgement that none of our services should be practiced in isolation.
However, there are some existing practices that often harm the collaborative relationship between frontline and backroom library services despite being well intentioned. For example, in the public library environment, we receive emails on a daily basis from librarians and other library staff asking us (and sometimes telling us) to change something in the catalogue, add additional information or reclassify a title. Rather than initiating a discussion that revolves around mutual respect, it is one side telling the other what to do. I don’t believe this is intentional, but it certainly leads to mistrust and a degree of resentment. This is especially damaging as a dialogue in the opposite direction – such as a cataloguer providing input on frontline services, is not solicited and often, not welcome.
Even in the above comment wherein the catalogue (and likely implied cataloguers) are held out as separate and apart from “public services staff” creates a chasm and acknowledges what has long been a sore point in library services – the debate over whether cataloguing is a public service and cataloguers are also public services staff. This differentiation, again while unintentional, also leads to feelings of resentment, superiority or lack of understanding as to expertise, knowledge and skills.
This is a conversation with a long history; the debate regarding the divide between frontline and backroom staff. In fact, much of the content in my upcoming book addresses this issue and offers many collaborative opportunities meant to breach this divide – starting with both sides acknowledging their biases, expertise and fears. (I know, shameless plug!)
However, it is my hope that many of my posts encourage cataloguers to continue to look for collaborative opportunities – which are usually in the form of expanding how and why users want and need the catalogue, and how the catalogue can enhance all of our core library services. To do this, we need to seek opportunities to collaborate. I do hope there are advocates among frontline staff doing the same so that a mutual sharing of expertise will not be something that occurs in a handful of public libraries, but becomes commonplace.