Why Every Future Librarian Should Take Learning Cataloging Seriously

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. 

Paige Szmodis is an online, second-year MLIS student at Simmons University in the Cultural Heritage Informatics concentration. You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Featured image by AKT.UZ: Axborot-kutubxona tizimlar on Flickr.

7 replies

  1. Good morning. I took 5 cataloguing courses in my Library Technician Diploma Program. From my first class to my last, I never thought I would catalogue as part of my job. Now 25 years later, I have a half-time job cataloguing materials for my school district, plus I am responsible for a resource library. I thoroughly enjoy my cataloguing job.

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  2. I’m currently in an MLIS program and I have taken Cataloging and Metadata. It seems like most of my peers hated cataloging and have no interest in metadata. I loved both courses! I’m interested in DAM and digital librarianship and wish there were more related courses offered in my program.

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    • It seems like people either love or hate cataloging based on what my classmates say too! I’m interested in digital libraries/DAM as well, and think it’s a great intersection with cataloging and metadata work.

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  3. I got my MLS in 1993 from UCLA, and back then, every MLS student regardless of their concentration goal was required to take 2 cataloguing courses, descriptive and subject. I hated them at the time as it was not my interest, but in the 28 years of professional academic librarianship practice ever since, I have been grateful for them, for exactly the reasons articulated in this post. When I started hearing that most recent graduates have not had any such requirement, or could take courses in topics like GIS metadata in lieu of traditional cataloguing, I realized that the education arm of our profession has gone astray and some younger librarians I have worked with have demonstrated that failure in their lack of understanding of elements that I take for granted as core to our professional knowledge, to the ultimate detriment of our patrons.

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  4. While earning my MLS in the early 2000s, I worked in an academic library and was fortunate to work with a librarian who encouraged me to take a couple of cataloging classes for exactly the reasons you posted. Best MLS-related advice ever, especially as someone who definitely does NOT have the makings of a cataloger! I encourage any MLS student I meet to do the same. Having worked predominately in Circulation and Resource Sharing in the 12 years since receiving my degree, what I learned in those classes has helped immensely.

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  5. I work in a public library and they outsource the books. Unfortunately there is no job left as a cataloguers. It is very sad to see that. I am in Library Tech Diplomas and have done some cataloguing and actually I like it. Hopefully some day I can do some cataloguing.

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  6. Great post, Paige! I wish I was in Cataloguing this quarter but I am taking a Indexing/Thesaurus construction course and plan to take Metadata design next quarter. I am seeing how these courses help in so many ways and for many future career paths.

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