Thursday 12 January 2012

Libraries@Cambridge 2012 - some thoughts

My unofficial New Year's resolution is to use this blog for more frequent updates. I really did mean to continue it after cpd23 but real life (and my dissertation) got in the way and I couldn't find any inspiration.

However, today I attended the libraries@cambridge conference and I thought that I'd share my thoughts on the day. Having recently bought a new phone which is actually capable of Internet access (!) I did some tweeting from the conference which can be seen on my Twitter account, @ces43 . Please remember if you read these that this was my first time tweeting from a conference and I've only had my new phone for three days which means I don't know where all the buttons are! This all means that there are probably more mistakes than useful comments. Since I work in cataloguing I'm going to pick out the points that appealed to me as a cataloguer but please remember that this is just one perspective.

The conference began with a key note address by Deborah Shorely of Imperial College, London. The theme of her talk was the survival of the fittest and it made for some harsh listening. It wasn't anything that we haven't heard before but still got the conference off on a downbeat note for me. Some of Deborah's points I was on board with, such as the crucial need to get information to people. She said that we need to find what users need, how and when and then find ways to give it to them. Not exactly news since libraries have been doing this for centuries, admittedly sometimes with more success than at others. Today this might mean electronic resources but libraries have traditionally done this with books for a long time now.

I did feel that Deborah was overly critical of the role that cataloguers have to play in the future of the library. She described them as being like "turkeys at Christmas", nice and traditional but not always worth the fuss. To give her her due she did say that some of her comments might offend but I was a little worried to see the nods coming from around the room at this statement. I think that the role of cataloguers in libraries is seriously undervalued and attitudes like this don't help. Cataloguers have been around pretty much since the invention of libraries and some would say this makes us an outdated species, but I would argue that there's a reason that we've been around so long - we are needed.

Yes, I take the point that too much duplication of effort in cataloguing is a waste of time but things can and are being done to improve this. There is also a definite issue of quality. Some of the catalogue records out there are extremely poor or just plain wrong. Having more than one source check them helps to correct errors and can add more knowledge about subject headings etc. which can only add to the 'findability' of an item. Just blindly downloading or accepting records does our users no favours at all. Different libraries know their users and their needs and can adapt the cataloguing processes accordingly. I think that some things do need to change but there are several people trying to change them. Maybe the problem is that this attitude is not always projected outwards so many people still see us as the ancient dragons in the back of the library that are redundant. Hopefully projects such as the High Visibility Cataloguing Initiative will help to change this view.

Deborah also said that owning collections was not the point of libraries, promoting them was. Again, here I would argue that cataloguers have a valuable role to play. The catalogue record is the most basic form of promotion for an item. If it isn't catalogued, and catalogued well, then users won't be able to find it. Overall I was disappointed with the keynote speech but maybe that was because it hit on some unpleasant truths that I would rather not have to face?

I also attended the session which focused on the digital library. For an excellent summary see the official conference blog, which also features live blogs on the other two parallel sessions. The session outlined the progress of the Cambridge Digital Library project and then moved on to guest speaker Christy Henshaw of the Wellcome Trust, who talked about the ongoing project to put the Trust's medical archives online. One of the most interesting points that she made was about the need to protect sensitive materials during the digitization process. It was explained that the team have so much to digitize that they don't have time to go through all of the documents page by page. Instead, they rely on the metadata that accompanies the item to determine if there could be any cause for concern. This process relies very heavily on the quality of the cataloguing and highlights the importance of the process. I have always thought when hearing people talking about digital projects that they were missing this very fundamental point - any digitization project starts with a catalogue record. If there is no record then material cannot be found to be digitized. I was relieved to see someone bringing up the importance of quality cataloguing in this session.

The afternoon session again made some positive points about cataloguing. It focused on the library from the users point of view. Several members of the academic community were invited to come and talk to a room full of librarians about what they wanted from the library. I think this was a brilliant idea and I don't know why it doesn't happen more often! One of the points made was that the variety of digitization projects increases the pressure on libraries to actually look at what they have and catalogue it in preparation for digitization. This links back to the point made above that digitization projects have to start with a catalogue record as a way to find the material you want to digitize. The fact that this came from a library user was very positive.

