Cataloging: It’s not for everyone. But shouldn’t it be?

When I was working on my MLS from 2015-2017, I did so under the stipulation that I would never have to take a cataloging class. Then, when I found myself needing to take a summer class to graduate on time, and having very few options, I ended up doing exactly what I’d hoped I would never have to do. It just didn’t appeal to me. I didn’t like the thought of some day having a job where I was isolated in an office, at the computer all day. I didn’t like the idea of not getting to work with patrons. I especially did not like the idea of having to learn all the weird codes and symbols that turn metadata into searchable records. I’m the person who finds the resources, not the person who encodes them.

Library card catalog drawers
Erol Ahmed, Unsplash

I now work as the primary cataloger (among other things) for an art museum library, and I love it. It is an incredibly fun, challenging, and exciting job (it would have to be to motivate me, a non-morning person, to get up at 5:30am). And, it’s completely changed how I feel about cataloging. I still hate sitting at a desk all day. I still don’t like staring at a computer for 8 hours. I still don’t like being isolated in an office. Cataloging, for me, is none of those things.

I wish there were a wider—and better—understanding of cataloging overall in the library world, but especially in art libraries. In the competitive world of art library job hunting (where many libraries are consolidating their resources), every library still needs a cataloger. And as art libraries make their rapid attempts to digitize collections, they need metadata experts. Having cataloging skills on your resume is not a black mark that forever relegates you to the dark room in the basement. It is an asset that shows you are knowledgeable about metadata and you understand how OPAC systems and digital libraries index and locate resources. Having good catalogers is especially important in art libraries, where we must provide access to strange hybrid resources like auction catalogs, exhibition catalogs, visual resources, and other things that normal cataloging rules don’t apply to. Once you overcome the hurdle of understanding cataloging “lingo” and memorizing a cataloging workflow that works for you, the door suddenly opens to new possibilities in interpreting, analyzing, and providing access to research materials in the arts.

To be clear, I don’t really believe that everyone trembles when they hear the word “cataloging.” But, for those of my peers who do cringe when the task is mentioned, their reasons have lead me to believe that there is a widespread misconception that cataloging is mindless, boring, dry, and essentially equates to the “data entry” portion of the library technical processes workflow. But, cataloging is not as simple as that. There are many different fields and specialties within cataloging, and you can make what you want out of any of them. In an academic art library, you will get to be among the first to handle and look at the newest research in the field and introduce catalog users to beautiful art catalogs showcasing global exhibitions. You will become an expert in your library’s collection, perhaps better placed than anyone to advise users on the contents of that collection. If you are in a special collections library, you will be part librarian and part collections expert, examining and interpreting the contents of rare and often unique materials, even having the opportunity to do research to determine the origins of these materials. If you are in an art museum library, you will undertake a blend of these tasks while also using your metadata talents to highlight how the museum’s strengths are represented in your library’s collection. In any of these jobs, you will never work alone. You will always depend upon collaboration with research librarians, library assistants, curators, registrars, and researchers. You will also spend at least 50% of your time looking at materials (and not your computer screen), and you will actively engage skills that far exceed those required for a simple transfer of data from resource-to-catalog.

Students sitting with laptops in a classroom
Rawpixel, Unsplash

One of the reasons I think there is a lack of understanding for the cataloger’s role is the way cataloging is taught. There are only so many ways to introduce new librarians to metadata formats, encoding, and cataloging systems. But, in my experience, the most productive way to learn cataloging is on-the-job. Although my grad school cataloging teacher provided us with excellent workflows, feedback, and practice worksheets that allowed me to test and evaluate my skills, we were unable to dive deep into the individual cataloging interests of every student nor pinpoint the variety of metadata standards one might encounter in a real library environment. And frankly – for someone like me with a very busy imagination, learning cataloging in a non-real-life situation is an intangible quest for skills which, at best, loosely reinforce all the most mundane aspects of resource analysis. The best way to learn cataloging is to sit, one-on-one (preferably alongside a cataloger mentor), and catalog resources that mean something to you.

This is not an easy path to take. It requires having the time and resources to devote to a potentially unpaid job. But, in the long run it can open more doors than the surface-deep skills you may learn in a brief online cataloging tutorial. While the library industry struggles with opportunity and representation, we neglect supporting adequate training in the more technical aspects of librarianship which require face-to-face instruction, practice, and time. Library students and early career professionals who are unable to transport themselves to the location of an internship or can not afford to spend daytime hours at a non-paying job are unlikely to seek out these deeper learning opportunities. The library economy requires strong catalogers and metadata experts, yet the effort required for teaching these special skills is either condensed into a less substantial but more flexible format or reserved for those with access to the support systems necessary for seeking out unpaid on-the-job learning opportunities. Many graduate school programs attempt to merge the best of these two methodologies by providing cataloging theory alongside practical cataloging examples at both beginner and more advanced levels. Sometimes this is successful. But, the truth is that the best way to become a successful cataloger, well-versed in metadata schemes, content standards, and classification systems, is to catalog regularly over a long period of time.

