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.