Cataloging as a Public Service? I Think So! e-Forum Summary

A lively discussion was held on a variety of questions and topics within the overall theme of cataloging as a public service. The e-forum messages are archived.

How does cataloging support public services (reference) and the goals of discoverability and accessibility of information?

The response indicated overwhelming support for considering technical services as a public service, and that cataloging is a basic and essential public service. Catalogers are the backbone of discoverability (and public service). Without catalogers, items, in any form, would not be discoverable by the public. One person noted that they hoped that interviewees will mention that cataloging is a public service. Librarianship is a service profession. Everyone who works in a library is therefore serving its public.

Most access to the catalogs takes place remotely rather than in the library. Thus, the catalogers, technical services, web design people, and reference tools are now the primary public face of the library. Catalogers are essentially public service librarians although more behind the scenes but are still a vital link between the patrons and information.

Catalogers support discoverability in many ways: changing LC numbers to fit into the collection better/more browsable, including added titles to include “frequently used titles” that are not the “real” title, making smaller collections such as a graduate reading collection, and fixing issues that cause consistent problems. Additionally, the traditional features searchable tables of contents, notes, subject headings, authority control, reader’s advisory content, improved keyword searching through quality cataloging. Also providing “sneak peaks” into item content through notes and tables of contents is a valued role. One person added that catalogers provide the data to ready the content for the next technological advancement. If the data isn’t there in the first place, it can’t be reused. The money and staff time spent in developing a collection are pointless without access to the materials purchased and selected. Developing and maintaining accurate access points - authority control - is critical to provide effective service/discoverability/accessibility.

Collaboration and communication with stakeholders and consistent cataloging are necessary to improve discoverability. Encouraging public services/reference staff to share ideas and concerns is vital. One person noted that she is part of the reference services team even though she doesn’t serve in reference. There was one comment about the worry of losing good functionality for “cute” interfaces. Another person noted that they share changes to policies and standards with other public service colleagues to get feedback. One library reported that they have reached the point where public services colleagues and collection development colleagues work with them on digital projects to provide description and controlled vocabularies. Another respondent provided an example of how with their higher understanding of metadata and standards, technical services folks were helping advise content creators, like faculty, on the best tools to use to control their workflow, using tools such as Zotero, Omeka, Mendelay, WordPress plugins, and so on. As this participant noted, it is essential to have communication across the different areas in order to best help the patrons.

Has anyone done usability testing on their catalog and revised cataloging standards based on the results?

Usability studies provide ideas of where to go with developing catalogs so that they better meets the needs of our patrons. Several respondents noted that it would also be interesting to determine if national cataloging standards need to changed in order to make catalogs more relevant for and easier to use by patrons. It was also suggested that a tool or a standard which could be used by all types of libraries would be helpful in order to allow comparison of results and improvements at the system level or with national standards. However, another person noted that we need a solid usability tool which measures success beyond the small group usability studies. A standard measure in libraries is “hits,” and catalogs, in general, receive fewer hits than other resources; thus, it is difficult to use these stats to get more resources put into the catalog or in technical services.

Several people use OPAC search reports, both search terms and indexes. These frequently show that users do not know what can and cannot be searched in a catalog. Some respondees used these to advocate for a discovery system.

One person reported that they didn't revise cataloging practices or standards but worked with the interface to improve accessibility; thus, leaving the underlying record intact. A number of respondees reported that they have moved to discovery layers and are working with the interface and search options rather than performing complete usability studies. Additionally, one person mentioned that having the RDA system, especially with the requirement to have AACR2 abbreviations spelled out, might help discoverability.

While watching reference staff, one cataloger noticed that few use the staff view of the catalog despite it being helpful. Those respondents who also work at the reference desk reported that keyword searching is the most frequent option unless patrons are searching for a known title or author. Subject searching is very rare. In general, it appears many users just look quickly at results and thus can miss results brought up by a useful chapter or index term. One person reported that they put the table of contents and 520 summary notes into the keyword index so that all index content is available.

New Mexico State University is about to start a usability test and will be handled by the Reference and Research Department. Several people noted that it might be helpful to have a cataloger on the committee.

