Librarianship is a public service

Last weekend, I checked out the documentary film Ex Libris: The New York Public Library.

It’s a documentary by Frederick Wiseman that is close to 3 1/2 hours in length. It follows the work of many librarians at several branches of the New York Public Library. I have to say that one of my favorite scenes is when the reference/chat librarian explains that unicorns are fictional…with a straight face. The other great moment for me was the repeated idea that libraries serve people first. Librarianship is about the people. This made me think of a button created by OCLC many years ago that said “Cataloging is a public service.” And it is!

How does data entry fit into this? As I mentioned in my previous posts, what catalogers and metadata librarians do extends beyond just transcription. The rules, best practices, and standards are based in part on the question of how people search, discover, browse, and access information to get to resources. That information goes by many names, metadata being one, descriptive or contextual information being another. Those who describe our work as data entry do so in many respects because it looks easy. It is far from a mindless task. First and foremost is the user and how the user will look for that particular material or access it. This is done in concert with the knowledge that we hold of standards, best practices, rules, and how our systems work both its limitations and advantages. I learned my trade really from a group of old school catalogers who made it necessary to see how the metadata looked from the users’ side of things. Are the diacritics showing properly? Do you need to adjust what fields display because perhaps the alternate titles aren’t being displayed. It is a credit to all catalogers and metadata librarians who make this entire process look easy enough to be labelled as data entry. Unfortunately, I think we’ve also made it look so easy that the work is sometimes too easily ignored or taken for granted.

Cataloging and metadata work requires a mix of skills. Yes, there are times where the hard work has been done and one just needs to copy catalog an item. But I find that those are the most mundane parts of this job. In fact, those jobs tend to automated in many larger academic institutions. What is interesting is the problem-solving and puzzle aspect of cataloging and metadata? Especially when you take that into account with the complex systems we work with now or next gen ILS.

Recently I ran across this one. In our public discovery platform (Primo), a search for the Companion to Locke yielded 6 results for eBooks. We owned one of the eBooks. The other five came through our central index thanks to Ex Libris our ILS vendor. Primo should have deduplicated these 6 results but didn’t. I and my supervisor looked at the delivery metadata; Primo normalizes to an xml standard called PNX or Primo Normalized XML. We wanted to see if the ISBNs, titles, authors and information such as dates were present and could be matched if these 6 records were compared. It turned out that they were. There was one slight difference with the name of the author. We changed our record to add that variation with the hope that the dedup process would take place. Unfortunately it didn’t happen. What we did learn was that this was a mistake with the records from the central index and we were able to submit a ticket with our vendor.

It is these rabbit holes that are fascinating. It takes you to how the information we have in records is managed, exchanged, and warped in our and others systems. This type of problem-solving involves not just understanding the rules, standards, and best practices of cataloging but also how users search and access information as well as how systems talk to each other and then display this information. Instead of data entry, this is data sleuthing!