In the past, I had been hesitant to declare a strong career interest in metadata and cataloging (I even wrote about my desire for an interdisciplinary library school curriculum for HLS before). But after a great summer internship in an academic library’s technical services department, I not only confirmed my personal career interest in cataloging, but I also learned a lot about the value of a well-cataloged collection and the importance of understanding fundamentals about how library catalogs work.
Most MLIS programs require some kind of introductory cataloging class, whether they call it Information Organization or Metadata or Resource Description or something else—and for good reason. Many MLIS students seem to take away that cataloging isn’t their calling from these courses. This is a fine and useful lesson, but I would encourage other students to take learning cataloging and metadata work seriously anyway. Even if you don’t see yourself in a technical services position in your future career, there are many useful lessons about how libraries and their catalogs operate that are useful no matter what your specialization in libraries is. Here are some of the main lessons I learned about the importance of cataloging:
1. Cataloging improves your search skills
Much of cataloging involves searching for books in your own library’s catalog or in tools like OCLC’s Connexion to determine if you can copy an existing record for a resource or if you have to create an original one. If you don’t find existing records, then original cataloging can really slow down your cataloging speed. As a result, your search skills need to be top notch—and you’ll get more experience developing different search strategies, such as by ISBN, title, author, and more, which you might not always use when searching the library catalog for your own personal research. In other words, keyword searching for a research project is quite different from searching for a particular manifestation of a particular book.
2. Cataloging helps you understand the differences between works, expressions, manifestations, and items
You might learn about the WEMI (Work, Expression, Manifestation, Item) model in your MLIS classes, but it’s a really fundamental framework that starts to make more sense through the practice of cataloging. Copy cataloging will give you great experience with how to differentiate the book in your hand from all of the various manifestations of that work, as well as what fields to look for to identify the manifestation, such as edition statements, page counts, and other notes.
3. Cataloging makes classification systems more clear
Most of us can read a call number and find its place in the library, but it takes much more knowledge and skill to be able to assign classification numbers and understand their relationship to subject headings. Having to assign call numbers can teach you a lot about your library’s general classification system, and one resource’s relationship to others. For example, when I was cataloging books for a relatively small section of art books, I was able to search for similar books to assign call numbers that would place a new resource in a section that made sense for this particular collection. This practice was more informative to me than if all of the books I worked with had pre-assigned Library of Congress call numbers.
4. Cataloging exemplifies how behind-the-scenes work is still service-oriented
Access is everything in libraries, and reference and circulation workers can’t do their job properly without a catalog. Cataloging may happen behind-the-scenes, but like other library jobs, its main purpose is always to increase access to information. Getting a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes work that goes on in technical services departments can make you more aware and appreciative of all the other library workers who may not be directly engaging with the public, but still doing important work daily to serve their users.
Featured image by AKT.UZ: Axborot-kutubxona tizimlar on Flickr.