Editor’s note: This article was originally published June 4, 2014.
For the next installment in our technical services mini-series, I’m delighted to introduce long-time HLS commenters and all-around great guys, Jason W. Dean and Elliot D. Williams. When I was first starting library school, I basically cold-called both Elliot and Jason to ask about their experiences and advice, and they’ve both been incredibly generous with their time and encouragement, so I couldn’t resist asking them few more questions on behalf of HLS readers. Jason is the Head of the Special Formats Cataloging Unit at the University of Arkansas Libraries in Fayetteville, and Elliot is the Metadata Librarian at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, FL.
Please note: I’ve edited their responses slightly for length.
First of all, tell us a little about your background.
Elliot: I think the most important piece of context for this conversation is that when I was in grad school at the University of Texas iSchool, I was absolutely sure that I was going to be an archivist. Aside from our 3 required courses, everything I did was focused on archives, including my coursework, internships, and capstone project. When I graduated a year ago, I applied for my current job mostly on a whim, not thinking I would even be considered, but I ended up being offered the job. So all of my thoughts about cataloging and technical services come from the perspective of someone who ended up here somewhat accidentally – but I’m very happy I did! In my current position, I do a wide range of things, including cataloging (both original and copy), making sure the electronic resources we license from vendors show up in our catalog, processing government documents, and I’m hoping to start doing some work with our rare books and archival materials soon. Because we’re such a small library, I also do some reference and instruction.
Jason: I was very fortunate to volunteer at the research library of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Sherman Clarke was there, and trained Sam Duncan, the current library director there. I call myself Sherman’s cataloging grandchild. Sherman is something akin to the god of art library cataloging. During my time at the Carter, I was very fortunate to have the staff there train me in a variety of areas, including copy and original cataloging. The practical application of cataloging and classification theory is paramount to understanding why and how one works in this arena. Beyond my time at the Carter, I created (with the help of my now colleagues at the University of Arkansas Libraries) the library catalog for Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in about 10 months. That was a very intense and stressful experience – but one which I am glad to have done. This entailed my working with the existing system (then III’s Millennium) as well as a third party to generate and load about 30,000 records for “opening day,” then cataloging the color plate book collection – another education by necessity in rare book cataloging and librarianship. I started the position I am in now about a year ago and head a unit responsible for theses, dissertations, non-music media, digital collections metadata, and some rare books and special collections materials. I am also a member of the international working group to revise the standards for the creation of the ISBN.
What kinds of coursework and opportunities were available to you at Syracuse and UT Austin? Was there anything in particular you did in school that prepared you well to get to your current positions?
Jason: Well, thinking back to my classes, Barbara Kwasnik’s Theory and Practice of Classification & Subject Representation was probably one of the most helpful classes to me. Syracuse is still associated with cataloging instruction (maybe because it hosts AUTOCAT?) – but is also one of the most forward-thinking library/information schools that I am aware of. This mix of traditional and “progressive” focus makes Syracuse a really great place to attend, especially for someone with an interest in library data and cataloging. I had fundamentals and advanced cataloging, which were helpful too. To circle back to my previous answer, the work I did in class was nice – but it tends to be in a vacuum. Cataloging is learned in the doing. That said, doing without the appropriate theoretical and contextual knowledge is very dangerous. And learning how to “do” with a very knowledgeable person is extremely important – learning the rules and resources that apply to a given problem supporting their answers.
The other thought that occurs to me if one desires to be a truly great cataloger, that you must give up any idea of perfection in your work. A great example of this for me were the nursery catalogs I published about in ArtDocumentation. That was a continuing process – you learn what works best, you see what else is out there, discuss, adjust, and so on. One always strives for perfection, but it is never attained – like a library mirage, perhaps? The thing you think you did well will early on will not be nearly as good as what you do a few years into your career. Of course, I find that very compelling – that one is always learning, and that being a cataloger fuels one’s curiosity. It enables you to learn about so many different things – electronic file formats, rare book bindings and publishing, and so on.
Elliot: The only official “cataloging” course at Austin was offered online during the summer… and I didn’t take it. I did take a general class on resource description called Organizing Information that covered a lot of the theoretical basics and touched on some trends in library metadata (like the approach of RDA). As I mentioned above, I mostly took classes that dealt with archives, but that obviously includes a lot of metadata. Digitization and digital archives classes introduced a variety of types of metadata, including things that are part of my work now, like Dublin Core. I also got experience working with the building blocks of library metadata while doing archival processing in my internships, things like LC subject headings and MARC records.
I absolutely agree with Jason that coursework in cataloging is only going to take you so far. What matters is knowing where to look for the rules to solve the problem in front of you, whether it’s RDA or the MARC standard or the Subject Headings Manual. Having that basic knowledge about what rules and standards are out there is essential, but equally important is knowing when and how to use them. And that is something that I think cuts across all of the information subfields — we all learn how to identify and follow the standards that are relevant to what we are doing. So I think one of the most important things, again going back to what Jason says above, is the willingness to continue seeking out that information, and a sense of enthusiasm about facing a new problem that you need to solve.
I have absolutely found it true in my own experience that it’s essential to go above and beyond coursework in seeking out the people and resources that will help you develop your skills. That said, I find it somewhat surprising that the refrain I constantly hear in conference panels and job ads is…
… at the same time that coursework requirements in these areas seem to be going by the wayside at more and more library programs. So what do you think about the training that MLIS students are (or aren’t) receiving now?
