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The Future(?) of Cataloging

As a Reference Librarian, I’ve been thinking about cataloging a lot lately.  My biggest fear was confirmed while having lunch with a friend, who is wrapping up her MLIS degree with my alma mater, Florida State University.

She joined one of our library’s catalogers and I for lunch to discuss her internship at my library, where she will be learning cataloging under his direction.  While we were in the middle of disucssing  the challenges of cramming the whole scope of cataloging into five months, I brought up RDA.

She had never heard of it.  I asked about her understanding of FRBR.  “What’s that?”

I knew for a fact that she had taken an introductory class on the organization of information, as well as a class on indexing and abstracting.  So I guess somewhere in there, I expected her to learn about these emerging standards.

Imagine the look of horror that spread across her face when we explained what they were.  “But what if I had gone into a job interview and someone had asked about RDA or FRBR?”  Exactly.

MLIS programs should be at the leading edge of exploring emerging trends in our field.  They should be preparing their students for the rapid change that we experience in libraries, and equipping them to evaluate and make tough decisions regarding formats, standards, and techniques of description

I’m not picking on FSU alone here.  In my time at VSU, I’ve served on and/or chaired several search committees.  The number one reason that candidates aren’t selected is that they lack experience, or reveal their ignorance in an interview.  It is my opinion that since librarianship is a practical science, it should be practiced by its students, at least in the form of a mandatory internship.

And no, I’m not talking about folksonomies and tagging here.  Although they are fun and very useful, they are no replacement for standards-based high-quality metadata.  I would never want my library’s catalog to look like my personal photo collection–with spotty tagging and organization at best!  Reference librarians, library staff, other catalogers and users all make use of high-quality cataloging metadata for locating the specific items that they need.  All it takes is a single mistake in a cataloging record to ensure that an item is lost to its user forever.  Catalogers:  take it from a Reference Librarian–what you do is important.

So, my plea is this:

If you teach in an MLIS program, stay in touch with librarians to know what your students should be learning to be prepared for the real world.  Look at the entry-level job ads that are being posted, and ask if the average graduate of your program will leave with the skills necessary to do that job.  Look at the advanced-level job ads that are being posted, and ask if your students are being instilled with the intellectual curiosity and passion that will lead them in that direction.  Make internships required for all your students, so they can at least get a taste of what librarianship is really like.

If you are a cataloger, constantly strive to improve what you do, and stay in touch with the cataloging community.  Think about the long-term effects of your description choices–after we’re long gone, our bib records will remain, either informing or misleading the next generation.  And please pass along your skills and passion to the next generation by offering mentorships and internships.

If you do it for no one else, then do it for our users.  After all, they are the ones who truly suffer if tomorrow’s catalogers are unskilled, and that perfect resource can’t be found.

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24 Responses to “The Future(?) of Cataloging”

  1. I’ll add: If you are a student: Don’t expect that school will prepare you for the workplace. Look beyond the assignments to learn something about the profession. Better yet, get a B on your assignments so you can make time to learn the real goods of library work. You have to think beyond your profs (most of them anyway) to get a job in this profession. Your real learning *begins* when you graduate.

  2. Excellent points! This is exactly why I keep nagging all my friends who are getting MLISes about doing internships: “Librarianship is like archeology. What kind of archeologist would you hire who has read lots of books and made straight “A”s in class, but has never dug up a single bone or piece of pottery? The practical experience is where you learn what all that theory is about.” Thanks for the words of advice, Ryan!

  3. “Experience”, I remember you telling me this my first semester of grad school (I may have it on a tape recorder somewhere). But truly, you were right and that is what paid off for me in the end. I’m convinced my experience at VSU, in serials and cataloging, gave me the edge I needed. Straight “A”s are great; but they don’t mean much if you’re lost in a conversation with practicing librarians. If I haven’t said it before, thanks for all the advice and I’m trying my best to pass it on.

  4. [...] has a great post over on his blog about what students are learning in library school. Cliff points out that as an [...]

  5. Oof. I teach students a bit about RDA in a library-technology class, relating it to the ILS wars and standards development in general. Maybe I should beef that up.

    I really wonder about the core curriculum sometimes…

  6. Reference librarian’s thoughts on the benefit of cataloging…

    It’s often reference librarians who recognize the value of cataloging and metadata. You’ll want to read Cliff Landis’ excellent post, The Future(?) of Cataloging:And no, I’m not talking about folksonomies and tagging here. Although they are fun an…

  7. I have to chime in with what Ryan said– librarianship is an applied science. It is necessary to apply your knowledge, especially when it comes to something like cataloging. It’s not unlike programming, mathematics, or even learning a foreign language: you have to do it every day to get really good at it.

    That said, for a lot of library schools, cataloging is just glossed over, usually because there aren’t enough staff available to teach it. (University of Missouri, my alma mater, just discontinued its only Cataloging and Classification class.) In the field, cataloging is usually outsourced, and the work is done by technicians instead of librarians, especially in public library branches. So as a result, you have a large part of the profession that’s centralized, and that’s made it a lot harder for novices to find out about cataloging, classification, and all the fun stuff that comes along with it.