Learning first how to copy catalog ensures your familiarity with the MARC metadata format most prevalent in library catalog records and can be a great first step towards putting cataloging skills on your resume. Opportunities to copy catalog come in many forms—some paid and some unpaid. These include volunteer, internship, and student worker positions as well as library assistantships. Academic and research libraries frequently hire library assistants to copy catalog resources as a low-cost, high-yield antidote to growing backlogs. In positions like these, you will have opportunities to familiarize yourself with cataloging rules and standards, to learn what MARC encoded records look like, and to become fluent in the language of cataloging. This is the greatest hurdle to overcome. Alternate routes over this hurdle involve a bit of self-starting: one option for those who are able to do so is seeking out opportunities to volunteer at a library that has a cataloger on staff who will mentor you in exchange for your copy cataloging services (these opportunities are rare but not unheard of, especially in small art museum libraries). Another, often more feasible, option is to take advantage of opportunities to learn cataloging while you are still in grad school. If you are still a student, you have the great privilege of being able to seek student worker opportunities in your school’s library. If you have just graduated, and you find yourself with some free time while job hunting, (paid—or, if possible, unpaid) library internships are another good option; they are often multidisciplinary and even if they are not strictly cataloging-focused, supervisors to these positions are often invested in helping a recent graduate to grow and develop skills, and thus will be willing to lead you down avenues that will assure you can do so. Developing relationships with catalogers in your field is the best and quickest way to find these opportunities: attending even just one meeting of your local professional association for technical services librarians can be a great opportunity if you take the chance to network (a list follows below).

A computer keyboard and mouse
Laurent Peignault, Unsplash

Once you have an understanding of cataloging language and encoding formats, any person who is self-disciplined can hone their professional skills with research and practice. RDA Toolkit can be accessed either through your institution or at access.rdatoolkit.org. RDA can look intimidating if you haven’t already spent some time copy cataloging or working with metadata, but poking through RDA Toolkit is a good way to familiarize yourself with the language and philosophy of RDA cataloging. You can also access AACR2 through RDA Toolkit. Look at RDA’s core elements (if you’re a copy cataloger you should know what core elements are – the elements that a good record must have) and compare these rules to RDA records from a reliable institution’s catalog. Brown, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton all have great library catalogs that are full of excellent records. For examples of DCRM (descriptive cataloging for special collections and rare books), also explore the American Antiquarian Society’s catalog. If given the chance, it’s always beneficial to make friends with a cataloger! ARLIS/NA’s mentor program is a good way to meet librarians who are further along in their career and are willing to help newbies. After 4 years of copy cataloging, I spent a year filling out practice MARC work forms for books in my library’s collection and then giving them to a cataloger friend to proof-read. It was invaluable experience.

In short, there are many librarians who love the more technical aspects of cataloging. For those who are pridefully detail-oriented, it is a satisfyingly nit-picky task. The truth is, however, that every librarian possesses a combination of skills which lead them to choose this field: successful librarians are detail-oriented, but also collaborative, and cerebral but also creative. Libraries – especially art libraries – are dependent upon staff willing to exercise the full range of their abilities, and for catalogers this is no different. Cataloging is a very specialized skill in librarianship, and one which I have found to be frequently treated as such, yet taken for granted by those who benefit from the result of a good cataloger’s work without understanding how it is done. And I have found that there are a lack of avenues for struggling library students who want to continue their cataloging education independently, as it is a skill that is difficult to transfer through webinars or limited-term instructional courses. I think that the most valuable resource available right now for the future of technical services librarianship is mentorship and collaboration. In order to build a more equitable model for cataloging instruction, catalogers should be able and willing to reach out to new librarians on a more personal level. For those who have taken a cataloging class and just want to get better at it, having someone to “check” their work while they practice filling out cataloging workforms is truly invaluable. The truth is that any librarian with an interest in interpreting and analyzing resources can learn how to catalog and can enjoy it – and the more librarians who are cross-trained in cataloging, the better.

A list of local technical services librarians groups can be found at:
https://connect.ala.org/communities/community-home/librarydocuments/viewdocument?DocumentKey=58431167-F171-40DF-9A25-68333D677C1D

For your own RDA cataloging practice work form, visit:
https://www.loc.gov/catworkshop/RDA%20training%20materials/DCatRDA/practiceform.docx

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