Cataloguing: Shouldn’t we be asking “why” and “for how long”?

Recently, my husband and I had a long discussion about why we do things as professionals. For example, why do we focus on certain projects and outcomes and what is our motivation behind them? Do we, as professionals, just perform tasks and responsibilities out of tradition or routine, or is something else guiding us? This discussion continued on to include the role of ethics and the question of “why”. What I’d like to focus on in this post, however, is the “why” in our cataloguing departments and follow it up with the question, “for how long?”.

What do we really do?
It’s easy to make library management “think” they need us, but do they really? Why do we catalogue? Rather than simply stating the typical answer “to provide access to our users”, let’s think about what many (not all, but many) cataloguers actually do.

1. Spell check

2. Change subject headings of incoming publisher’s full bib records to in-house subject headings

3. Flesh out “bare-bones” records when not provided with a record from a publisher or when a cataloguer deems it “not good enough”

4. Catalogue local publications or unique collections

While I’m being a bit harsh with my description of a cataloguer’s responsibility, I think many of us can agree that these are everyday tasks in our cataloguing department. And honestly, the only task on this list that I think is vital and continues to be an asset to cataloguers is item number four – Cataloguing local publications and unique collections.

Let’s face it, the first three items can either be addressed with software, such as a spell check tool or an import tool that catches subject headings and changes them to the in-house headings (ex. Find and replace). And, of course, there is always the ongoing argument that we shouldn’t have local, in-house headings. For the records, as a public library cataloguer in Atlantic Canada, I see great value in adding localized headings separate and apart from LC’s American based headings that reflect Canadian and Atlantic Canadian terminology and cultural differences.

But, “why” do we catalogue? If we take the top three items from the previous list, we can easily answer the “for how long?” question. Not long at all. Truly, quite short term. But what motivates us to catalogue and what are our goals? Why are we needed in an age where publishers can provide full, descriptive bibliographic records that are created based on our specifications and imported directly into our catalogues?

Rather than being tied to bibliographic records and how we describe items, what about transitioning into a role that provides access to information and deals with the catalogue and “how” it provides access to information? They are not one and the same.

Bibliographic records provide content and data to describe an item. However, our new catalogues and future catalogues are much more than a system that allows users to find an item based on the content of bibliographic records only. What’s in a catalogue? What does the catalogue look like and what additional elements can enhance access beyond the information found in a bibliographic record?

I’ve always believed that cataloguers are more than data entry specialists. But, I don’t think our potential is being realized and I don’t believe many professionals want to explore the real strength and expertise of their cataloguers. Sometimes, it’s just easy to maintain the status quo and avoid the resistance.
So here are my thoughts on exploring “why” we catalogue, or more importantly, what the motivation should be behind cataloguing and what we actually do or should be doing.

New challenges and motivations:

1.) Cataloguers exist to make every visit to the library catalogue easier and better than the last – and as a result, to find *something* that makes the user feel like their information needs were met. Like the internet, it might not be what they started out looking for, but they should stumble upon something that has peaked piqued (*thanks Annie) their interest.

2.) Cataloguers are not only controlled vocabulary experts, but uncontrolled vocabulary experts. Our authority records provide insight into alternate terminology, but we should also be aware of trendy terms that aren’t found in our records and those terms should be added to user tags within our catalogues – let’s start making use of those social features!

3.) Readers’ advisory terminology should be explored. It’s no longer good enough just to add a person, place, career, or genre heading. Let’s start talking about appeal factors – moods, pace and read-alikes should be incorporated into the catalogue. How will this be accomplished? Isn’t that the whole point of exploring “what” a cataloguer can do and what a catalogue is capable of?

4.) Engaging users in book, movie and music discussions online within the catalogue

5.) Step out from their anonymous role and become visible – for example, monthly “cataloguer’s feature” lists that provide a brief profile, area of cataloguing expertise and items within the collection of interest might create a level of community and trust between the online catalogue and its users (currently only found within the physical branches).

