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Cataloguing – a view from a new professional

May 18, 2011

Recently I contributed the following article to the Catalogue and Index journal which appeared in Volume 162. I was really pleased to see a piece in the same volume by my first ever cataloguing manager who introduced me to the field, Helen Gardner and great to contribute alongside fellow LIS student, Jennifer Howard. If you’re a member of the Cilip group then its a great read. Cataloguing has been, for me, a highlight of my library experience so far as you will see below.

“Embarrassingly, I came away from my first experience in cataloguing thinking “I don’t understand and I never will”. Thankfully, I feel rather different today and, fortunately, I know I am not alone in this feeling. Back in 2007 when I first volunteered in the cataloguing department at my university library (Adsetts Centre,Sheffield Hallam University) my initial impressions were that cataloguing is a challenge and one I wouldn’t ever feel accomplished in. Yet with time, perseverance and guidance I actually enjoy the cataloguing processes and benefit from the experience of picking up a tricky book.

Prior to starting my work in the university library I didn’t give two seconds’ thought to where the information I needed actually came from. I, like many other library users (I assume), did not acknowledge that someone was responsible for all the useful information held on the lobby computer telling me what I needed to know. This may have been due to a lack of understanding on my part of what it must have been like to use a card catalogue knowing somebody had to produce each card separately, or the sheer availability of online information in the current age, which makes it easy for people to take for granted the fact that somebody somewhere has put it there.

This all changed when I started to work with a mentor in the library, who helpfully organised a rotation within most library departments to offer me an insight into how a library pieces together. The cataloguing department went out of their way to introduce me to the fundamentals of a catalogue, how they do what they do, and more importantly why. It was at this point I started to take a great deal of notice of the information communicated to me via a catalogue.

I can safely say I had never gained any pleasure from work which required following rules repeatedly, yet I found cataloguing was different: there wasn’t just one set of rules there was a variety, each made to apply differently to every individual item. In addition to this, the process required me to draw on this knowledge and make informed decisions. When I spoke to friends and family about my work in the department I felt the need to expand on what they thought of as ‘just cataloguing’ and explain the intricacies of the work and how important the role of the cataloguer is. Personally, it was a surprise that the work I have been involved in was motivating and enjoyable as I had never really experienced people talk of cataloguing in this way. Instead, colleagues eagerly spoke about digitisation projects and emerging new technologies, and sadly traditional cataloguing wasn’t portrayed to me as important as other areas of librarianship.

I have found through working in cataloguing departments and seeing cataloguers communicate via blogs, twitter and forums, that it is a profession to be passionate about. The next step is to show others how important the profession is. I have unquestionably had my eyes opened to the importance of communicating consistent practical information to a library user because without it they would be lost. I am sure the absence of information would cause library users to think about who is responsible for the information they need.

The cataloguing experience I have now gained, making part of the Corvey Collection available for online use for the first time and retrospective cataloguing at The London Library, has opened up a range of opportunities. Being involved in both traditional cataloguing and a digitisation project has given me the experience of a variety of roles and although quite different, both of these projects are vital to their respective libraries. I have also found that applying a fresh set of eyes to cataloguing has led to lively discussions in the workplace over standards and practices.

I have felt overshadowed at times by the sheer amount of fellow new professionals in the same position as me who want to gain experience in libraries. Fortunately, the encouragement I received at the Adsetts Centre to persevere with cataloguing meant my cataloguing experience has proved very useful and I now possess a very transferable skill. The enthusiasm I have been met with within the field has suggested to me that cataloguing isn’t promoted enough within the profession, especially to new professionals. I feel cataloguing needs to be portrayed as something to embrace, not something to be scared of. Within my MA I encouraged fellow students to start looking at OPAC records in MARC format to help them understand how the theory works in practice and gain confidence in an area which they initially found intimidating. Promoting cataloguing to fellow new professionals has sometimes fallen on deaf ears but a small number now see it is as a possible career path. Highlighting the current issues and advances in the field is crucial to those within the profession, and also those outside who believe cataloguing to be outdated and a possible area for out-sourcing.”

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Laura Steel permalink
    May 18, 2011 8:29 am

    Really interesting post. I did a lot of cataloguing during my graduate traineeship, but it wasn’t promoted at all during my course at Sheffield. All we had were a few practical sessions towards the end of the course. I haven’t done any cataloguing for ages and I quite miss it!

    • May 18, 2011 8:39 am

      Thank you! I’d say the best thing to try then is to maybe ask around a few places and see if they would like a volunteer? I’d really like to make sure my skills dont disappear if I don’t find a position where it is required and I’m hoping to write to a few places. It’s good to hear you say you miss it though as some people really detest it!

  2. May 19, 2012 3:16 pm

    Thank you – this is a really useful post and definitely food for thought.


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