Another point made in relation to cataloguing was that libraries who supply copy specific information in their catalogue records actually enrich the research process for the user. This was referring more to special collections in terms of things like former owners and notes, but still has some relevance to what I was saying above about different libraries needing different things from a catalogue record. The actual phrase used was that cataloguing the intricacies of individual copies "can unlock the buried potential in works". I think that this is an excellent point which is well worth making. Catalogue records can provide a way into information and enrich the source in so many ways. Without proper subject analysis in a record the book may never be read since the title seemingly bares no relation to the topic. Someone just browsing titles may end up missing the resource with that vital bit of information that they need. This again for me highlighted the importance that cataloguers continue to play in libraries and that it came from a user was very heartening.

Overall I came away feeling much more positive than I thought I was going to after the opening sessions. I think that what people forget when looking at all the new innovations in the library world, as wonderful as they are, is that you have to start somewhere. We cannot view cataloguers as outdated in a modern world just because they have been around a long time. Maybe the reason that they have been around so long is that they are more important than people think?

photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc


  1. Great post (and tweets)... may your resolution last throughout the year

  2. Thanks for the comment. Will try to keep up but unfortunately for anyone reading, the blog is likley to focus on my dissertation for at least a little while! It is library related though ...

  3. I don't think that cataloguers should have been thrown into despair by Debbie Shorley's comments. Taken along with Jason Scott-Warren's remarks in the afternoon, which had many of us nodding too, it was a plea to focus on the work that really matters to our users and to look hard at the remaining duplication of effort in libraries, which still includes some cataloguing, and work towards releasing that capacity to take on the new challenges that confront us.

    As someone working largely with the digital library I am astonished that anyone can see a dark future for cataloguers since the growth in digital content and proliferation of content types in libraries means that there is a much enhanced role for cataloguers, so long as they are thinking more widely about metadata requirements and acquiring the skills to match them. The UL advertised another full-time metadata role for the digital library just before Christmas. The number of opportunities for cataloguers who are keen to take on this kind of intellectually challenging resource description role is growing. So long as libraries are offering content, physical or virtual, we will need to describe it.

  4. Well, precisely. I think a large part of the problem for me was the use of "cataloguers" rather than "cataloguing practices" or "current cataloguing processes" or similar. To say "cataloguers are like turkeys at Christmas" sends a very different message from what Jason said, what Patricia said or what an awful lot of people currently cataloguing actually believe. I've been arguing for less duplication of effort and streamlined procedures using available work from other sources for 10 years.

    I might just have to write a blog post to put it more eloquently.

  5. Thanks for the comments Patricia and Celine. It's reassuring that someone who works in the 'newer' digital side of libraries appreciates the work that cataloguers do. I'm not saying for one moment that others don't but maybe it's not expressed often enough in libraries today. That was one of the things that I found refreshing to hear yesterday. I guess the same is also true of a lot of behind the scenes work that goes on in libraries, seemingly unnoticed by the users and to some extent colleagues. I'm sure that this happens a lot in the IT departments as well.

    I think that what upset a lot of the cataloguers who were at the conference was that we do feel under-appreciated a lot of the time. To be reminded of it at a conference on our 'home turf' just got to a lot of people. But that's a good thing. Maybe cataloguers need to see the way they are perceived and do something to change it. That's why I really like the point about cataloguers needing to think more widely about their skill set and how it can be applied outside the traditional cataloguing role. As Celine points out, I don't think that there is enough appreciation inside the cataloguing community for what we do so it is hardly surprising that there is sometimes a lack of support from outside.

    I think that to a large extent it’s about thinking outside the box and getting out of habits. A lot of the duplication of effort happens because many cataloguers, myself included in this, are comfortable with what they do now. People don't always see the need to change, even when the change is a good thing. Hopefully this will begin to change when we are forced by necessity to adapt our roles. I suppose this is where the survival of the fittest point that Debbie was making comes in.

    One interesting point came up when I was discussing yesterday with a colleague who was also at the conference. She appreciated the points made and saw the need for change but wondered how to make it happen. Cataloguers need to involve themselves in the transition so that they are there when the new developments are happening rather than hearing about everything later and then wondering how to contribute. Maybe this is something for us to think about in the future.