After I decided to participate in this project, I had a change of heart. How could I possibly make my day-in-the-life interesting? I’m a cataloger, after all. So, what I do all day is…catalog–one of the most tedious, monotonous, and repetitive of all library jobs. But then I started thinking about what it is that I really do. What function do I really serve in the world of libraries? Ah-ha! I am a magician! It’s true. Some magicians make things disappear–make stuff invisible. I do the reverse: I make the invisible, visible. And that is really what cataloging is about at the most basic level. Making stuff visible in the online public access catalog (OPAC, or what used to be the card catalog decades ago) so you–the user–can find it.
Think about it–when a library gets a new book or DVD or CD or audio book or e-book or…whatever…unless you–the user–are actually in the library browsing the shelves, you would not know that we have the item in question unless or until it is retrievable by a search in the online catalog (and with regard to e-books and other electronic resources, well, you’re not going to be able to browse for those on your libraries’ shelves). So my job is to make sure that the information I put into the catalog about the new item in my hand is accurate (so you can find exactly what you’re looking for) and formatted correctly according to all those cataloging rules and formats that I use/despise so that the accurate information displays properly for you to see. In other words, I make something that cannot yet be seen appear on screen in an organized way before your very eyes. What good is a brand new copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 on Blu-ray if you don’t know we have it or can’t find it? If you’re looking for a large print version of a book, then you need to be able to see that the item is indeed in large print format. If you can’t read anything but English, then you really need to know if a book is written in French. And if you care whether you get a Director’s cut of a movie, or the full screen or widescreen version, well that’s in there, too.
I have a truck (or cart depending on your terminology preference) beside my desk filled with new stuff. Some of this new stuff is already represented by a cataloging record (“bibliographic” record to be precise), and the new item is an additional copy that simply has to be “linked” to the record already in place, creating an “item” record so that you–the user–can place a hold on this item and/or check it out. Some of the new stuff is, well, new, and there is no bibliographic record (the full record which describes the characteristics and content of the item) in place, so I have to find one (or create one) using a huge database filled with these kinds of records (OCLC is one) and import that record into our catalog. Usually these records require some editing. Although consistency is fundamental in the cataloging world everywhere, each library does things a bit differently. And we all make mistakes–even on national-level cataloging records.
I also have to “classify” the new stuff and give it a call number. Call number schemes vary from library to library, but for non-fiction material we rely on the good old Dewey Decimal system that you learned when you were in elementary school. Giving something the most appropriate Dewey number ensures that you won’t find your book about grilling next to a book about fly fishing (unless the second book is about how to cook your fish).
We add “extras” too, because we’re always thinking about what information would be important to you or make the item easier to locate. So we add things like series titles and volume numbers, variations on the title, note fields that contain keywords you might miss by doing a subject-only search (which relies on the formal Library of Congress subject headings). Sometimes we add the titles of the songs on your CD, so if you’re looking for a certain song, you can find it. These records are called “enhanced”. All of this information is added into “searchable” fields to give you more ways to locate what you want.
Almost every item receives a barcode, which identifies this item as unique, and a spine label with the call number so that the item can find its proper place on the shelf. This item, then, which has been cataloged, classified, and physically processed, is ready to be put on display in order to someday go home with you. Or, in the case of electronic resources (which are obviously not physically processed and are always at home with you), they are ready to be found by you and downloaded to your own, personal device or viewed online.
Of course there is more to it than that, but in brief, that is the basic concept. What many people who haven’t worked in libraries find surprising is that the cataloger handles each item that he or she catalogs–that’s a lot of items. When you consider that I work at a Systems office and provide cataloging services for 14 public libraries, branches, and a Bookmobile and each of these independent organizations orders much of their collection through us– in addition to sending in items they have purchased on their own– along with donations they have received–phew! That’s a lot of items that need to be cataloged. Of course, I’m not the only cataloger in the office. There are 3 full-time catalogers and 1 part-time cataloger. We work together efficiently and collaborate nicely. They are nice people, too. And (shh!) don’t tell, but they are better catalogers than me. I do a good job, don’t get me wrong. But cataloging is not “in my blood” as my co-worker is fond of saying, meaning that most catalogers have a real affinity for the job and for the skills required to do the job well. I do not have a great love of cataloging, but I do respect it and those who do it with care and skill.
