Catalogers Wanted

Early on in library school, I began attending conferences and workshops held by professionals for professionals within the field of cataloging and metadata. As I got to know many of my future colleagues, I learned that many in the field felt besieged. As I began my career in cataloging and metadata, I too began to feel besieged. Colleagues were and are still retiring and their positions are being lost. Re-organizations have become not just one time affairs but a continual unending process. Though metadata is a “hot” and flashy word, it seems to become tainted around cataloger or catalogers; it appears to retains its coolness with hard care metadata librarians who could program their way into the digital future. Many of my colleagues and myself are criticized for being too bound by outdated rules, too caught up in details, too focused on enhancing records. Who hasn’t heard that full text searching is clearly more sufficient than metadata? Many of us have heard that cataloging is basically entering data without thinking. And, many of my colleagues have heard that catalogers could be done away with completely since all that data could be generated and entered automatically and don’t forget that full text searching. To be fair, I’ve heard many of these criticisms as jokes. However, even as jokes, it strikes a chord with many catalogers because for many out there, work has become a battle of justifying what you do for a living.

So why is that? Why amidst the admirable work that catalogers/metadata librarians do is there a need to justify the importance of doing what we do? Not that I have the answers to these questions. But I think in part that justifying one’s job is more common in the library workplace. As staff dwindles and the money pie shrinks, it is necessary to evaluate which services and resources are needed more than others. Despite these financial and staff realities, two other observations come to mind thanks to a recent blog post and an article on catalogers. The review of Eric Hellman’s talk at ALA appeared in a blog called Metadata (I’m not sure who’s the author); Eric’s original presentation ca be found on Google Docs ( The author reported that Eric Hellman criticized libraries and catalog/metadata libraries, stating for instance that full text searching is sufficient. The author’s obvious dislike for Eric Hellman’s talk and “criticisms” reflect those that I began with this post. The other observation that came in reading a short article by Julia Pettee, “Wanted–Catalogers”. You’ll find the link to the article below. Here are some excerpts:

I asked her [a staff member working on correct classes of headings] what she called cataloger. “Why, copying title-pages, collation, and all that sort of [data-entry]” This answer is illuminating as expressing the popular attitude towards cataloging held by catalogers themselves. It has been stripped of every vestige of dignity (if it every had it) and is looked upon by the ambitious young person as the mere drudgery of copying title-pages and counting leaves, with correct spacing, dots, dashes, and capitals being the chief concern – little fussy things truly beneath the attention of one of ability.

Julia Pettee writes on to describe how library school students  in general loath to take cataloging courses.

The library schools have yet to produce a normal graduate who can not develop a real enthusiasm for some line of work in a cataloging department.

What I find interesting about this very short article is that it was written in 1921; Pettee, Julia. “Wanted – Catalogers“. in Library Journal, v.46, 2001, pp. 543-545. In fact, the disparaging view of cataloging and catalogers is nothing new. Further, the feeling that library schools have yet to graduate a cataloger ready to work straight away is also nothing new. Just take a look at a recent post from the blog, “User Centered Cataloger” on the lack of PR for libraries. Though this is about PR, this post reminds me of the need to justify what we do because it is sometimes misunderstood.

What I find surprising about this very short article is the emphasis on a vision that goes beyond mere cataloging rules. Take for instance this quote:

…cataloging is nothing more or less than the search for significant facts plus the ability to express the result of that search in such unmistakable English, that, as we pass on, each person having occasion to read the card will correctly and exactly understand our statement.

Part of this statement clearly no longer applies to our situation today. However, “search for significant facts” is essential to any good cataloger or metadata librarian. But further, knowing what is a significant fact is an ability that is not bound by rules. This is where Julia describes catalogers as historical bibliographers. In a sense, this is true. whether or not you agree with a surrogate record or Marc21, metadata (including cataloging) tries to capture a resource in a unique way such that people can find and make use of that resource for now or later down the line whether or not you seen that metadata or not. In fact, there’s a lot of metadata that isn’t see but is behind the scenes (think Amazon, Google Books, embedded metadata in images). I enjoyed this affirmation of cataloging, especially since it originated in 1921 and because it is still applicable today.


4 thoughts on “Catalogers Wanted

  1. Jen–great post. I especially like the fact that you bring up Julia Pettee. I find it difficult to get my students to read anything written before the Internet. I actually wrote an article about the value of cataloging in a response to the WGFTBC a while back in the hopes of winning over a few library administrators and showing them the importance of investing in their catalogers. “You Need My Metadata”, Journal of Library Metadata, vol. 8, no. 1, Spring 2008.

    1. Jen

      What I really liked about Julia Pettee was that it was written in 1921 and echos many of the concerns voiced by catalogers today. But Pettee had the angle of “vision” that I know wasn’t addressed when I was at library school. It is something I haven’t heard talked about in the field. For me, vision implies looking forward. I think too often we tend to react to the changes before us, which allows for too much of looking in the past.

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