Conversations that Cataloguers Aren’t Hearing

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.



Filed under Our Profession, The Cataloguer

15 responses to “Conversations that Cataloguers Aren’t Hearing

  1. Barry

    Perhaps it is because I work in a smaller size library, but I think that these conversations do happen (and should be happening). Here at WRL we have some of our catalogers who work regular shifts on the reference desk, and we have some librarians (all of our folks do both reference and RA work) who help out cataloging materials. This willingness to work across traditional library lines ends up making both our cataloging and our public services stronger, as each area has a better sense of what the other does.

    I agree, Laurie, that sometimes asking for changes in the catalog can be seen as public service staff dictating to the technical services staff. But I wonder if these requests could be a good jumping-off point for discussion? I think that sometimes some public services folks forget or do not really understand the back-end of the catalog and at the same time, some catalogers do not think about how their work affects what the user experience of the front end of system is. So by coming together to share our differing perspectives we strengthen our libraries.

    So your efforts to engage both sides of the discussion are important and essential to the future of our work in trying to connect our users with what the need and want. Thanks!

  2. Lynne

    Barry wrote, “I think that sometimes some public services folks forget or do not really understand the back-end of the catalog and at the same time, some catalogers do not think about how their work affects what the user experience of the front end of system is. So by coming together to share our differing perspectives we strengthen our libraries.”

    And I agree wholeheartedly! We’re much smaller even than Barry’s library (current FTE 6.5), and all our people, including catalogers, also staff the front desk, so they might be more open to creative cataloging, but we’ve implemented a number of local subject headings and other practices (such as putting the author/title of contributions to anthologies and CDs in the Notes field for those records) designed to make the jobs of reference and front-line staff easier, and the catalog more user-friendly for our public. It is do-able, it just requires exploring from all positions to make sure we aren’t unintentionally bollixing up the system for someone else before we implement ~

    Great post, Laurie!

  3. KellyP

    Great post, and I look forward to seeing how you handle this in your book. Just a quick note to say I think it’s good practice when catalogers apply for jobs, to ask what opportunities are already in place to bridge the divide, and how comfortable the environment is for building collaborative relationships between public and tech services. (A big red flag when you ask such questions of a search committee and hear “well, the catalogers are great when something needs to be rushed” and that’s it.)

  4. When Lynne mentions in her comment, the idea of “creative cataloging”, the idea makes me cringe. While there are ways to be creative during cataloging, it must be done with tremendous care. In essence, the task of cataloging is to describe a given resource and organize that description so that it fits into an existing intellectual structure as neatly and as well as it possibly can. The actual method for achieving this is the principle of “consistency”.

    The problem with being “creative” in cataloging means that it *can* lead to resources being misplaced within that intellectual structure. When something is inconsistent (or “creative”), it means that the resource falls outside the expected places within the intellectual structure and in order to retrieve it, equally “inconsistent” (or “creative”) methods must be used to retrieve it, or to understand it.

    So, even though many of the transliteration practices of some non-Roman languages may strike people as absurd or wrong, the cataloger *must* follow the prescribed practice, just as classifying a book in a “creative” way, (i.e. not with the other, related items) cannot be done because then it becomes far more difficult to find. The same goes for every part of the record, from each part of the description to selection and construction of access points.

    From this short explanation, it could be inferred that the practice of cataloging is the most incredibly conservative task there could ever be, and that is a valid point: it *can* be that conservative, and I think people see it all the time. There is a reason for this: our records must be made consistent with records created 100 years ago or more, otherwise things get lost.

    At the same time, I want to emphasize that there is such a thing as creativity in the practice of cataloging, and some examples border on brilliance. I have seen it especially in authority work, but it can certainly exist at the point of the individual record. But I will say that “creativity” when applied to cataloging, means something quite different than when “creativity” is used in the everyday world.

  5. Laurel Tarulli

    Thanks to all for the comments.