  8. I’m a current first year student at an MLIS program in Canada, and I’m not 100% impressed with what is being taught (and how it’s being taught). It was nice to hear some suggestions, and that it’s not just our school that needs some improvement.

    Ryan, what a great comment! I’ve always said I learn more in one shift of my part time library jobs than in one week of lectures! Sometimes I regret working during the term, but the experience and knowledge I’ve gotten from the work and the staff are well worth a lower grade. I’m glad I seem to be on the right track!

  9. Cliff,
    Thank you for this posting. It is very useful to hear words from Reference Librarians in support of the practice of cataloging, which encompasses description, classification, subject analysis, authority control, and now metadata application. Cataloging depts. are increasingly having to justify our work, our existence, and your thoughts are evidence of our worth, in the present and for the future. Thank you. It is chilling to hear that a graduate, who took cataloging classes, knew nothing of current cataloging topics. I know that cataloging has to be learned on the job, but the basic landscape of current cataloging is a core component to understanding. The particular cataloging professor, if you knew who it was, is out-of-touch, and it would be useful if you could clue him/her in or get him/her in contact with Dr. Shawne Miksa of UNT, who is a cataloging professor and a strong advocate of the cataloging and metadata profession.

  10. I received my MLIS in May 2008 and I’m still unemployed. In response to the comments about doing internships, I just wanted to add that I did two internships and I’m still considered inexperienced and “green” was used once. I agree that the MLIS programs do not prepare students for the “real” library world but do the internships really count? What matters? What do the employers want to hear or expect? These are things that the MLIS programs should really be looking at to prepare the students for the job world. I was only required to take Basic Cataloging in my program and to be honest I don’t remember much from that class. The things I remember are the things I learned during my internships but why isn’t that enough? Is it that horrible to take a chance on someone newly graduated?

  11. I’m a second year student at a MLIS program in the Midwest… And I wanted to say that at my university I did hear about RDA and FRBR in my cataloging class. Not in great detail, but enough to understand some of the issues at stake in cataloging. At least in this case, the course I took did have practical implications and was not just “bookish”.
    On another note: some of the commenters on this entry seem to think that the choice is between A’s and no practical library experience, or B’s and learning about the “real” world of libraries. Why on earth could students not get A’s AND good practical experience as well?

  12. Jen, I’ve also noticed this troublesome disconnect between library school and getting an actual job in libraries. I am lucky that my place of work has no problem hiring librarians fresh out of library school (all the hires in Reference in the four years I’ve been here were recent graduates…including myself!). But I understand that this isn’t the case in most other libraries. Check out my post here and follow-up post here. The best thing I did when starting out was to seek advice from several mentors in the field. Find librarians you respect and ask them for opinions about things that you’re questioning. The best information resource in these matters is always *people*.

  13. What do you think about a college within a big university system that relies on a non-MLS person cataloging? Experience may be good (and our “cataloger” is OK & has been doing this job for over 5 years) but one needs a sturdy foundation from which to build. I, too, am not a cataloger (but a do have an MLS & a 2nd masters) but I am expected to copy catalog new items in my department’s collection at this same college. In addition, our university has a new central library cataloger who also does not seem to grasp some of the very basic concepts of why cataloging is important to librarians and the college library’s users. Many of the librarians throughout our university wonder at the selection made by our Central Office of a person whose first language is not English and who still has limited English comprehension skills as the university’s main cataloger. We at my college and university feel the MLS and experience is being undermined year by year.

  14. I teach cataloging and classification at Florida State for the past 4 semesters and I do give an intro to both FRBR and RDA.
    The Information Organization and Abstracting courses at FSU have slightly different objectives than the Cataloging course. I think if the student was interested in a cataloging career she should have taken Cataloging.

  15. Hi Leila, thanks for responding! Although the student has an interest in cataloging, and will be doing an internship in that area, she has not expressed to me that she desires a career as a cataloger.

    Instead, I was troubled by the fact that she was preparing to leave the program at Florida State having never heard of FRBR and RDA (regardless of her intended career path). Since these tools have the potential to have a dramatic, far-reaching and long-standing impact on the way that information is described (and therefore organized and accessed), I think that all future librarians should be aware of them. Again, I am not picking on FSU here (in fact, I was the person that originally recommend that she attend FSU!). I think that this is just part of a larger problem–how do we give library school students the knowledge and the skills that they need to become professional librarians?

    I sure don’t have all the answers, but I have been delighted to have sparked the conversation around this topic again!

  16. The whole issue of RDA adoption and implementation across libraries affects greatly the issue of when to start teaching RDA in cataloging or information organization classes. We don’t know yet, but we do know that at the very least we will have to teach both AACR2 and RDA. The transition will not be overnight, in other words. At UNT we introduce students to FRBR in the core IO class and then those who go on to take cataloging courses will get some introduction to RDA, but for the most part we focus on AACR2. Current MLS students who study both will be, IMHO, well positioned to help libraries make the transition.