Several people have done usability testing (see below). Two possible items were distributed to help get such testing started, as several people wondered about how to development and implement a test, as well as what results might be gained from it.

Jianrong Wang from Richard Stockton College of New Jersey wrote:

I did a usability study to freshmen students on our library’s online catalog (Sirsi). Below are some of the findings:

Students’ Discovery Behavior

  • Students searched the catalog the same way as they did the Internet.

  • “Power Search” or “Limit Search” was not immediately applied for materials other than books.

  • 0% of the students used the “Help” button, even though some of them had problems finding the requested information.

  • 40% of the students seemed unclear or confused about the term “Series.”

  • Students’ confusion about library resources presented on the library’s website indicates that freshman students need to be oriented to library resources in general.

  • Little effort is spent on evaluating the search result.

The Online Catalog

Pros (by students)

  • The library’s online catalog was effective.

  • The difficulty to use the online catalog was minimal.

  • Information provided on the catalog was mostly sufficient.

Cons (by observing students’ completing tasks & students’ comments)

  • Unnecessarily complicated—two levels of search result display (brief record and full record)

  • Certain information provided might not reflect students’ needs (e.g., ISBN in brief record)

  • Insufficient information for students (e.g., item waiting time, incomplete publisher information, etc.)

  • Non-standardized terminology, e.g., “URL” and “http” appear at different record levels

  • Jargon-ridden, e.g., “Catalog Record” (full record). Library staff knows what they are but they are not easily understood by students.

Susan Grant from the Southern Maryland Regional Library Association also provided an example:

Here is an article I wrote for our organization’s newsletter that goes to all the public librarians in our system (about 225 people):

Different Worlds, Same Orbit – Technical Services and Public Services

By Susan Grant, Technical Services Manager

It is a common meme in the library world that “front of the house” staff and “back of the house” staff are from different worlds and ne’er the twain shall meet.

After all, Public Services staffs deal directly with their customers; they are on the front lines and must live and breathe customer service in order to provide their guests the best possible outcome – whether that be a book in hand, a question answered or a program attended. They also bear the brunt of unpleasant customer interactions and personalities.

On the other hand, our Technical Services staff works “behind the scenes” and rarely sees the customers whose material they work hard to catalog and process. Customer service, to Technical Services librarians, is all about getting product out to the branches but the customers themselves – actual living, breathing library patrons – are rather nebulous creatures.

Yet I will contend that technical services are public services; that cataloging is a public service.

Our work is infrastructure: not glamorous but, oh, so necessary, because we make it possible for you to get what you and your customers need. Examples?

  • We electronically send book and media orders to vendors so that your shelves are full.
  • We import e-book bibliographic records into the system and make sure the links work so customers can download those books.
  • We add the call number records to the system so customers can find material on the shelves.
  • We barcode, property label and cover books and other media so that those items are ready for your customers to use (and then return).
  • We create and complete the bibliographic records so that reference librarians can help customers find information easier.

Though the Technical Services team may be a world away from the front lines of Public Services, we are all working toward the same end – customer satisfaction. We all need each other to succeed!

Catalogers as public service staff. Value of having catalogers serve as reference librarians and/or liaison librarians? How many of you serve either face to face or virtual reference points? Do you both feel that it helps you in your cataloging work? Does it enhance the relationship/understanding between catalogers and "public service" staff?

About half of the respondees do serve on the reference desk, usually occasionally or “as needed.” Only a few have liaison duties. General concerns with lack of reference training and knowing the policies/processes.

All respondees cited the value of serving on the reference desk. Examples of comments include: “the exposure to patrons betters my cataloging.” “It's been great interacting directly with the users of our cataloguing work.” “Understand more how cataloging affects use of ILS.” “Face-to-face experience with how the public uses the catalog/discovery services.”

Working with the patron side of the catalog gives valuable insight into how best to meet patron needs, as well as those of other library staff. Serving on the reference desk also offers information into the strengths and weaknesses of the catalog and discovery tool. In general, cross-serving allows cataloguers and other technical services staff to be more responsive to user needs. Serving on reference desk provides reward of seeing how cataloguing work is of assistance to students and staff! One person wrote “…makes me love my cataloguing job even more.” Provides a way to see how students are using the catalog and what they are looking for/researching.