There are more ideas that come to mind, such as collaborators with branch staff and community groups, creators of gateways to additional information and resources within the community and so on.

While I know we can’t implement all of these ideas today and I do value what duties cataloguers perform on a daily basis, I strongly encourage cataloguers and their managers to start thinking about how easily technology can take over the tasks that many cataloguers currently perform and how we can put a cataloguer’s expertise to better use to serve users and address the catalogues of today and in the future.



Filed under future of cataloguing, Our Profession, The Cataloguer

16 responses to “Cataloguing: Shouldn’t we be asking “why” and “for how long”?

  1. Great thoughts as always, Laurel! The catalog is the place that we encounter more of our users than anywhere else in the library (either virtually or physically) and we need to make that our brand. I think that the new roles that you look at for catalogers offer the opportunity to do that.

  2. suz w.

    One of the most important things I do is check Dewey numbers and make sure the books are where I think folks will browse them (not where the Library of Congress wants them). I often have at least one conversation if not two with librarians or tech serv staff (“where would you look for this book?”).

    And I agree, the local collections stuff is important. Unfortunately, all my other work is more time consuming that I think we’ll have to get an intern to get our “oral histories” collection cataloged.

    Great post!

  3. What we do #5: Apply local call numbers to the items.
    I assume you’re placing the item into the collection. You are building your collection and that involves finding a place in your collection for everything. If you put it in the “wrong” place, browsers won’t find it.

  4. Excellent post. I particular like your point #2 about being “uncontrolled vocabulary experts”–something catalogers have done for quite a while in terms of authority control, but also becoming more important as we face the issues of whether or not to use social tagging in catalog systems.

  5. KP

    Been thinking about these issues also and glad to see them thought out here. One thing we’re stuck on is the learning curve around all the metadata harvested into our discovery tool that we didn’t create or choose, have no control over, and doesn’t meet out usual standards. As a first step we’re trying to learn what gets harvested and when and why, and how that affects our displays and facets which are supposed to help discovery. It’s been kind of painful! But the goal is to be able to understand the user experience better and use our skills to discover and address difficulties in that process. All new territory here…

  6. ksol

    Spell check completely automated? Ask anyone who’s ever left the “L” out of “public” in a newspaper story whether that’s a good idea.

    Not sayin’ that a lot of spell check can’t be caught automatically, but I’m not so sure that one can be eliminated entirely.

  7. Annie

    To follow up on ksol’s comment, the improper use of the word “peaked” in your post illustrates perfectly the importance of the human spell checker.

    A very interesting post. I can only hope that the managers of my cataloguing department are forward thinking and adaptable as technology keeps advancing!

  8. Laurel Tarulli

    Thanks to all for your comments! I’m glad to hear that some of you are looking toward the future and trying to figure out the “why” behind why we need cataloguers and what their purpose will be in the future.

    I also appreciate those who are still a bit more on the traditional side. What we do continues to be important, but many of those tasks are being taken over by technology (whether or not it’s perfect), including spell checking software, find and replace functions as well as RFID tags and bookstore shelving models. We can fight it, but we don’t want to be the buggy whip makers insisting the public will always use horses when they are already moving on to cars. This post, hopefully, has us thinking about the many roles we can fulfill that we haven’t even begun to explore. (And what an exciting future we can have!)

    I think we can agree that no one wants a catalogue filled with errors. However, I have yet to see a catague full of perfect bibliographic records even from libraries with the most talented cataloguers. I don’t believe having humans view records takes away the margin for error. And, I don’t believe the public necessarily cares, as long as they can find what they want and enjoy the experience. In some circles, I know, that’s a controversial statement, but if that’s all we are, than I don’t believe we can justify our positions 10, 20 or even 5 years from now.

