Notes on Cataloging from a New-ish Cataloger

by Joshua Barton

An Introduction

What follows is a bit of a perspective piece. I do not claim to be an expert on cataloging with only three years of professional experience to rely on, but that should not preclude me from being able to say that I love what I do and that cataloging is a noble and worthwhile career for which new librarians can aspire. I say this because it seems that cataloging has received a lot of bad press lately, and I would rather not see a prospective cohort of new, gifted professionals led away from cataloging by misinformation amidst a serious time of change. There is plenty of work still to be done by catalogers, especially in the area of hidden collections. It isn't going away any time soon. The impact of that work is part of what makes cataloging great and well worth consideration for new librarians looking for a niche.

My Cataloging Beginnings

To be honest, my impression of cataloging was not glamorous when I first came out of library school three years ago. I took a class on the organization of information that covered cataloging, metadata and general access issues in cultural heritage institutions, but it did not compel me to become a cataloger. I learned about the importance of describing and indexing to provide access to collections, the importance of standardization as a means to achieve interoperability of data, and it all made sense. It was logical; but it also made my eyes glaze over. The technical detail involved made me think of cataloging as the realm of the geek. There were too many rules, too many standards, too much need to be detail driven. I was much more interested in the actual collecting. Amassing and curating collections seemed more exciting than entering items into a database one-by-one.

And then I entered the realm of the geek. One of my internships, working in a departmental library on campus, gave me a crash course in catalogs and cataloging when we moved our homegrown database of book and serial records from a citation management software into a real-live integrated library system. It was a long and arduous project that confirmed my earlier feelings about cataloging as a career prospect. That is, until I saw the results. When adding items to the collection, we no longer had to hand-key descriptions into a local database. Now we could simply import records from the Library of Congress. Adding items to the collection now took minutes instead of hours. Furthermore, the records for items in the collection were now standardized and accessible in an Online Public Access Catalog. Patrons could browse our collection online rather than coming into the library to access our database. They could look at similar items together in the catalog using Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) and authorized forms of names from the Library of Congress Name Authority File that our vendor partners had applied to our local records when they converted our database to MARC format. Our small, departmental library had been given new, powerful tools that directly benefited users and demonstrated the value of the library to the department, and it was all thanks to affordances granted by cataloging.

This experience made it clear to me that I had missed the forest for the trees when it came to cataloging. Being turned off by the technical learning curve, I had completely taken for granted the power of the catalog record that, when aggregated together into a catalog, makes a collection truly usable.

Big Changes

New librarians today may be dissuaded from careers in cataloging for reasons that go beyond the technical requirements and specialized skill set that initially turned me off. In just the last three years since I caught the cataloging bug, the ground under the feet of cataloging has shifted significantly. Predictions of the marginalization of traditional cataloging roles and the death of the catalog that had been seen in the library literature from the late 90s onward recently culminated in strong calls for change. Such calls are exemplified in reports to the Library of Congress from Karen Calhoun and a Library of Congress-appointed working group, the LC Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control. The recommendations in these reports, ranging from the abandonment of LCSH to the abandonment of further development in the forthcoming new set of cataloging rules, Resource Description and Access (RDA), are based largely on a concern that cataloging costs too much, or it is expending too many resources on work that does not have a great enough benefit (Calhoun 18; Library of Congress Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control 29). Libraries are doing too much redundant work to describe commonly held materials and are entering more information per item than is necessary or useful to provide access. The demonstrable fact that users are much more likely to use Google over the library catalog has put traditional cataloging on the defensive with regard to its role and cost-effectiveness, despite superior relevance and authoritativeness of material in library catalogs.

Admittedly, these conversations and the ensuing debate on the abandonment, simplification, and automation of certain cataloging processes made me think twice about the decision I had just made to become a cataloger. So it is understandable if many new librarians or library school students feel the same way. The budget crisis has not made things any better, with cataloging and technical services generally being areas looked to for financial trimming, in part because of reports like those mentioned above.

However, any fallout from the death of cataloging has yet to reach my doorstep, despite my anxious watchfulness. A subsequent literature study has shown that the predictions that preceded and precipitated the Calhoun and LC Working Group reports were overblown, or at least what was predicted as a revolution may be more akin to a technological change in cataloging processes, with catalogers still having a crucial role (Ivey 479). The call for economizing has manifested in my workplace in several significant ways, such as a controversial move from OCLC to SkyRiver as our bibliographic utility, covered in the blogosphere and library press, here, and here. Yet changes like these have not changed the fact that there is still plenty of cataloging work for me to do and demand for me to do it. In fact, in these same reports from Calhoun and the LC Working Group, there are also recommendations for what to do with the cataloging expertise that libraries have cultivated over the years, and one of them is to enhance access to rare, unique, and other special hidden materials (Library of Congress Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control 21). This charge, more than any other, represents the main change that I have experienced so far in my short time as a professional serials cataloger: a move from cataloging and maintaining records for mainstream and commonly-held materials to cataloging the special, unusual, and often controversial materials that make up our library's hidden collections.