Elliot: For me, the most important thing to focus on is improving education about how cataloging and metadata work as a system – how all of the pieces come together to create the catalog record (or other representation) that a user or a librarian interacts with. I think a lot of students (I was one of them) expect a cataloging class to just be endlessly learning AACR2/RDA rules, but as I said above, that is something that anyone with an LIS education should be able to do. RDA and MARC really aren’t that difficult to pick up, if you’re willing to learn. More important, I think, is learning how the different parts of the metadata ecosystem work together — things like learning how an ILS works on the back-end, or what KBART is, or what exactly OCLC’s role is in the library world, or what role linked open data could play.
Coincidentally, a lot of those things are also the sort of topics that come up in coursework throughout library & information studies, which I think is wonderful and can help more students think about technical services as part of their career trajectory. We just need to connect the dots and make it clear how much all kinds of different issues come into play in technical services.
Jason: There really is no formal training. So many library school graduates do just the required cataloging – the Information Resources: Organization and Access course. I am glad that this is required, but it’s just not enough. I’ll be the first to admit the catalog and MARC are arcane, but they are what we have – and the successful and effective librarian will at least know how to manipulate the data held in our catalogs and associated repositories to connect users with that which they seek. There is a profound difference between “this is what a subject heading is” and how to structure and use a subject heading. Or, how to browse by classification number in the catalog! Catalog history is immensely important to successfully using the catalog. Yes, catalogs are online, but are based on a theoretical framework that Charles A. Cutter created over a century ago. MARC and AACR2/ISBD (and even somewhat RDA) are structured to display information on a card. Not knowing why, and how, things work gives those in library school an immense disadvantage.
Also, let’s think about the future of library metadata too. There’s a great deal of interest in the potential replacement for MARC, called BIBFRAME. It has a great deal of potential, but what happens to that “legacy” metadata in library catalogs and WorldCat? We need to understand how to work with these data in order to move them into newer formats. Also, an understanding of MARC is key if one wants a much wider harmonious metadata ecosystem – one comprised of the catalog, databases, digital collections, and so on. That’s really the only way to make discovery engines work effectively.
As we all know, librarianship is a profession full of stereotypes. There are some common misconceptions about cataloging and technical services, both within librarianship and among the public – how do you like to address those?
Jason: I think that there is a misperception of catalogers and technical services folks that we are all rule-bound, unimaginative, and boring, and that only second-rate librarians choose this career path. I think this is largely the result of how seamless we make the library technical side of things appear to the end user. This subset of librarians is on the whole just as intelligent and capable as our colleagues that are more directly public-facing. We also are very social, and most of the younger cataloging and technical services folks I know enjoy a glass of bourbon now and again.
Elliot: The folks I know in technical services, both in person and online, are just as passionate about librarianship and our mission as the rest of our colleagues, plus just as hilarious and charming. So many of the technical services folks I know are doing really cool, innovative projects, and addressing some of the really fundamental issues that we face as a profession. I mean, for all of the rancorous (and sometimes excessive) debate about RDA, it’s really a huge step that the cataloging community is taking, and one that I think we should celebrate as a real innovation.
That’s a great note to wrap up on – since tech services are obviously about much more than coming up with some Cutter numbers or wrangling subject headings, tell us about an awesome recent or current project you’ve been working on.
Jason: I feel like I keep harping on this project, but it’s one I am especially proud of: the Colonial Arkansas Post Ancestry project. The project is based largely on the personal papers of Dorothy Jones Core, held in special collections here. Core was interested in the genealogy and ancestry of families that lived at or were associated with Arkansas Post, one of a myriad of posts and settlements established by the French to legitimize their claims to the Mississippi River. Our work in establishing controlled forms of family and place names, as well as in transcribing and translating these documents will make CAPA a key resource for users examining either genealogy or early Euro-Arkansas history. This part was especially challenging, as the Post was first French, then Spanish – with the resulting written record being a unique melange of those languages and spellings. Bringing a level of consistent description and access through the creation and application of controlled vocabulary to places and names was both challenging and fascinating to me as a librarian and a historian. Of course, having one of the largest repositories of Arkansas related materials one floor down made that work far easier.
Elliot: Jason – that project sounds awesome! The big project that consumed most of my spring semester was slightly less impressive, but still something I’m fairly proud of. With the help of my student workers, I reclassified our library’s collection of DVDs and video games (around 1,000 items). The collection had been shelved by title, but it had gotten large enough that a better system was needed. We decided to start classifying the collection using LC classification, but quickly realized that LC doesn’t really handle fiction movies very well. I designed a system based on existing LC numbers, but with local modifications so that our fiction movies are shelved by country, and then sub-divided by genre. So much of what we do as catalogers involves following rules that other people have established, so it was a fun challenge to set up a system of my own, thinking through the possibilities and trying to determine what would be the most useful for this collection and group of users. The actual reclassification itself did involve a whole lot of wrangling Cutter numbers, but also gave me a chance to think a lot about movie genres, what a genre is, and how we separate movies into generic categories. It was one of the nice moments when some interesting theoretical questions about organization and classification, both in libraries and in the world at large, come head-to-head with immediate practical concerns.
Thanks, Elliot and Jason!