    Keep in mind that we just got access the full draft of RDA this past November and there have been changes from previous drafts–so at best we can only do summary introductions in cataloging classes. I do feel strongly, however, that no MLS student should graduate without having browsed/studied/read cover-to-cover FRBR, and now FRAD. As for RDA—well, now is a good time to start reviewing it. Lastly, it’s always the right time to understand AACR2, and how cataloging will change as we move into 2009 and beyond.

  17. I just wanted to thank you for not only promoting the importance of cataloging, but also emphasizing how to integrate cataloging into the larger overall principles of librarianship. I especially appreciate the tie-in to reference: while the “stereotypical cataloger” is often viewed as an anti-social position with little to no patron contact, the truth is that performing reference service only strengthens my cataloging, because I can see firsthand exactly what the patrons are searching for, and how they are searching for it. I advocate for more of this type of crossover all the time and would love to see that reflected both in education and professionally.

  18. [...]   I’m not alone: a post tagged “user-centric service” I encountered this great post by Cliff Landis through this Wednesday’s workroom read-aloud rendition of American Libraries [...]

  19. I just finished my online MSLIS at FSU in 2007. You *can* complete a degree program that requires no cataloging classes, but I chose not to do that. Yes, we did cover RDA and FRBR and Dublin Core. And though I’m not a cataloger, I realized the importance of cataloging enough to do an internship with one. Bottom line here: cataloging is too complex to be taught in library school, so learn it from a real cataloger. Whether you do it as your everyday job or not, what goes on in cataloging affects all records, so it’s worth learning. Additionally, I think it’s unfounded to meet with one person who didn’t know what these standards are about and decry that no one is teaching cataloging. It’s out there–many people just think they don’t need to learn it.

  20. Hi Wendy, thanks for commenting! I haven’t decried that cataloging is not being taught. I am, in fact, very lucky to count a cataloging professor as one of my mentors. However, I have begun to wonder (as Dorothea has) about the core curriculum. In the case of this student, she was leaving library school without having ever heard the nameof a forthcoming standard that will impact all librarians. I wonder how many students might be leaving library school without knowledge of what a reference interview is, or (in my case) how to read an LCC call number? After all, I focused on reference while in library school, so that skill was missed. But thanks to my internship (and the patience of practiced librarians), I learned how to read call numbers very quickly. :)

  21. Cliff,
    I loved your post and all the comments. I especially like to see all this passion surrounding our profession! I just graduated with my MLIS from the University of Denver in May, where there is actually a concentration in Resource Description and Access (cataloging, etc.). It was fantastic and I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but the some of the other comments have been dead-on: you cannot learn this entirely from books. You must start with a solid theoretical foundation, but ultimately you must find and create your own experiences. There simply isn’t enough time in a two-year program to fit in the required coursework and all the experience needed to prepare you for that first job. I looked for cataloging opportunities on campus while I was in school, and was fortunate enough to work under an amazing mentor on two original cataloging projects. I also did my practicum in music cataloging. These experiences showed me how much I needed to learn and the value of a good cataloging mentor. I am now the only professional cataloger in a tiny cataloging department that serves 50 public schools. The responsibility can be overwhelming, but I rely on what I learned in school and I try to keep up on the professional literature. I also get together with other school catalogers to exchange ideas. It is refreshing to hear that what we do matters on the front line; it makes me even more diligent in my effort to create good metadata. As far as RDA and FRBR–I definitely heard about them in several classes, not just cataloging.

  22. I’m in my fourth quarter at Drexel (almost second year? I started halfway through last year) and am taking Cataloging and Classification I-although I have yet to find a listing for Cataloging and Classification II. I’m excited to learn the material, even though I don’t plan on going into the field.

    On the topic of internships however I have to comment. I recently discussed the prospect of an internship with one of my professors, and it was determined that I would not be able to do one since I work full-time 9-5. Maybe it’s just because it was an archival internship, and repository hours might be more limited, but there is a fairly good possibility I will graduate without doing one. I’m not completely without experience, but being a page for a year probably doesn’t count for too much. What happens to students like me? I’m only a couple of years past undergrad, with no kids, but living on my own I can’t afford not to work full-time. Volunteering is in the cards, and I’m looking for other job opportunities, but not everyone realistically has the opportunity.

    I just hope that I can get enough quasi-experience by the time I graduate, or prove in any job interviews that I do learn very quickly and will make a good employee.

  23. [...] Landis, who rocks, recently blogged about the future of cataloging and the disconnect from library school. Many schools don’t teach about recent advances in [...]

  24. I’m currently an MLIS student at FSU and have learned about FRBR in 2-3 of my courses (one being mandatory) and RDA in 2 of my courses. Having a strong Circ background and leaning toward cataloging, I agree that practical application is necessary. Both my Metadata and Cataloging courses have been able to bring practical projects into the classroom, which has been helpful. I hope to then intern in my Cataloging Dept. here to gain some broader experience.

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