Hidden Collections, New Roles

Much of my first year at Michigan State was spent managing the changing nature of our conventional serial collection, mostly received on a subscription basis. This included cataloging to address major and minor title changes for print serials; creating new, original catalog records in the case of major title changes; and dealing with a modest backlog of serial content that had been received as subscriptions or firm orders. After the first year, this work began to dry up quickly. Collection decisions led to elimination of many print serials in favor of electronic versions with records maintained by a vendor instead of catalogers. The backlog that catalogers had been steadily working on began to disappear, and much of the record maintenance that had required the intervention of an original cataloger like myself was being handled at the copy cataloging level by technical services staff. Records were being updated in our shared database to allow for copy cataloging before the need for original cataloging could arise. With less work to do in our conventional serials, I was able to turn my attention to another set of backlogs: the hidden collections in our Special Collections Library.

Hidden collections are materials held by libraries that, due to constraints on resources or a lack of institutional commitment, remain under- or unprocessed and therefore inaccessible to users. Such collections are not only inaccessible, but often scholars and researchers are completely unaware of their existence; hence their status as hidden collections (Jones 88-89). The situation is a tragedy in librarianship, but one where cataloging starts to become an adventure.

I will point out here that my ability to shift my workload from traditional materials to hidden collections was not a matter of directive, in the sense of Calhoun's and the LC Working Groups; recommendations to reallocate institutional resources for hidden collections. Rather, I simply went where the work was; it was more of a natural progression than an institutional choice. I have a feeling that it could play out this way for catalogers at other institutions as well, though the motivation may be beside the point. So when Ivey examines the last several years of cataloging literature and concludes that catalogers still have work to do, this is one of the reasons why (Ivey 479). A core of reliable work has melted away, but this has allowed for a prioritization of previously underserved materials.

Hidden collections come in all shapes and sizes, but many of them consist of alternative literature and popular materials; collections that were too difficult, too hot, or too dumb to be treated equitably when they were first acquired. So if hidden collections are the new frontier for catalogers, then catalogers are the gatekeepers of an impending wave of democratization in academic library collections. Materials that were sidelined for their purported lack of research value in years gone by are now the rediscovered cultural treasures that catalog librarians are specially situated to bring to light for public use and research and for the distinction of the institutions that own them.

My adventure in uncovering hidden collections has included radical literature of the political left and right, rare African periodicals, men's movement literature, Chicano/Latino publications, teeny bopper magazines, men's magazines from mundane fishing and hunting stuff to girlie magazines, and a wide variety of zines. A lot of the alternative and rare materials have required original cataloging, but surprisingly, so have many of the popular materials, the men's and teen magazines. Apparently, not many research libraries have seen fit to retain such things, despite the prospective interest from cultural studies specialists and others.

Among the most rewarding of these hidden collections to catalog are the zines. Punk fanzines, perzines (i.e. personal zines), queer zines, riot grrl zines, science fiction fanzines. These are often cut-and-paste, photocopied, hand-assembled self-publications that defy just about any publishing norm you can think of. Originating in mid-20th century science fiction fandom, zines were popularized by the punk rock movement of the late 70s and early 80s and have become a mainstay of alternative literary expression, though somewhat less prevalent now in the age of blogs and online self-publishing. To varying degrees, zines can serve as primary sources for the subculture from which they emanate and as representatives of radical or alternative perspectives. They embrace and embody individual expression. They give an insight into popular culture that other materials cannot provide. These three reasons for collecting zines in libraries, are among the many good reasons expounded in a wave of library literature on zines in the last fifteen years (Stoddart and Kiser, 192-193).

Literature on zines will often point to the punk fanzines published in the United Kingdom in the late 70s as what started it all, especially the seminal title "Sniffin Glue" by Mark Perry. It was to my great surprise when I was shown a boxed and alphabetized set of precisely these titles in MSU's Special Collections Library two years ago that had been held uncataloged for over 23 years. 170 titles, dating from 1976 to 1983 were made during the prime years for punk. These zines were clearly valuable from an historic standpoint for any discipline interested in the origins of the punk movement. I gladly took on the task of cataloging these and discovered that many of them were not held anywhere else in the United States and required original cataloging. These zines also required some special cataloging treatment, which I discussed in a paper delivered to the Popular Culture Association (PCA) earlier this year (see Punk's Not Dead: Resurrecting Punk Fanzines at Michigan State University Libraries). Presenting my paper at the PCA conference made me realize that I had stumbled into an expanded role as a cataloger. I was there not only to discuss the collection and the special treatment it required, but by means of cataloging it, I had become the person most knowledgeable of the collection. So I was also there to be an advocate for the collection to the scholars who were most likely to make use of it. Mine was a special circumstance, but it illustrates how catalogers can become specialists and guides to the collections that they rehabilitate from a hidden status, a potentially important role for catalogers to play in the unfolding future of cataloging.