  9. Ivy


    I especially like your word choice of “how,” as I think it includes more than just the back-end ways of how to unite people with information via services like classification and subject cataloging, but also perhaps how that information is presented to the patron and how that might make in difference in what they find. You can have the best vocabularies in the world in your bib records, but if there are no links to related terms in the display to the user, how can they follow a path to discover that related information? How that metadata is displayed and provided is equally as important as its quality.

  10. Catalogers shuold be more than just ISBD/AACR/MARC catalogers. They should know other metadata formats and understand databasaes and other structured metadata. They should be the ones making sure the PDFs and images have good metadata attached. They should be ensuring bibliographic information has COinS so it can be used by Mendeley and Zotero. Maybe they should be helping the local soccer league turn their static schedule into something that can be imported into Google Calendar. Or the local birdwatchers build an database of birds seen in the annual Christmas Count. Or maybe advise the town on access points for services and issues. We have expertise tha can be useful to the wider community. We should lok beyond the catalog and prehaps even the library.

  11. Elise Wong

    I wrote an article entitled: Cataloging: then, now, and beyond, exploring how the role of cataloging and catalogers are changing in the library profession. The article is now under consideration for publication. I have been thinking of starting a blog to post things like this instead of begging for library magazines’ attention. Do you know any cataloging blogs where people can collaborate as joint authors and post their thoughts?

  12. TJ

    Please wake up! Organization and control of information left the library profession years ago.There is little added value to providing additional ways to find things. The work has already been done. Even if we think it may have been done badly, that is no longer within our control. Google and the web and, to a degree, OCLC itself has seen to that. Our value as a profession will increasingly be in the sifting and finding part, not in the organizing and control part. No one looks to our individual library catalogs anymore. They are viewed as peculiar, anachronistic and no longer valued by the larger society.

  13. Laurel Tarulli

    TJ – interesting perspective. While your thoughts are similar to others in the profession, I do find your statements are broad and general. For example, many individuals do look to library catalogues – you only have to view the statistics. This is especially true with the increased emphasis on an RA component and personalization. In addition, specific regions and cultures require more hands-on cataloguing than other regions. The more culturally rich and locally produced material, the more attention cataloguers need to give the content and description. However, this post is not just about the ongoing need for reigning in information so that it is accessible, but the direction cataloguing is taking and how it is changing. Unfortunately, it appears that you have somewhat overlooked that point.

  14. TJ

    I can see how people inside the profession want to believe that there is continued value to our cataloging material. I just don’t believe people who actually pay the bills do. As physical collections shrink there will be less and less need for the added value of local cataloging. As budgets shrink, fewer and fewer administrators will see the need to put money there. Sorry if I upset some, but I believe we are transitioning away from the organizing part over to the direction and finding part.


  15. Laurel Tarulli

    Hi TJ – Sorry for the delayed response. I don’t think you and I are that far apart in our views. I’m not sure what your experience is within the profession and I can only speak to my own. What I’ve observed and from speaking with others is that there will always be a need for authority control and local cataloguing to some extend. I don’t believe we’ll ever see the complete end to that. However, I firmly believe that cataloguers will be called upon to do more with the behaviour of information and understanding of social technologies in the future in addition to other new skills. I can already see vendors taking over the role of cataloguers when they supply downloadable records and justification for a cataloguing position just to fix punctuation or spelling errors isn’t, in my opinion, a strong stance. But, how information is collected, how it is retrieved and an understanding of organization should always exist within libraries.

  16. Samantha

    Your opinions on the new challenges and motivations for cataloguers are very interesting. The librarian can’t just stay behind the desk and point the patrons in the right direction or just answer simple questions. They must try to make the patrons’ visits a positive experience. They need to be involved in the library community, whether it is helping patrons locate material, engaging patrons in reading and discussions (online or in the library) or creating and distributing “cataloguer’s feature” lists. In my opinion, they should be constantly interacting with the library patrons. If the cataloguers are doing bare minimum, technology can easily take over their tasks. We definitely need to put the cataloguer’s expertise to better use to serve patrons.

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