Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Grim Outlook for Cataloging

There is a lot of talk these days about the "future of cataloging". For those of you who don't know about cataloging--it's the creation of information about other pieces of information--books, computer files, media, etc. The more hip term for this kind of work these days is "metadata". We do this so that you, the public, can locate this information. If it's described consistently, you will know how to search for it.

I have seen many library science folks argue that "doing metadata" is not the same as "doing cataloging". That's a load of horsesh**t. True, there are different "schemes" outside of the MARC/AACR2 structure that most of us have come to know and love (or hate) in the library world. Virtual objects don't lend themselves to being described by standards written for physical books. But that fact that the schema and tools are new does not change that fact that you are basically describing and classifying data in an organized and consistent fashion. That's still cataloging, folks.

I am not looking forward to teaching cataloging this semester. AACR2 (the "old" cataloging rules) are going to be replaced next year by RDA (the "new" cataloging rules). Logically, I should stop with AACR2 now and start working on teaching RDA. The problem is that there's still nothing to teach. Sure, there are "drafts" of RDA available on the website for the group charged with writing the rules. I have read over these drafts. I have observed two things about them: 1. They look exactly like AACR2 rules re-arranged with slightly different wording, and 2. No one can figure out how they are practically applied. Which means that RDA will come out, and people will continue to do things the way they always have--according to AACR2. They say that RDA will have a "workflow" function that should work the same way as a "wizard" in a Microsoft Office application--it walks you through the process. That's good to hear, but no one knows yet what this looks like, or if it will be as helpful as they say. I do think it's a case of the Emperor's new clothes--a lot of talk about what's new, but nothing's really there.

Given other things happening in the library field today, I do not understand why we would bother rewriting the rules for books. Allow me to explain. In the world of Integrated Library Systems, there are complaints about the fact that most ILSs are designed to inventory books--keep a list, search it, check the book in, check it out, mark it missing, whatever. People need to do other things--they have digital collections, electronic databases, serials products--and they want their ILS to have all of these things, too. It has been generally agreed that Integrated Library Systems are dis-integrating--there is no way they can keep up with and develop all of these separate technologies. So, it has been determined that the best route to go is one of interoperability--different vendors will develop the different pieces, and they should be standardized enough that they can work together relatively seamlessly.

My point is that if ILS vendors and system experts agree that there is no one solution for library data, why do librarians think there is one solution for library data? Why can't they leave AACR2 alone and develop different rules for virtual materials? MARC format may be an issue, since no one uses it but libraries--but with things like MARCXML, or some other form of conversion structure, MARC data ought to be usable on the Web. C'mon folks--there are over 1 billion MARC records out there. You're telling me that no one can develop technology to use these? We've been focused on doing things the other way around. We should also be focused on data interoperability, instead of trying to re-invent the wheel. No standard is going to cover everything; why not develop different standards and make them work together?

I was also disappointed recently by one of the ALA subcommittees, who wrote about the new "IT competencies" for metadata librarians. Two things stood out to me on their list--knowledge of XML and knowledge of Perl scripting. Anyone want to tell me why I should learn either of these things? I don't need to know HTML to author a Web page--just a few HTML basics are enough. I do XML now via cut and paste. And why Perl, the outdated programming language of ILS reporting systems? I also noted that they said a knowledge of cataloging is "helpful but unnecessary". OK, you may not need AACR2 to write digital object metadata, but you still need to understand the principles of cataloging. What I see here is newer techie types coming in, who despise all of the detail of cataloging and don't understand it, and re-writing things to make them more "techie" and supposedly more "user-friendly" for new librarians. To be a cataloger in the future, you apparently need to know Web design, Web protocols, and programming languages in addition to library standards. And I'm betting they're not going to pay you any more than the crappy $50,000 per year salaries they pay now. If I could do even one of those additional things well, I could make at least $80,000 somewhere else besides a library. The writing is on the wall--those of us with cataloging skills can either become underpaid tech-heads or retire. I'm too young to retire, and I refuse to become a tech-head--not because I can't figure out the technology, but because I just don't like doing it. I know that most of the world spends their time working at something they're not crazy about, but I'm not basing my future career on something I'm not crazy about.

So, the future of cataloging looks bleak and confusing. We have a new set of standards and tools being put in place that don't seem very revolutionary, and yet the hype says they are. You will have libraries that will continue to do things the way they always have, in spite of changes, because they will be sucked into this digital maelstrom with the rest of us. If anyone wants career advancement, they will have to deal with administrators who will believe ALA's tripe about competencies, and no one will hire you if you're not a programmer/Web designer. Librarianship will not be about handling books any longer, even though libraries will continue to buy them.

I have dropped out of NJLA and ALA, and this will be my last semester teaching library school. I hope to bail from the field entirely in the next few years. The things I love the most about being a librarian are going away, whether it makes sense or not, and I have no delusions about this, and I do not believe that I am overreacting. 15 years is a good run for a career, and I won't be the first or last person who has to face obsolescence.


Alice said...

While I think RDA will (hopefully) be simpler and more flexible (i.e., not needing main access points), I agree with you that it's not a big fat deal. They're just making it easier to describe what needs to be described.

And at any rate, as long as MARC is still in effect, it will be able to translate cataloguing records for uses other than traditional library uses. Right? That has hardly changed.

I'm with you in not seeing the big deal. I describe information, my patrons find it. It's what the library has always done.

shermaniac said...

I happened on your essay while trying to find an image mentioned on the RADCAT list. Your overall message really hits home. I get real excited by some of the new stuff, the ease of using it (like your use of HTML without knowing a whole lot about it), love to use MARC but recognize it can be an impediment in certain ways, love talking about how cataloging rules, authority stuff, etc. At the same time, I have too recently had too many discussions that were rigidly MARC. All of this is leading me in the direction of moving on.

nan said...

Wow -- I'm new to library work (having already had a 20-year career, mostly in journalism) and it seems like it would be a damned shame if someone so smart and commonsensical left the field. But even though I don't yet understand all the ins and outs of the field (all I've done so far is copy cataloging), I can understand your frustration. It's very interesting, too, to see the tension between the need for One Big System that everyone uses/can understand (for obvious reasons) and the need for flexibility to accomodate all kinds of collections, institutions, individuals and attitudes (also for obvious reasons, human beings being what we are).

Jennifer Hanson said...

I'm sad to hear you're moving on, but totally understand the frustration (at least, as much as I can as an MLIS student hoping to get into the field). I'm now quite grateful that I didn't wait to take cataloging and got to take your class in it.

gypsyharper said...

I absolutely share your frustration with people who insist that "cataloging" and "metadata" are different. And the idea that knowledge of cataloging is "helpful but unnecessary". Sure, not everybody needs to know the rules of AACR2 inside and out, but cataloging is more than a set of rules - it's describing something so that people are able to find it, and that remains true and necessary regardless of what shiny new schema you wrap that description in.

I imagine we could make progress much faster as a profession if people would stop trying to throw the baby out with the bathwater.