What am I here for?

As regular readers of this blog may have gathered, my current role involves a lot of cataloguing. In fact, it is the main purpose of my job. I like cataloguing; I think it’s important, and I think it’s important that it’s done properly. By properly, I mean according to cataloguing rules and standards, although I’m not averse to adding or subtracting information from a catalogue record if I feel that doing so will make it easier for people using the library catalogue to find what they’re looking for. Usually this can be done without breaking any cataloguing rules anyhow (e.g. by adding a note).

Of  course I also want any downloaded records used on our catalogue to be of good quality. Good, not ‘good enough’:

…we must not cut corners and we must never think that “good enough” is good enough, because it is not.

This quotation is taken from the text of Heather Jardine’s paper on being a cataloguer in 2012, which has been posted on the Work and Expression blog. The last paragraph is particularly relevant to what I’m trying to say here.

What Heather describes in her paper is what we are experiencing in our library at the moment; in the sense that all acquisitions staff are involved in acquisitions and cataloguing, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on things like their particular post or the time of year. Although I still catalogue items ‘from scratch’, there are not a huge number of these items because the preference is to download bibliographic records from other places. This is obviously good, in some ways, because I’d never be able to catalogue all the items we order, and of course there is no point in duplicating work. If there is a record available from elsewhere, it is downloaded during the acquisitions process. The people downloading the records are not trained in cataloguing, but this is not a problem, because they have been trained in how to spot a lovely, full and accurate bibliographic record.

Or at least this was the case until recently. In the past few weeks, we have received new instructions about how we are to manage the acquisitions process.  One of these is that we are only to give downloaded bibliographic records the most cursory glance before ‘OK-ing’ them to go into the catalogue. This means only checking for the presence of the most basic fields. We were given no guidance as to what constitutes a basic record, so in the end I made a very short checklist for people to use. It is much shorter than the existing one, but I fear it is as much as we can get away with, because of the emphasis on doing things faster and “smarter”.

However, reducing the amount of time allowed to check downloaded records is not working smarter, because if records are not properly checked there are likely to be more errors creeping into the catalogue, which means more work in the long term. More worryingly, it increases the likelihood of people not being able to retrieve records when searching the catalogue and thus not being able to find items in the library. As Heather says,

If we neglect our cataloguing, if we cut corners and start to get slovenly, the whole house of cards will come tumbling down around our ears. If the data is wrong, then the management information will be wrong. If the data is inconsistent, then the LMS will not operate reliably. If we make mistakes, then when we get those books sent back to us with complaints, we will not be able to explain anything, we will just have to apologise.  Our colleagues will lose confidence in us and we will lose confidence in ourselves. And we certainly will not be able to sell skills that we cannot demonstrate that we have.

Even if people use the checklist, there are still errors that might be missed if people are not allowed to take the time to find a good record and not just a ‘good enough’ one.

Apart from affecting retrieval, the implications of the idea that it is OK to import incomplete or inaccurate records as long as they contain the basic information are not great for anyone who is a cataloguer, as well as not being very good for the long-term viability of the catalogue. It seems like a slippery slope to me: if we are happy to download incomplete records from other sources, then what is the point of the cataloguer (mainly me in this context) creating decent records when cataloguing from scratch? Obviously, I know there is a point to this (see above!), but does my employer? Why am I here if accurate catalogue records don’t matter anymore?

My job is becoming increasingly about things other than cataloguing. In more recent years it has become more of a mixed bag of cataloguing, acquisitions and working out in the library – none of which I have a problem with -, and now I’m also partly responsible for the upkeep of the institutional repository. Again, I don’t mind this, and it’s great to be able to get experience in other fields of library-related work, but it is hard to escape the feeling that the role of ‘cataloguer’ specifically is being eroded. As Heather  says in her post, this kind of mixing of roles is becoming par for the course nowadays, and it’s OK up to a point, but the role of cataloguer as cataloguer is still important and I fear that this, and the value of cataloguing in itself, is being lost sight of – at least in my workplace.


3 thoughts on “What am I here for?

  1. Singing Librarian says:

    You definitely won’t get any argument from me. Good catalogue records are vital for everyone – students, subject librarians, acquisitions staff, academics etc etc. Correct spelling of author and title, accurate info on date and place of publication and some idea of the subject coverage (which is often not at all clear from the title) are the absolute basics, surely? There is a point at which you could be said to be spending too much time on a record, but if records are inaccurate, incomplete or unhelpful, then not enough time has been spent on them and indeed ‘good enough’ is not remotely good enough.

  2. Heather Jardine says:

    It is deciding which are “the absolute basics” that is always the problem. I doubt if there are very many (if any) places where perfection in cataloguing is any longer possible as the norm; most of us have to compromise somewhere along the line, to a greater or lesser extent, and usually to a greater one. So although we agree that all cataloguing is important, we also have to accept that some cataloguing is more important than the rest, and then it is a question of whether we consider value to lie in the consistent inclusion of particular data elements (as Singing Librarian proposes above), of quality over quantity (and never mind the backlog), or of putting effort into particular kinds of material (valuable, old, rare) over others (paperback, ephemeral, popular). If this goes wrong, on the one hand it can end up with cataloguers obsessively “smug tweaking” over material which chimes with their personal values, and ignoring or bodging the rest; on the other hand, it can end up with a cavalier disregard for standards of any kind for anything (which can be what is meant by “good enough”). I am not aware of much general discussion about where our priorites should lie if we agree that we can’t do everything .

    • Lilian says:

      Thanks both for your comments.

      I think the problem in my workplace (and probably many others) is that there are two [potentially] opposing views of what the priority should be – quantity over quality and the consistent inclusion of particular data elements. I’m hoping that the checklist will be a compromise between the two. It’s not ideal, but then I suppose compromises never are!

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