Collection evaluation: a book review

I just finished reading* Karen E. Kohn’s Collection evaluation in academic libraries: a practical guide for librarians. Apart from the fact that it’s an awkward A4 size, that doesn’t fit into bags easily and is hard to read in a comfy reclined position (what, who doesn’t read collection development monographs in bed?), I found it a much more useful read that I had expected.

Kohn discusses four different methods of collection evaluation: benchmarking, list-checking, usage statistics and citation analysis. For each method, she hkohnbookas a chapter outlining the “how” but then also a second chapter on interpreting the results. I found this is a very practical approach which suited me. There is also an opening section looking at the “why” of collection evaluation, as well as outlining the limitations of each method and a final section on communicating results, which was a pleasant surprise. Although there’s nothing earthshattering about the content, I really liked the pragmatic and realistic approach to this activity and welcomed having some context of what this all means in the real world too.

In my library, we’ve been looking at weeding (deaccessioning, withdrawing, whatever you like to call it) and at trying to make our collection development decisions as evidence-based as they can be. As Kohn acknowledges, this is an area that is often treated as something akin to The Force – you will eventually just develop a “feel” for collection building, you will “just know” what to buy and you will be able to control people’s minds with your words. Oh, maybe not that last one. I’ve worked in libraries for a long time, but this is the first time that I’m the person responsible for final decisions about purchases and weeding and I wanted to feel a bit more firmly grounded while I’m developing my Jedi skills. The methods we’ve employed so far are probably what I always would have done even without reading this book, but I do feel reassured knowing that there’s some method in the approaches we are adopting (if you’re interested, we’ve so far done a combination of usage statistics and list-checking). Although the book is really written with much larger academic libraries in mind (and with an obvious US bias), it has adapted well to our particular needs in a much smaller, college library collection.

I think the reason I was most pleasantly surprised by this book was the nuanced approach. There is an emphasis on the limitations as well as the benefits of each method, so for example in the discussion of usage there is an acknowledgement of what is problematic of treating usage as an indicator of intrinsic value. I was delighted to see that Kohn cites Chris Bourg on the idea of value and what academic libraries should be collecting (see for example this post on measuring value by Chris Bourg, but really you should just read everything Chris has written, if you haven’t already. Seriously). Kohn also mentions the important non-measurable aspects (the physical state of the books, whether the collection includes diverse opinions on controversial topics or reflects international perspectives, and so on). She actively encourages the reader to look at what you cannot measure and supplement numbers with “comments or reflections from your users” or by talking to faculty.

The book outlines a method for benchmarking using WorldCat which sounds very interesting, though I haven’t tried it myself, introduced me to the acronym MUSTIE for selecting books for weeding (developed for public libraries but a satisfying acronym). It covers electronic resources as well as print, but I was personally interested in the sections on print so have to admit I only skimmed through the sections on e-journals and ebooks. Having applied the usage statistics method, I really appreciated the table outlining what various statistics may actually be telling you about your collection, and it’s nuanced here too – there are limits to the conclusions you can draw from the data, bigger isn’t always better, higher borrowing statistics doesn’t always mean that you have all the best things.

I found this book a useful way to think about collection evaluation, both from the perspective of deciding which books we no longer need but also thinking about which areas of the collection need to be improved. I imagine a lot of this is fairly straightforward and those who are well-established Jedi librarians will find it all a little obvious but for me it was just what I needed. It has also helped me resist the temptation to ask everyone I know in libraries how they deal with these things (I seem to have an endless interest in finding out how people go about these things and hearing about their workflows but suspect people may be tiring of me asking lots of questions).

* We’re just not going to mention the fact that I haven’t blogged for years. Just insert a fast-forward montage of the last couple of years that end with me reading this book.

What I learned at ALA: final round-up

This is the third, much-belated, blog post reporting on ALA Annual at Anaheim. There is more RDA-related information from ALA in my first post on the international aspects and second post on the RDA Toolkit.

This post has taken a long time to finish, largely because of the sheer volume of information I’m trying to encompass. Over five days at ALA, I attended RDA-related sessions almost without interruption from 8am until 5pm and I filled pages and pages with useful notes. I have used things that I learned during the conference almost every working day since I got back at the end of June. However, trying to distil all of into the most useful information to share was a big task.

When I wrote my application for the John Campbell Trust conference travel bursary, I explained how what I wanted to learn from attending ALA and also how I intended to share this with the wider UK cataloguing community. Writing the blog posts has been a big part of that but I also planned to speak at the 2012 Cataloguing & Indexing Group (CIG) conference on September 10th-11th in Sheffield. I saw this as a way of reaching as wide an audience as possible both at the conference itself, through the reports of attendees to their colleague or in their own blog posts, as well as reaching a broader audience on Twitter and by making my presentation available on the CIG website afterwards. My presentation formed part of an RDA forum. The end product of all that distillation to acquire the essence of “RDA@ALA” is the CIG presentation and handout, which I hope has been useful to people. I have tried to group the information together thematically and to assume very little prior knowledge of RDA developments, though there is a lot of further information available from the various links on the handout.

One update since I prepared the handout, the talk about the Bibliographic Framework Transition Initiative given by Eric Miller at ALA was later repeated for Library of Congress staff and a recording of this LC talk is now available from the LC website.

RDA Toolkit, updates from ALA and beyond

This is the second blog post reporting on ALA Annual at Anaheim, with some information from webinars attended since I returned. The first post is here.