Serving in the reference venue connects technical services staff with the reference staff and can help improve communication. By providing reference staff with the ‘whys’ behind things, such as the importance of various fields and the time needed, helps them understand the role of cataloging more effectively and can provide information to let them help the patrons better. Double staffing with reference librarians provides valuable sharing opportunities, such as the advantages of faceted searching and how to use it effectively.

There were a few users who primarily work in reference in the audience. They reported that cross-training is very helpful as it allows them to see “all sides” of technical services. It is especially helpful to have some basic knowledge of each section (cataloging, circulation, and reference).

Communication between public/reference services is more important than “serving.” Reference librarians are generally requested to send errors/enhancements to catalogers for fixing. Communication about how users are searching, how public services can use the catalog more effectively, and similar items are vital. Several people noted that their organizations provide opportunities for staff to provide presentations on various job issues or challenges, and that their sessions on catalog have been appreciated by public service librarians. Publicizing the role of technical services and explaining the time for each activity helps provide more realistic expectations.

Respondees also noted that their daily work connects them to patrons through the catalog. This is an important fact to advertise. More patrons access items directly through the catalog than via a reference librarian. One respondee stated “Vigilance is needed even more so understanding the dynamics of the day. What catalogers do is truly a public service in all that entails.” Although there are different personality types and different skill sets, there is the overarching truth that that technical and public services work together to help the patron find what they need. As one person put it “Same goal. Different ‘planes’.”

One primarily reference librarian provide her perspective: “When I first started my career, I was at an organization where technical services staff rotated through on the reference desk and I learned so much from them! I know it's difficult timewise to do this but hope at least that catalogers are part of public service based committees. I am a reference librarian currently in a branch library and do some basic cataloging - bib/item record creation and updating. I would definitely say that it has helped me understand the back end of the catalog and thus lets me better "fix" the user end.” Another cataloging librarian who performed reference duties noted that she provides instruction and learned a lot about how patrons search which helps her in her cataloging.

In summary, catalogers, regardless of name, serve an essential role in providing a public service by providing access to library items.

Should reference staff have basic cataloging skills?

We had a couple of people comment on catalogers being asked (told) to staff the reference desk but that the inverse is not done. So, a couple of questions/comments:

  1. Would you be willing to have barely trained reference librarians working with the catalog?
  2. What sorts of jobs/activities do you think would most help reference librarians understand the catalog more effectively?
  3. Value of having catalogers serve as reference librarians and/or liaison librarians? How many of you serve either face to face or virtual reference points?

As technical services staffs are shrinking in many libraries, there is value in thinking about cross training and job sharing. However, there were several comments about having appropriate training.

There are some questions about whether reference librarians would have the time to perform cataloging or technical service tasks. Also whether their job locations provide the time and quiet for detail work such as cataloging. There were also some suggestions of work that non-catalogers could do. Several people mentioned that only those public service/reference staff with an interest in cataloging should be involved.

One respondent noted that she provides a template that lets her collections librarian pre-catalog local video lecture series. The work is reviewed. There were a number of comments that if the work was reviewed, it would be all right to let non-catalogers do some cataloging. However, it was also pointed out that reviewing records can take significant time.

With the tagging options available in some catalogs, it was suggested that tagging was one role for reference librarians. They could also check vendor records, copy catalog, enhance bibliographic records, include item records, add genre headings to older books, add access points for characters in pop fiction, add geographic headings for books set in the area, add in tables of contents for items without (such as short story or essay collections). One respondent suggested that looking at the guides they are creating would show their interests and strengths, and lead to potential shared cataloging opportunities. Public service librarians could review new books and decide which ones could use more than copy cataloging to make them more discoverable.

There were many comments about how reference librarians might benefit from some basic cataloging training or refresher presentations in order to understand the catalog better, which would translate into more effective customer service. It is important for reference librarians to understand both the principles and value of subject headings and authority work. Using MARC tags efficiently was also suggested. Reference people should understand that catalogers create records that allow users to find catalog materials in many different ways and that these access points help them guide their patrons. Occasional presentations on cataloging related topics, including use of subject headings and indexes have been helpful. Providing a mutual understanding between staff of where the catalog fits in the whole picture with other library and web tools. It is especially important to understand the functions of each department, and where the systems overlap or have the potential to work with each other.

It is also important for reference librarians to use their subject knowledge to pass on to catalogers any subject discrepancy or access difficulty they might find in a record. One person mentioned that children’s literature would be especially useful to have a subject expert.

In summary, one librarian notes “I have always thought that what I did as a Catalog Librarian was a public service, no matter what others thought. I continue to learn from having face-to-face contact with the patrons and from having a good relationship with the reference staff too.”

Has RDA moved cataloging to more directly consider user needs?

This was a great discussion! There was some agreement that RDA is helpful to users by eliminating abbreviations, Latin expressions, and searching on all authors even when there are more than three. Also the option to link all versions of a title, such as Romeo and Juliet, is valuable. As one librarian puts it “ As I understand that one of the rationales was to provide for a more atomized approach to data, i.e. data points and relationships between them that are more modular than current record structure, yet able to reassemble themselves in such structures as needed (RDF, semantic web and all that jazz).”

There were some concerns that the loss of the general material type will be a problem for patrons. Some field names are not necessarily complete or in user-friendly terminology, such as a lack of “newspaper” format. This would seem to illustrate the need for language and terminology that is meaningful, descriptively identifiable, and understandable to both library staff and patrons. Several participants brought up the problem of adapting new standards in legacy systems. One respondee questioned how widely RDA had spread at this point and mentioned how some libraries still don’t see it as something they need to do.

As mentioned above, the General Material Designation is being removed with RDA. GMD allows for easy distinction of formats for items according to some. Other participants find that it takes up unnecessary room in the title field and that the format designations are not applicable for users e.g. “computer file.” Other fields can be used in RDA but make sure that they display and are searchable. There were comments about the RDA terminology in the 33x fields being “incomprehensible not just to patrons, but is overly arcane, wordy, and un-scannable (by the human eye).” It was suggested that more focus on finding terminology that is meaningful, descriptively identifiable, and understandable to catalogers and stakeholders is needed. Having a quick easy way to distinguish formats is important to the user. The ability to use that information as facets to limit search results or an easy way for the OPAC to generate format icons is valuable.

Suggestions for format fields included various specific material designations found in fields such as 344-346 or “form/genre” fields. Another person suggested a combination of the 336/338 fields such as “336 two-dimensional moving image + 338 online resource = online video (which it might be cool to have clickable to the link in the URL field, 856 or whatever it is in future standards) OR 336 two-dimensional moving image + 338 videodisc = videodisc (or better yet linking up with coding for DVD or blue ray, etc. to display that term followed by the actual physical location and call number/availability.” Pictorial icons were also mentioned.

The discussion also moved into a philosophical arena regarding the move to have records in a form that a computer can work with. As one person wrote, “To create bibliographic records that a computer program can work means thinking about cataloging in a lot of new ways. Standardizing and coding everything that can be standardized and coded is just one of them. RDA includes some of these new ideas, but there are people out there who are already thinking far beyond that.” The example given is a database query for every DVD that had television programs. When records and systems were designed, it was assumed that a human being would be searching and could use their intelligence to navigate the system.

Another philosophical discussion concerned how patrons view the catalog and whether they understand the purpose. Also incorporated was whether the multi-search systems make things more complex for patrons since some records will be full text journal articles while others will be print books.

The conversation included a discussion that the cataloging policy of an institution has more impact on discoverability than AACR2 or RDA. The importance of making cross-references, tables of contents, abstracts/summaries, genre headings, and subjects (in non-fiction AND fiction) was emphasized. Correcting typos is a big help to users also. One respondent noted that the “Typo of the Day” feed is a good starting resource. The importance of authority control was noted. Additionally, the necessity from a patron view of considering discoverability for poorly titled items. The respondent provided the example of “Annual Reports.” Few, if any, users will scroll through the massive list of items this title search will generate. Use the freedom you have to add enhanced titles.

