The survey I distributed to get more information on metadata services asked respondents to explain why they didn’t provide metadata services if this was the case at their institution. Interestingly, it was a split between those still in the planning phase and those that said their units were still traditional cataloging units. Do you know what a traditional cataloging unit is? I asked a couple of my colleagues. Answers varied but tended to focus on people who have been in the unit “a long time”, people adverse to change, or people always just quoting AACR2 rules. Well, I found these answers not exactly helpful. So I asked myself the question what is a traditional cataloging unit and does such a thing even exist? When I really thought about it, I don’t think there are “traditional” units out there. Let me explain.
If not all then a large majority of cataloging units have undergone wide ranging changes that have affected how we do business, who we do business with, job expectations, or resources. These changes have often been implemented with business models of “do more with less” or the “do less with less” or even “we’ll do what we can”. Cataloging units are used to change. They have had to adapt to changing standards, changing technology, new formats, new technologies, less staff and so much more. On top of this, cataloging is often not taught or on the sidelines in many library school programs. Typical positions that open often require much from new employees in terms of experience and skill level. One reason is that many departments just don’t have the resources to provide adequate training even for current staff. Of course that’s if you can renew a position or have a new position approved. This seems to be something of a miracle occurrence in some places. All of this is to say that cataloging units have to weather many storms. Staff have had to adapt, think out of the box, be flexible. This seems far from “traditional” in the sense of long standing activities done repeatedly over a long period of time.
But my survey question was aimed specifically at why metadata services were not being offered. Not in all cases, but in many, metadata services relate to digital projects or projects oriented to helping content creators, knowledge experts or others involved in research projects and making content (not necessarily library resources) accessible and discoverable to the world. Such projects tend to involve the digital humanities, research data, digital repositories and digital collections. The users go beyond staff to incorporate members of the community. Materials to be described are more varied and include more formats such as data sets. The technologies in play tend to be varied from vended solutions such as CONTENTdm to open source solutions such as Fedora/Islandora or Omeka.
Is it because a cataloging unit is traditional that staff in the unit will not provide metadata services? I would venture to say no because the picture is much more complex. There are cataloging units that are so bare bones that even learning RDA is a problem. There are even some institutions that don’t even have a cataloging unit because everything is outsourced. In many cases, there simply are no resources to dedicate to training and skill building. On the positive side, there are other units that can devote time to training and skill building. But this takes place on top of everything else. Staff is being asked to handle a variety of complex tasks and take on a new set of equally complex tasks. It makes for a busy and often overworked unit. There might be some units that are competing for resources and need to make very good justifications for training, skill building, keeping or getting a new position. Often justification is a give and take. I think many job descriptions I’ve read fall victim to listing everything except the kitchen sink in their descriptions. It seems many want a super catalog metadata librarian who can program, catalog serials, work in discovery systems and design repository systems. Why? Most likely, their institution needs programmers, web designers and more catalog and metadata librarians. So why not ask for a little bit of everything and see what you get. The problem is that this is a lot to ask for, especially when many units are already understaffed and overextended. There is nothing easy in developing and creating new services.
Are metadata services not incorporated because the unit is traditional? Not really. Is it because the unit might be understaffed and overextended? For many this is a reality. It becomes key in those cases to promote the value of cataloging to management and the need for new positions. Is it because catalogers are adverse to change? Well, this has more to do with people than a profession. Being adverse to change is not a trademarked weakness of cataloging librarianship – thankfully. It is because a lack of resources. Yes definitely. It becomes then a question of not how to move beyond traditions but of how to get the resources you need to continue to grow. These resources might include tapping into a staff member who can think out of the box or take change in different directions. But how do you get those resources? And how do you juggle a full plate with another plate called metadata services. Next up, I’ll share some of the respondents’ answers. So stay tuned.