    Barry and Lynne – I do think there are more opportunities for dialogue and collaboration in smaller libraries. This may be a result of having to wear more “hats”, or just the fact that you work in closer proximity, therefore requiring more interaction. It’s great to hear that collaboration does occur and it can be successful. I think positive examples, such as Barry’s library, really points to the direction that many public libraries should be aiming for. Not because we want other staff members doing our job, but because when we work together and share ideas, our unique expertise applied to our area of service (combined with the input of others) results in a better “product” or service for our users.

    Kelly makes an excellent point about job hunting and questions that need to be asked. One sample question I asked when looking for a position: Can you give me an example of a recent cataloguing project you’re proud of? What kind of collaboration did it involve and what lessons did you learn from it? Another simple question: What skills do you believe cataloguers will need in the future? Do you see their role expanding? How?

    Those are the questions that tell you a lot about the motivation and vision of the cataloguing department.

    And finally, creative cataloguing….I think James is correct in his concern over creative cataloguing versus creativity in cataloguing. Uniformity and consistency is essential, even when we appear to frontline staff as too traditional or conservative in our cataloguing efforts. From having past conversations with Lynne, I think she means that, at the public library level, there are a variety of ways to enhance bib records if cataloguers and frontline staff work together. Adding readers’ services personalized summaries into records (see blog post or a field for linking local reading lists are ways to be creative in cataloguing, without compromising the integrity of the data. But Lynne can answer this more fully.

    And when James writes “At the same time, I want to emphasize that there is such a thing as creativity in the practice of cataloging, and some examples border on brilliance” he’s absolutely spot on. I, too, have seen brilliant cataloguing. Sometimes it isn’t in the ways frontline staff expect or even see, but it results in excellent and improved access.

  6. Laurel, I found this such an interesting post as it echoes so much of what I’ve been saying myself, about the perception of the cataloguer among her/his colleagues within the institution, about the awareness among non-cataloguers of what cataloguers do and how the “back-end” operates. I’ve said something remarkably similar about the mutual mistrust, only in my case I was talking about cataloguers and systems librarians/programmers.

    This is all food for thought, particularly with what we’re trying to achieve with “High Visibility Cataloguers”. I love the suggestion from KellyP to ask in interviews about opportunities for cataloguers to get out of their silo and mix with their colleagues and I’m looking forward to reading about your ideas and suggestions for collaboration in your forthcoming book. This is something cataloguers *should* be thinking about if they aren’t already.

    I do agree it’s more of an issue the bigger the library is (in terms of number of staff).

  7. And I cross-commented with you, Laurel, so wanted to add that if you are already in post somewhere, maybe it’s worth thinking about what answers you would give about your own department if faced with any of those questions. And if you feel a bit concerned about the answers, then think about what you can do to create a cataloguing department with the vision, collaborative, outward-looking and forward-planning attitude you might want.

  8. Laurel Tarulli

    Hi Celine,
    Thanks for your comments! Interesting, your point of mistrust between cataloguers and systems librarians/programmers. I’ve been observing this, too. I think some of this is the tug of war between catalogues and websites – and the blurring of where data does/should and will reside. We’re working in the same space, but not necessarily working together. I’d like to read/hear more of your thoughts on this Celine!

    Fortunately, in my own library, I’m seeing an increasing amount of conversations happen. Examples: some of my cataloguers have received RA training and have been invited to blog on the library’s readers’ blog, I’m a member of our core RA team and I’m often working with frontline staff in a variety of ways/projects. It’s encouraging, because we have a larger system. Of course, I’ve also made the effort to invite conversations to happen – as have many of my frontline colleagues. I think this goes a long way in fostering a level of respect that allows for communication and collaboration.

