Saturday, October 15, 2011

Why Cataloging Is Important, Part 2: Misconceptions and Miscellaneous Thoughts

I did some cataloging at the library yesterday. Wow, were my skills rusty.  And I found things in the "rules" that I had been confused about or doing wrong.  It was a great learning experience, and even though I came away from it humbled about how much I don't know, I also had a better understanding of some procedures and a renewed desire to learn more.  I brought my AACR2 home and also took Bowman's Essential Cataloging off the shelf and put it in my "to read" (again) pile.  I love that book and have a new appreciation for it every time I read it.  Since I've been thinking a lot about cataloging in the past 24 hours, here are some of my thoughts:

1. Many people think cataloging is all about whether to use a period or a comma.  Yes, punctuation is important, and the rules are frustratingly obtuse, but cataloging is so much more than that.  If it were just a matter of filling in the blanks, a machine could do it.  (And in fact some programs, including the one we use at our library, do just that: you enter information in a form and the program supplies the punctuation and puts everything in the correct MARC fields.  Not good for sharpening your MARC skills, though.)  But seeing the beauty of providing access and consistent records is what cataloging is really about.
2. The same people who denigrate catalogers as "uptight" (a polite version of what's usually said) would never say the same about people who know HTML.  Catalog records are the "code" version of information about materials, and paying attention to the detail of a catalog record is no different than paying attention to where the < and > go in HTML.  No antisocial personality required.
3. There are many catalog records that contain mistakes.  Some are typos; others occur out of ignorance.  It's my theory that many people out there cataloging don't know the rules, so they create (or edit) a record incorrectly.  Someone else sees that record in a catalog and thinks, "Hey, it's in the catalog, so that must be the way to do it," and adopts that incorrect method, thus creating future incorrect records.  I know I've fallen into this mindset too easily myself.
4. Searching for materials in the catalog is very different from searching for information on the Internet.  I've seen people say, "We don't need to find every item [in the catalog] on a subject, just enough to give people what they want."  Not so.  Most searches on the Internet turn up millions of results, and the searcher only needs one item to provide an answer.  A catalog search is very different: a person (even a junior high student) might be writing a paper on a topic and need three or four sources.  Some libraries might only have three or four books on that subject.  If we can't assure that the catalog returns consistent and full results, we deprive patrons of the information they're looking for.
5. Tagging is great as an addition to authority control, but it should never replace authority control.  The main reason that tagging "works" -- as it often does on Twitter -- is that one tag becomes "authorized" through its use by the community, and other tags are abandoned.  This usually happens on a timely topic.  The same procedure rarely works in the catalog, because the catalog doesn't get the consistent use by large numbers of people that a social network like Twitter does.  Therefore no tags rise to the top to push out those that are irrelevant.
6. Patrons aren't the only ones who use the catalog; it's a crucial tool for librarians as well.  Reference librarians have to know how to use the catalog, especially in its subject access.  So do those in charge of collection development.  After all, the best way to tell what materials a library has on a certain subject is to search the catalog.

1 comment:

  1. I'd like to respond to your third point - there are indeed many records out there with errors, but one of the things I find fascinating about cataloging is that there is a wide variety of opinion and local practice. Though the rules are byzantine, there is much room for interpretation - as one often sees in IR's in WorldCat. So, I think, just because it's different does not mean the record is wrong.

    And on the fifth point, authority control is crucial to make sure our catalogs, patrons, and staff are all talking about the same person/topic/genre term. Tags really do not achieve this purpose. I think they certainly have a purpose and a place in the catalog, but they will never supplant controlled vocabularies for name, subject, and genre access.

    Nice post - here's hoping cataloging continues to work its magic on you!

    Jason W. Dean