Now here’s the downside of cataloging (and why I don’t always love it)–it’s getting a bit rusty and needs some life blown into it. Although catalogers are often viewed as “sticklers” and “inflexible” and “all about the rules” (some are just that, too, believe me…), most catalogers are aware that our tools of the trade (AACR2, LOC authorities, DDC23, among others) need some sharpening and that our formats (MARC 21, among others) need some re-formatting and that our processes need some re-processing. In other words, many of the functions of cataloging that still exist today also existed when there were card catalogs and when there were no electronic resources. Since libraries have changed, cataloging needs to change, too. We’re working on that (some of us). There’s a new cataloging “rules” system in the works (RDA) that is constantly being talked (argued) about (and which I do not believe is the answer to anything). One of our member libraries recently went “Dewey-less” opting to use a BISAC (book store) classification for its adult non-fiction. Library of Congress subject headings are often sorely out of touch or antiquated. And it’s just plain true that a library catalog is not Google or Amazon and will generally not produce the same kind of results that you’re used to getting using a commercial search engine. Sometimes we give you too much information and too many choices (does the typical public library user really care who published a book or whether it’s the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd edition if the content is exactly the same?); however, that’s changing, too (slowly) with less focus on the “thing” and more on the content. Just give us a bit of time (and a kick in the ass). I am not one who appreciates some of the finer points of cataloging. For instance, I couldn’t care less whether I need to use a subfield “p” or a subfield “n” or a period or a bracket or an indicator of 1,2 or 3…and yet, right now, I have to care considering most (not all) of these things matter because of the rules and formats that are in place and because consistency is important since libraries everywhere share bibliographic records. I could go on and on…
I also consider it to be part of my job, part of my day, to stay current with regard to changes in the field–not just cataloging, but in the bigger picture of libraries and librarianship, too. So I always keep certain applications open–Twitter, Facebook, Google Reader–this is where I get my library news (and other news). By following professional organizations and personal blogs, I get a wide variety of news every day and don’t fall behind. I also subscribe to several cataloging and general library listservs. If you ever have a burning desire to find out what’s being talked about by catalogers, take a look at AUTOCAT. Here you will find many experienced, intelligent, provocative catalogers debating (arguing) over cataloging issues, big and small. One warning–those “quiet” catalogers produce a deluge of email daily. Unless you opt for the digest version be prepared to field upwards of 50 emails (or more) a day, sometimes. It is also a very helpful and supportive community. One of my favorite contributors is James Weinheimer. You can check out his blog (which often reflects his AUTOCAT posts) without subscribing to the listserv.
My day also includes department meetings, all-staff meetings, occasional training sessions, workshops, conferences, etc. It also includes database maintenance activities, and for the past six months it has been somewhat dominated by the strategic planning process, which I LOVED, and which provided a nice break from cataloging and from all things metadata. In fact, as a result of those strategic planning sessions, we are currently restructuring the way we do business here in technical services.
In most libraries and system offices, mine included, cataloging is part of what’s known as the “technical services” department. My goal with this post was to leave the “technical” out of the equation. I could have gone in a different direction and started talking about XML and authority control and headings reports and all the tedium that would eventually cause your eyes to glaze over and your mind to go numb. I decided, instead, to concentrate on the magic that we do, which is very easy to understand once all the cataloging jargon and structure is stripped down. Cataloging requires attention to detail, critical thinking and creative thinking, and we as catalogers have even more magic to do. We have to continue to work with others (IT, software developers, vendors, open source initiatives) towards making a library catalog that is more user-friendly and relevant to what today’s user needs and wants. In our case, our member libraries are our customers, and it’s our job to serve them as efficiently and effectively as we can so that they can efficiently and effectively serve their customers–you, the end users.
So there you have it–a day in the life of a cataloger as I see it. I’m sure other catalogers view their day or their purpose differently. And of course I have hit only the most basic concepts and generalized quite a bit. All areas of library work have importance and value, and I will continue to catalog to the best of my ability as long as that is my job. But I do dream that one day I will be able to focus on other areas of librarianship. I just might do a second post about a day-in-the-life of my imagination, which is every bit as interesting as this book I’m about to catalog.