  9. In general, on the issue of cataloguer visibility/awareness of cataloguing among our colleagues, I’ve written here:
    with links to other stuff here

    Specifically on what you so rightly describe as a “tug of war” with systems librairans/programmers, I’ve mainly talked on Twitter and try to engage with programmers (mainly when they complain about cataloguers or about MARC etc) but it’s something I’m trying to address in my own work too. The blurring you describe is happening everywhere as the neat little separate containers that used to work for defining the tasks in a library service are much less clearly defined and jumbled up now.

    I work in an academic library so the question of RAs isn’t really something I come across but there are lots of other ways that the ideas you are talking about here could be useful. As you say, it’s about making the effort yourself to make these conversations happen (and sometimes inviting yourself to a party rather than waiting to be invited?).

    In the current climate, it’s going to be more necessary than ever to use every possible skill, every bit of knowledge, every inch of enthusiasm in every single member of staff – having impenetrable borders between departments or roles is counter-productive.

  10. I think a tradition of “the reference staff asks for a specific change, the catalogers do it” is actually harmful to the catalog — it can easily lead to an inconsistent and unpredictable corpus of metadata, because things were changed on an ad hoc basis whenever a reference librarian asked for it.

    In the systems department where I work, we have been changing from a model of “you ask for the specific thing you want and we do it because you’re the customer” to “you explain the problem, and we use our expertise to figure out a solution, with your input and participation in that process to make sure our solution is appropriate, because you’re the customer”

    A cataloging dept moving in this direction would require a couple things: One, yes, it would require reference staff to start treating them as colleagues and not underlings, which is a problem in some places. But it also requires cataloging departments to be solution-focused rather than simply rules-focused — yes, any solution you need to figure out has to take into account sustainability and integrity of the overall metadata corpus (this is why we want an “we’re the metadata experts, we’ll help you find a solution instead of just doing exactly what you ask” approach), and standardized rules are a big part of that, but your answer to any problem brought up can’t be “We can’t do that, it’s against the rules, otherwise we’d be doing it already, so don’t bother asking us anything because everything in there is in there because of a rule.” Sometimes metadata rules need to be bended or even ignored, other times they can’t be.

    As a department and as professionals, catalogers need to find a way to spend more time and energy (because it is more time and energy) in _finding solutions that work_ to problems or issues reference staff bring up with how your metadata effects use. In addition to more time, it’s more responsibility — when something isn’t working out right, you can’t just say “well, we did exactly what the reference librarians told us, blame them.” This solution-oriented approach is not necessarily how cataloging has typically been done at many institutions, and it’s not necessarily something cataloging managers or administrators support or allow. Even being proactive to the extent of attending public service meetings and looking for places that changes in your metadata management practices can help improve things in ways the reference staff wouldn’t have even thought to bring up.

    If a cataloging department can pull that off, it will build the trust in reference librarians that the catalogers are effective at designing solutions themselves, and can be approached as colleagues to be approached with problems, not underlings to be approached with exact directives.

  11. Great comment, I have just been having a Twitter conversation where I tried to say (in 140 characters) exactly what you outline here:

    “In the systems department where I work, we have been changing from a model of “you ask for the specific thing you want and we do it because you’re the customer” to “you explain the problem, and we use our expertise to figure out a solution, with your input and participation in that process to make sure our solution is appropriate, because you’re the customer”

  12. Laurel Tarulli

    I agree! Jonathan – your comments had me nodding my head in agreement. It’s a healthy attitude and an acknowledgment of the expertise (and flexibility found through that expertise) that should play a role in our decisions.

    Celine – you pointed to the exact paragraph which grabbed me too.

  13. It’s also a way of fostering a general approach of “we’re all in the same team” and that we are all working towards the same goal.

  14. Kristen

    In my (small) library, 80% of the reference staff also does original cataloging. And most of us spend far more time cataloging than doing reference. It really helps with the system-wide understanding. Not to mention the ability to make immediate corrections, clarifications, etc.

  15. Laurel Tarulli

    Hi Kristen! Thanks for commenting. Do you find that the hands-on cataloguing has assisted all staff in recognizing and understanding the expertise needed for both frontline and backroom staff?

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