New Take on Technical Services

Amy “Mimi” Kolosseus, Simmons College

amy "mimi" kolosseus When I started library school at Simmons several months ago, I heard from fellow students that the required cataloging course was a killer and just something I would have to “get through.” As I started book descriptions and MARC tagging, I learned precise placements of commas and colons, and how to MARC tag absolutely every nuance of information from the title page. Then I sat down with the “big reds,” and opened my mind to every fathomable association in order to find the best possible subject(s). But somewhere at the end of the course, spending countless hours in the cataloging lab and the rest dreaming about MARC tagging my Christmas lists, I realized that I’d lost sight of the big picture. “I would never go into cataloging; it’s too small for me,” I thought. “What on earth was cataloging about anyway?” But it wasn’t until I helped administer ALCTS board meetings at ALA’s Midwinter Meeting that I saw the big picture, and more importantly the true picture behind cataloging.

Charles Wilt, the division’s executive director, hired several Simmons students to help with ALCTS functions at the 2005Midwinter Meeting in Boston because he was short-staffed. What a delightful experience it was for me to have been behind the scenes at ALA and, more importantly, ALCTS. At the board meetings, each board member arrived at the hotel conference room, signed my attendance sheet, and sat around the large rectangular table. Visitors and nonboard members sat at chairs lining the room’s walls. I remember the first two people I met, who coincidentally said the two most influential tidbits to me: division counselor Bruce Johnson introduced himself and said, “I know that there are negative cataloger stereotypes, but that’s not who we are.” I made a quick circuit of the room; they didn’t look like a bunch of surly, background “systematizers.” I was willing to get over the stereotype.

Another friendly woman, a visitor, continued to smile and encourage me throughout the meeting, and I felt at ease to ask her, “What is cataloging all about?” “Well,” she said, “we’re truly the backbone of the library. Collection development, the catalog ... we make sure people can find what they’re looking for whichever way they’re looking for it.” I was stunned; I’d never thought of technical services like this. She was right though. If searching mechanisms were not built into the OPAC and collections were not developed for a particular community, there wouldn’t be much of a library. I mentally decided to wipe my slate clean and start again, this time not in a classroom, but by studying real-live catalogers. And this was a great way start to the meeting.

I noted that three presidents sat together at the head of the table. I noticed that one was the current president, another the president-elect, and the third the past-president. That wasn’t terribly shocking, but the way they interacted with each other was. Each was incredibly respectful to the others and felt comfortable calling on each other’s expertise when needed. The transition from each voice was fluid and fairly distributed. I was surprised not to see any resemblance of pride, which I have come to expect with high positions. No, these three presidents were true librarians, sharers of information and glory. Each other member on the board and each participant in the room was also respectful and well prepared. People listened to each other and I did not feel a pull of bad politics in the room. These people were certainly not the surly systemizers people said they were. Instead, I felt the free exchange of information and free expression of ideas, which are bedrocks to the field of librarianship. This air of respect was enhanced by a very clear meeting methodology, complete with motions and seconds and a clear expectation of a timetable. People were easy to follow, and the exchange of ideas and action points were unambiguous.

Through the rest of that ALCTS board meeting and the next that I attended, I looked and listened closely to see if these people defied this stereotype and if their jobs could really be considered a “backbone.” I felt like a spy, a noncataloger somehow sitting unnoticed behind the scenes. I had always thought librarianship was about reference questions, programming, and good management, but when I heard about continuing education “road shows,” a proposed e-commerce segment of the ALA Web site, and all sorts of electronic publishing, I saw that technical services was actually the “cool” part of librarianship. I mean, many people I met when I worked as a library assistant were far more interested in what they could find on their own with well-organized and intuitive catalogs and Web sites than going to the library for reference help. I realize that catalogers have to think four steps ahead of patrons, to make sure they can find exactly what they want. These ALCTS members seemed to understand more than most librarians about attracting patrons and anticipating their needs with sharp technology, well-organized catalogs, and relevant collections. In fact, before this conference I did not know Collection Development and Preservation were part of Cataloging/Technical Services.

When the ALA presidential candidates came to visit during the meeting, the ALCTS president, Carol Pitts Diedrichs, iterated her concern that behind-the-scenes catalogers and their directives were overlooked by the media and in many publications for the “spicier” public and reference librarians’ initiatives. Sitting in the back of that room, I could see how important it was to change those stereotypes of catalogers and cataloging, and how valuable this backbone truly is. The essence of librarianship is not only at the desk answering questions, but also in creating the precise, tip-top space in the catalog and in the collection, electronic or otherwise, that truly allows the free access to information.

When a head cataloger handed me a job description for a cataloging position in southern California at the end of the board meeting, I told him, “ I’m not sure if I’m a cataloger ... but I might be.” I read over the description with new insight. I even saw my own skill set in a new light. With my background in German language, music, and technology, I might very well find a rewarding and worthwhile position in technical services. I have another year and a half of library school, but my experience at this year’s Midwinter ALCTS meetings has certainly given me valuable insight into a more complete picture of librarianship. Even if I do not ultimately choose to go into technical services, I will certainly not repeat what my fellow students repeated to me. Cataloging is not something just to “get through,” it’s the science part of library science.