In visiting other punk-related events at the PCA conference, I was pleased to see scholars using punk fanzines as primary sources, including some of the very titles I had just cataloged. However, I was surprised to learn that the scholars using fanzines in their research relied entirely on private collections, either their own or those of acquaintances. Private collections, of course, are not accessible in the same ways that research library collections are and research based on private collections is not open to re-evaluation by others if the source materials are inaccessible. If the use of private collections is prevalent in punk research, then it is probably prevalent in other marginalized cultural topics as well. The limits that this places on scholarship makes for a poor situation, and emphasizes the need for institutions to use catalogers to seriously tackle their own hidden collections.

The Noble Cataloger

Pronouncements of the death of cataloging seem woefully misguided when confronted with developments such as these. How can cataloging be dead with so much work left to be done? I have spoken so far of hidden collections with an emphasis on print materials and have said nothing about the digital world. Many catalogers are expanding their skills and duties to take on digital materials as well, becoming familiar with metadata, and working on the uncovering of a wholly different kind of hidden collection. These are also areas that catalogers are specially placed to exercise their skill. Economic considerations of the cost of cataloging cannot account for the value of bringing hidden materials into the accessible bibliographic universe, a service to scholarship and a means of distinguishing research libraries with a status of specialization in an area of materials that, if uniquely held like MSU's punk fanzines, only they can bring into the cultural record.

If the cost of cataloging is a concern for institutions, they will surely notice that hidden materials are more expensive to catalog than conventional ones. It takes more time and resources to catalog an alternative or ephemeral title than a traditional one because of the need for original cataloging or special treatment. Again, though, such economic framing obscures the value of making hidden materials available to scholarship as an original contribution to the cultural record. Ruling out such cataloging on economic grounds simply perpetuates the bias for conventionally published mainstream material that made libraries hidden collections hidden in the first place. Deploying catalogers to uncover hidden collections not only is an appropriate use of their skill and expertise, but also fulfills the library's duty to present a whole picture of the cultural record, not just the materials that are scholarly enough or that were published through mainstream publishers. The result of fulfilling that duty is a democratized, representative collection, a scope that should then extend into a democratized, representative scholarship as well, as researchers consult and synthesize the materials collected. That catalogers can facilitate something so noble is a point of pride and one of the best reasons I can think of why cataloging is a worthwhile career.

Like any noble pursuit, though, it takes hard work and tenacity. The hard work includes acquiring the specialized skills needed via training, internships, or volunteer opportunities in cataloging. The tenacity includes advocacy for the importance of cataloging in one's own institution and beyond. Cataloging is steeped in a tradition of rules and standards. Like I mentioned before, the technical detail kept me uninterested at first, but seeing that tradition brought to bear on real issues in the library convinced me that it was more of a powerful tool than a burden. Once I made the leap into the cataloging profession, I was confronted with a time of significant change in the tradition, change that is still happening. However, seeing the prospect for important work still to be done in the rehabilitation of marginalized, hidden collections, I am convinced that I choose the right career and I can recommend it to any like-minded adventuresome new librarian.

Final Word

For anyone interested in perspectives on the potential of cataloging amidst all the change happening now, I highly recommend the book Radical Cataloging: Essays at the Front edited by K. R. Roberto.

Works Cited
  • Calhoun, Karen. The Changing Nature of the Catalog and its Integration with Other Discovery Tools. Web. 13 May 2008.
  • Ivey, Robert. "Perceptions of the Future of Cataloging: Is the Sky Really Falling?" Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 47.5 (2009): 464-482.
  • Jones, Barbara M. "Hidden Collections, Scholarly Barriers: Creating Access to Unprocessed Special Collections Materials in America's Research Libraries." RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage 5.2: 88-105.
  • Library of Congress Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control. "On The Record: Report of The Library of Congress Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control." 2008.
  • Reynolds, Regina, Marla Whitney Chesler, and Melissa Beck. "The Tao of Serials: 101 Things Non-Catalogers Should Know About Serials" or Is It Continuing Resources? The Serials Librarian 56.1 (2009): 44-53.
  • Stoddart, Richard A. and Teresa Kiser. "Zines and the Library." Library Resources and Technical Services 48.3 (2004): 191-198.


Joshua Barton is Serials Catalog Librarian and Bibliographer for Philosophy at Michigan State University Libraries.