This semester I’m taking my last introductory course in UW-Madison’s program – a class called Organization of Information, or in other words, basic cataloging/metadata/resource description/organization all in one. The class covers a little bit of everything related to description and organization. I even had to teach myself HTML and CSS for this class, so it’s a lot more than just learning MARC or some other metadata schema. Before this course, I had done resource description in various capacities at work, but I didn’t know much about the history behind the way we do resource description in the LIS world and FRBR (Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records) and BIBFRAME (Bibliographic Framework) were not in my vocabulary. I was and still am a cataloging newbie.
Cataloging vs. metadata creation
One of the things you wonder about when you’re a cataloging newb is why people are always talking about metadata creation and cataloging like they’re two different things. Turns out, when you ask people about the difference, most of them will tell you that there is no difference! But, that’s sort of a truth and a fib rolled into one. You don’t need to take a cataloging, metadata or introductory organization of information class to realize that most of the distinction boils down to stereotypes about what a cataloger does vs. what a metadata librarian does, as opposed to any fundamental differences. I suspect (and hope) that this will change as time goes on and cataloging practices evolve.
Are we overcomplicating things?
Another thing you spend a lot of time thinking about when you’re a cataloging newb is how overcomplicated some methods of resource description feel – especially MARC. I don’t mean to pick on MARC in particular, but let’s face it, it’s still pretty central to resource description in libraries and it’s not exactly easy to learn. Do we really need to indicate that an item is a video in three slightly different ways in three slightly different MARC fields in the same record? What the heck is a “main entry”? We’re going to use numbers to signify different fields? Really? MARC’s field tags alone are enough to make me want to hold on to Dublin Core for dear life. Initially, I think at least some of my confusion stemmed from the fact that I have never been in a position where I relied heavily on a card catalog for information. Sure, I’ve used them before, but I didn’t fully understand how the card catalog lives on in online catalogs through our use of the MARC format until I took this class. Karen Coyle’s recent article does a great job explaining some of this history. If you want to get really fired up about FRBR, I also highly recommend her talk “Mistakes Have Been Made”.
Is this helpful to users?
Finally, as a cataloging newbie, I’ve often wondered whether or not the descriptions we librarians create and the organizational systems we employ are actually useful. They’re obviously intended to help people find things, but I think we should be critical of our own practices if we want to make them better. Sarah Hume wrote two fantastic posts for HLS about the ways in which Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) and Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) are biased and problematic. Another issue with LCSH and DDC is that they don’t seem in step with how users actually think and speak, which I have to believe hinders a user’s ability to find information efficiently. Yet, we’re still using them with no sign of stopping. Needless to say, a certain amount of skepticism comes with being a newbie cataloger, and that’s probably a good thing.
For more information on cataloging courses in library school check out these other HLS posts: