Thursday 15 March 2012

Problems of Cataloguing in Higher Education - a CIG/ARLG event

Last night I attended the CIG/ARLG joint seminar in London. The topic was "The Problems of Cataloguing in Higher Education", which immediately appealed to me since it's relevant to my everyday job as a cataloguer in a university library. Robin Armstrong-Viner from the University of Kent gave the main presentation.

The current economic situation isn't news for anyone, but it has brought a lot of issues to a head. Everyone is under pressure to perform and libraries are by no means excluded from this. Cataloguing departments are sadly amongst some of the first areas targeted for cuts in organisations looking for ways to save money. One of the first questions that Robin asked was what level of value does cataloguing add for our users? He has calculated that, depending on the grade of the staff involved, each item costs between £5-£11 to catalogue. The crucial question is, does this reflect value for money? I think I (and plenty of others) would argue that it does. As Robin later pointed out, cataloguing is a core service of the library. Without it, libraries would not be able to provide almost all of their services for the basic reason that they wouldn't be able to find anything! I think that this is well worth the investment of £5-£11, but then I'm more than a little biased! It's an interesting concept and hopefully one that someone will take further one day. If someone could come up with a way to measure the impact of a catalogued book in £s and then compare this to the above figure we could be looking at some evidence that it would be hard for our managers to ignore.

Robin also touched on the now infamous amongst cataloguers blog post on LISNPN by Theresa Schultz. He argued that this sort of post shows the reason why cataloguers need to work to change the way that they are perceived. Again, this is nothing new to cataloguers but Robin managed to turn the words of the post and comments on their head. Instead of classing cataloguers as nitpicky and accurate to the point of pain he showed us to be a business critical and precise bunch. I especially liked the point about cataloguing being 'business critical' since it seems like the kind of phrase that would impress the management. Cataloguing is vital to the library and a core service, as touched on above and we need to work hard to promote this image to our colleagues and users.

We were also urged to remember that we have a choice in what we do from here. We can aim for more of the same, consolidate our professional knowledge and focus on the traditional expertise of cataloguing. Although this sounds tempting we then run the risk of becoming increasingly irrelevant. Our other option is to change. We can build on the core skills that cataloguers have and demonstrate other ways in which we can add value to the work of the library. With this second option the danger is that we risk losing our professional identity. Personally I sit on the fence with this one in that I think that we need a little bit of both. We need to work towards maintaining our high levels of professional knowledge whilst working to demonstrate how we add value outside of our departments. Maybe this is a touch idealistic but I sometimes think that people spend so much time thinking of ways in which they could change that they don't always stop to think if they should. I don't doubt that cataloguing needs to adapt but I do strongly believe that it has been considered a core skill for a reason - it's very much needed.

Also on the subject of perceptions, Robin pointed out that we need to go from expecting respect automatically to earning it. Users don't really care how material gets to the shelf, only that it is there when they need it. Cataloguers need to keep on demonstrating the value that they can bring to both library services and the wider community. We need to be on the ball responding to changing user needs and expectations as well as supporting the wider university and world. Cataloguers also need to think about sharing information in ways that allow it to be re-purposed, possibly for uses that we can't imagine right now.

I think for me one of the most interesting points of the seminar was the analogy between libraries and hospitals. It takes many different kinds of doctors, nurses and non-medical personnel to make a hospital function correctly. Their jobs may be small or large but they are all essential to the smooth running of the hospital. Libraries work in much the same way. Cataloguers may be only one part but they are vital in the smooth running of the library's functions. We need to interact more with our colleagues, both to promote ourselves and our role and to work together to help make the library the best that it possibly can be. I thought that this was an excellent analogy and one that I hope to be introducing to both my managers and my colleagues in the near future!

photo credit: Christopher Chan via photopin cc


  1. Excellent write up of an excellent presentation. Good to be reminded that cataloguing and the catalogue is at the very heart of the library - easy to forget with the negative perceptions of cataloguing that are all around.

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  3. Thanks for the comments, it was a really interesting presentation with a lot of food for thought.