A Translation of the Big Heads at ALA MidWinter

I enjoy attending brown bags to hear my colleagues’ summarize their trips to various conferences. The other week, I attended a colleague’s brown bag about the Big Heads at ALA Midwinter 2013.

This year, the discussion was based on the following that I was able to find on ALA Connect:

What are the opportunities for and challenges facing technical services staff in large research libraries in 2013?  How do we transform existing positions as incumbents retire or move on?  What kind of background, traits and skills are we looking for in department heads and other supervisors within technical services?  How can we nurture these managers to lead from the middle and to best serve the needs of our organizations and the wider communities of which we are a part?  Finally, how do we maintain morale during these times of financial stress and breakneck transition?

Click here to get to the ALA connect page where you’ll find the schedule as a .docx file.

This discussion of new skills, transformation of technical services, etc. is an old one now. What was interesting was how my colleague transformed this dialog into the following: catalogers are for the most part unable to make the switch to metadata librarians. Cataloging and metadata librarianship are truly different and bridging the gap is perhaps more difficult than one would think.

I didn’t attend ALA Midwinter and therefore am unable to verify if this was what really was communicated. However, I’ve heard this argument before, namely that catalogers (especially those in the business for some time) are unable to adapt to the new world of metadata. Part of the discussion and what my colleague related was based on skills and flexibility. Let’s take a look at those two ideas and I would add perception as well.

Skills: I work both side of the fence so to speak. I might start out my day in MARC land and end up working in METS. The tools used are different. For my MARC work, I rely heavily on Connexion, MarcEdit, and my ILS. For my metadata work, I rely on Oxygen, Google Refine, ContentDM, Digital Commons, and right now Fedora and Islandora. Because the tools are different doesn’t entail that the work is strikingly different. For those not used to working with other tools, it is good to have training sessions. What I have found is that many have given up on the “old” catalogers by not providing training or support. Instead they downsize the department so extensively that the “old” cataloger doesn’t have time to learn new skills because they are now trying to do the job of at least 3-5 people. It is not an inability to learn but a lack of time and support for the most part. Also, these are skills. Catalogers have been learning new skills for a very long time. This doesn’t mean that accurately and consistently describing a resource is totally different in MARC and metadata land.

Flexibility: My colleague brought up this notion that old catalogers are simply not flexible. Certainly there are librarians who aren’t flexible. That is independent of whether they are catalogers or not. I ask again: how is it possible to be flexible when you are already bending backwards to get work done with a small staff? Of course, not all cataloging/metadata departments are small. However, the tendency across the board has been to reduce cataloging/metadata staff. About a year ago, I heard Christopher Cronin talk about how his staff had been reduced by almost 60% over the last decade. Downsizing has affected even the big heads of TS. Downsizing has affected the amount of time staff can dedicate to learning new skills, volunteer for new tasks, or take on new work. Sometimes, this is made harder by an organization’s structure, workflows, competing departments or even work philosophy. Take for example one common response is to create a digital initiatives team that often compete with cataloging and metadata. There is much more in play than simply flexibility, skills, downsizing, training or internal politics. This leads me to perception.

Perception: It is not so much an issue of skills or flexibility. I have found that the majority of catalogers (old and new alike) have some fantastic skills and are very flexible. What we do have in common is a bad wrap. There is a long-standing perception that catalogers are inflexible, unable to learn new skills, and do not understand the new world of metadata. Because of this general inability, catalogers need to step aside for a brand new generation. A generation of metadata librarians not hampered by old cataloging rules or trained exclusively in cataloging. A generation who have new skills for this brave new world of metadata such as programming.

This is where a large part of the problem resides, with this negative perception of catalogers. This negative perception promotes that catalogers cannot work with metadata because they don’t understand metadata, do not have the tools and skills necessary to work with metadata and are in general inflexible. This perception masks that metadata and cataloging share a common goal, organizing information accurately and consistently. This is one of the reasons why many in the cataloging world have said that they have been working with metadata for years and that is true. In any profession, tools and skills change. Some are able to adapt and some not. This is not determined by your profession but on an individual basis. I think there are examples of inflexibility in any profession. Perhaps it is time to stop judging the profession of cataloging as a whole and see what support individuals need to transition into coding in xml or working in Fedora.

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