This past summer, I took a Digital Collections Institute course. It was a one week, all day intensive course that delved into all aspects of the digital collections lifecycle, and touched on curation, crowdsourcing, digitization and collection maintenance. Going into this course, I expected to gain a greater understanding of the challenges that come with making collections available online. What I didn’t expect was to be told time and time again–by my professor, and by several guest speakers–the importance of cataloging and metadata.
Having planned to take my university’s metadata course in the fall, I had no trouble connecting its importance to the creation of digital collections. It seems, to me, almost obvious that metadata is the only thing standing between a collection being discovered by users or fading into digital oblivion. But cataloging? The thought of it brings up images of catalogers dutifully entering bibliographic metadata into MARC encoded records, and rows and rows of monographs setting on shelves, waiting to be discovered. The reality is that we don’t only catalog books anymore. Born digital materials abound, challenging library professionals to find ways to make them discoverable. The way we do this is based in traditional cataloging techniques; tweaking existing encoding schemas to better describe these digital materials. So many of our library school courses now focus on the creation, curation and maintenance of digital collections. But I was surprised to discover that basic courses in cataloging and metadata are not required courses in my program.
Taking this course over the past summer, and listening to guest speakers urge over and over again the importance of traditional cataloging, classification and metadata: if you don’t know how we have traditionally cataloged materials, you have no frame of reference with which to catalog anything else, including digital objects. This really resonated with me, and prompted me to take both metadata and cataloging/classification courses this semester. Curious, I asked my fellow hackers to weigh in on the topic. Are metadata and cataloging–seemingly such fundamental subjects in our discipline–required courses at other schools?
For most, the answer was a resounding no. While cataloging and metadata topics may be covered in some required, introductory LIS courses, they don’t tend to be required when covered as a topic on their own. They may also go by many different names: “Introduction to Bibliographic Metadata,” “Metadata Creation for Information Organization,” or simply “Organization of Information.” To me, the variety in names is a little misleading. Those who are only interested in describing digital objects may shy away from a course with “bibliographic” in the title, when bibliographic metadata is really just a jumping off point for describing digital objects. On the other hand, “Organization of Information” may be too vague and open-ended, and there may be concern whether certain cataloging, classification and metadata subjects may be covered.
Of course, it is on the student to research their program thoroughly, and to communicate with their adviser when planning their education to make sure they are getting what they need out of their coursework. At the same time, it is interesting that such fundamental concepts in our profession are not always required for us to learn. While libraries, archives and museums continue to evolve beyond their original purposes, does that eliminate the need for us to know how to organize materials for those institutions?
Special thanks to hackers Jessica Colbert, Nisha Mody, Amy Cross-Menzies and Chezlani Cesar for contributing to the conversation on this topic.