This led to the value of usability studies to ensure that catalogers are putting their time and energy into the most vital areas to the users. Also mentioned was the importance of sharing the effects, potential, and challenges with public service/reference librarians, both to keep them aware of changes and to encourage their feedback.

There were few comments about using RDA for new records and learning how to manage previously created records as batch changes may not work, nor is it likely that libraries have time to re-catalog one record at a time. There were also discussions about local needs versus standards. In general, there was agreement that more can be done to help the patrons although there need to be some common guidelines for cataloging.

As the moderator, I particularly like this statement: “Both the visionaries and more conservative catalogers are concerned about user needs, but the conservatives worry about user needs now while the visionaries worry about user needs in the future.” RDA clearly is a topic of hot interest with multiple benefits, challenges, and questions.

Recommended RDA training:

Inventory Lists

This topic was raised by a participant. She asked which ILSs have an inventory module. Her IT department was advocating for a shelf inventory list, as the IT head thought libraries do inventories every six months.

There were some initial concerns that IT was raising the question, rather than either technical or reference services. Additionally, there was considerable speculation that any library could do a shelf inventory every six months. Several people said that inventories depend on the size of the library and gave example of times but no-one reported completing one every six months. A number of people reported using missing book lists or circulation statistics lists and would search for books and adjust records as needed during these searches.

Several libraries reported that they have completed or are completing inventories. Inventories are time consuming but valuable. One library reported that it took six months, while another reported that they are still in the process after five years. The latter project reported finding more than 3,000 lost books! Cataloguers have a major role correcting records. A public librarian noted that they use shelf inventories to weed non-fiction using circulation statistics.

One person reported working on an inventory by sections, selecting the more crowded sections first. Several respondents noted that multi-volume sets were examined at a later point. One librarian report a high success as they located items that belonged to other branches, items that had been long withdrawn but were still on the shelf, and items that were long gone from our shelves. Staff completed the reports and shelf check will working desk shifts. Another person provided an example of an inventory project involving barcoding a genealogy collection. This ended up being a manual exercise but resulted in all books being barcoded and catalog records updated. Another library is redoing their remote storage by item size and performing an inventory at the same time.

Suggestions included having all departments assist rather than limiting to technical services and doing it in sections, such as by call number range or most used collections. One person noted that even doing a small section of the collection every year is valuable. The frequency of inventories thus depend on staff availability, size of library, and need.

How can catalogers show/prove the value of their work from a user perspective?

Training reference librarians to understand the nuances of the catalog in order to know how much work/effort goes in to making records discoverable is helpful. Their support and anecdotes from users should help move cataloging up in importance. Encourage public service staff (front lines) to add user comments and reactions to reference statistics/questions. Use the anecdotes to garner support. Suggest consistent terms such as “browsing,” “uniform title,” “series title,” etc. Perhaps a presentation to the front lines staff or working with the reference department will help.

Showing effect of tweaking catalog records to increase the “find rate” of items. Once the value of cataloging is made obvious, the work will gain more respect. One librarian reported that enhanced records on items sent to remote storage were three times more likely to be recalled than those with unenhanced records. Increased usage clearly demonstrated the value of the work. Increased circulation of collections that receive genre headings, additional subject headings, tables of contents, etc. will help support the need for cataloging. However, one person noted it can be difficult to support enhancing local catalog records when a number of users find desired items on Amazon or a similar resource and then search the library catalog by title to locate it. Another person noted that discovery is important to patron satisfaction.

Publish newly available items, whether truly new books, or a newly cataloged collection. One person noted that she does this by annotating OCLC’s accession list which shows items by subject and classification. Communicate reductions in backlogs. This is a solid way to show value of work to the user. Provide regular reports on your statistics. In addition to general statistics, include things like rushed items for faculty/course support, student needs especially related to theses and dissertations, items related to current events etc.

There were several concerns that the work has to be shown to and supported by the administration, rather than from directing assisting the user. Also the age old issue of quality versus quantity, especially as technical service department positions tend to be shrinking.

User studies are always helpful. As noted by a respondent from the University of Rochester, their research ended up being a proof-of-concept for FRBR. The users in the study did really want to know about the library’s collection and to determine relationships among the items. More details are available at

How do the FRBR user tasks translate into cataloging objectives?

This topic suffered a little from being on the second day. However, it was noted that the University of Rochester libraries do a lot of library-user research. Their research turned out to be a proof-of-concept for FRBR. They were able to show that their users really did want to know what the library had, and in which format(s), and what the relationships among those items were. This report came out before the ALA presentation so it may not present the finding above but this link provides some information

One librarian noted that even under AACR2, cataloger’s job was to find, identify, select, and obtain information. Several librarians stated that the FRBR collocation will be useful in some libraries more than others. Libraries without fiction or music might find it less useful as the collocation of multiple formats and related editions of the same work will be useful but for a small percentage of the collection. There were some notes that legacy ILS and OCLC’s WorldCat don’t support hierarchical application of the FRBR model and thus might not see the full potential of RDA. However, it is hoped that catalogers will consider user needs when applying RDA guidelines in their systems

How to give feedback to cataloging services and how to request from public services? Does anyone have a formal system?

There were several methods that are used to report problems. One is a "Report a problem" link on the full record display which sends an email to staff in collection services. The respondent noted, “It has alerted us to a variety of issues. Within the catalog record itself, there is a link to “Report an error on this page” and “Request enhanced cataloging”, both go to our fixopac@... email address, which can be used by anyone. One catalog provides a form for error reports/feedback that is available to anyone who uses the catalog, and most of the feedback we receive is from public services colleagues.”

One librarian reported that the majority of problems relate to e-resource access (including batches of records where the URLs have gone bad) and print books not found on the shelf. Other librarians reported requests by public services (usually) for things such as analytical cataloging, content notes, and added entries of various sorts to help public services pull up a particular subset of materials. Reference librarians often request enhanced cataloging such as adding subdivisions. There was great support for enhanced cataloging as it lets items be found easily rather than through shelf browsing and serendipity. 

Have discovery systems reduced the need for thorough cataloging of records from a public services (findability) view point?

Overall opinion is no. Effective discovery systems require more reconversion to make more discoverable, especially unprocessed archival items, certain formats, collections in various formats which only have a record for the collection – not for each item, and similar. Thorough cataloging of records from a findability view point is necessary. The more access points that are made available the better the discovery system will work. Keyword searching doesn’t work for everything. Some systems don’t display serial checkin or holding records. It is important to consider which fields to index, especially for smaller libraries with limited time.

Examples of items that might need work are local series where common forms of a title don’t appear in the catalog but it is how people ask for an item, local collections, genealogy resources, unprocessed archival materials, runs of newsletters, and even full formats of materials. In fact, one person mentioned that the hidden cost of discovery systems is the reconversion necessary to bring records and “hidden collections” up to discoverability levels. One related issue is the thought that users will likely spend more time looking at brief records from search results in discovery systems than full records in the actual catalog.

One person recommended finding a MARC indexing map from the discovery vendor and run beta tests before working on major projects. Be aware of how the cataloger’s judgment allows one to utilize a knowledge of MARC tags, indexing maps, and how users look for information to make sure the record contains the word, phrase or concept in an appropriate place, so that the record can be found.

As an end note, one participant reminded us that “the discovery tool and the standard catalog complement each other. Both must be available to searchers.” And, as always, we, reference and technical services staff must also complement each other and strive to serve the user in the most efficient and effective manner.

Is there tension between national standards and local needs? If so, how might these be overcome? Thoughts on how current rules detract from user needs? Thoughts on how current rules enhance meeting user needs?

There can be. Needs of local user primary concern and can usually modify records for local access. Rules/standards provide consistency. That consistency in our data is vital to making our catalogs work as effectively as possible. There is a desire to follow national standards so that what you are doing at your library is consistent with other libraries. This facilitates ILL and provides records that can be shared without having to edit extensively.

However, technology is changing rapidly and libraries want to adapt to the changing nature of user’s needs and thus may find themselves at odds with national standards. If there are enough libraries that encounter this problem, perhaps some of the standards need to be rewritten.

—submitted by and e-forum moderated by John Sandstrom and Beth Thomsett-Scott. This e-Forum was held January 8-9, 2014.

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