I’ve been writing up all my notes from ALA to compile these blog posts and sorting them thematically. However, the RDA Toolkit  seemed to want to have a post all to itself, especially since I’ve attended two RDA Toolkit Essentials webinars since the conference and felt I wanted to combine everything I’d learned.

In 2011, I spoke at the CILIP Executive Briefing on RDA and co-moderated the CIG e-forum on RDA and from both of these events I know that my place of work was one of very few UK libraries with a subscription to the RDA Toolkit at that time. However, at the informal discussion with a handful of RLUK members last month, there seemed to be more people with a subscription or planning to get one in the next year. So this might be a useful time in the UK at least to round up some information on the RDA Toolkit. Also, if your institution is planning to get a subscription soon, the BOGOF double user offer is still in place until August 31st, if you can make use of it.

Lest this start to sound like an advert for the Toolkit, I am aware that the existence of the RDA Toolkit is itself one of the big controversies of RDA, the argument is extremely well made elsewhere (for example, by @orangeaurochs) so I won’t repeat them here. I have to say I am in agreement about RDA being a closed standard and the implications of the cost of the Toolkit for smaller libraries. It is what it is though, and isn’t going to change. The Toolkit also came in for criticism from cataloguers who took part in the US National Test which led to a number of recommendations for improvements in the final report.

The business model was in place long before the people working on the Toolkit (the online tool rather than the content of the RDA text) started that work and I wanted to give them credit for what they’ve done since the US National Test to address the issues and to reach out to the cataloguing community as much as possible. If you haven’t had the chance to look at the Toolkit since the first trial access, then you might notice quite a lot of new features.

All of the recommendations from the US Test for improvements and enhancements to the RDA Toolkit have already been implemented. There has also been a lot of work on developing and promoting mechanisms for input and involvement from users. There is a mailing list, a blog, a Twitter account but I’m more impressed by all the ways they try to enable interaction and communication which came across in the talks Troy Linker gave at ALA but also in the webinars.

For newcomers to the Toolkit, the RDA Toolkit Essentials webinars (held every other month) are extremely useful and they are also developing some video training. I’d recommend the Essentials webinar, it’s only an hour and they are archived so you can watch at a time convenient to you if you prefer. I attended again in July to refresh my memory and see all the new developments and it was worthwhile. I also attended the Virtual User Group, which gives online previews of enhancements and aims to create two-way dialogue with attendees by dealing with questions and polling for opinion. These webinars are held 3-4 times a year but there’s also a Development blog to continue seeking input and encouraging dialogue. The Virtual User Group webinars are also archived if you want to find out more about recent enhancements such as the update history, improved metadata for the workflows, the logout button (FINALLY!) and the incredibly useful full RDA record examples (currently in MARC but with non-MARC also coming). You also learn about what they are working on: French, German and Spanish translations, improved integration with the RDA Registry, locally shareable bookmarks, mobile version.

The rewording of RDA for clarity and consistency (another recommendation fromt he US Test) is well underway and the first five reworded chapters (2, 6, 9-11) will be available in the Toolkit by December 2012, with the remaining reworded chapters released as available. The intention is that all the reworded chapters will be in the Toolkit by mid-2013. The print version of RDA will be updated no later than December 2012 with the April 2012 RDA update and the first batch of reworded chapters, a whole new edition will be issued as the majority of the pages of the looseleaf would have needed replacement.

For those lucky enough to work in institutions who will be able to subscribe to the RDA Toolkit, I hope the information here proves helpful.

Also useful: The LC Training modules include Using the RDA Toolkit (PDF) (see the Training section on the right-hand side of the page).

Getting the international view of RDA at ALA

This is the first of my blog posts reporting on my attendance at ALA Annual in Anaheim in June. I came home with a huge amount of notes, links to follow and new information. Since I got back, I’ve been to RDA meetings, given a FRBR workshop, met with the RDA group in my workplace, started work on our local training needs and had many conversations in real life and online about RDA training and implementation. My experiences at ALA have informed all of this activity. However, a big part of what I wanted to achieve by attending ALA (thanks to the John Campbell Trust conference bursary) was to share what I learned with as many people as possible, so I’m going to do this through a series of blog posts here.

I’ve grouped my notes thematically rather than writing up each session as I attended pretty much everything I could on RDA (and even then there were scheduling clashes which meant I couldn’t get to everything) and there was a certain amount of overlap. I’m also including links to handouts and further information wherever available.

I’m going to start not at the beginning but rather with the ALCTS program RDA Worldwide, because it seems an apt place to start. At ALA, I was an ‘international’ attendee, with a special registration desk, a special orientation and an international reception. It’s rare I get to feel exotic and foreign, so this was all good. In terms of RDA developments – particularly to do with training and general discussion – it can feel that much more is happening in the US than it is in the UK (or in many other parts of the world) and yet RDA is intended to operate in an international arena. This program demonstrated this and provided a welcome look beyond the American or Anglo-American cataloguing world.

Christine Frodl’s talk on the work done in German cataloguing over the last few years to move from national to international standards was quite impressive. In 2009, German cataloguing moved to using MARC21 and they see RDA as part of this internationalisation of their cataloguing practices. From the EURIG meeting in 2010, I knew that Germany was following RDA developments very closely, commenting on proposals and working on a translation. Since then, Moodle training modules have been developed in FRBR, FRAD and basic RDA cataloguing. The German translation will be one of the first non-English language versions loaded into the RDA Toolkit. The German National Library plans to implement RDA in March 2013 along with the Library of Congress and the British Library. The Deutsche Nationalbibliothek is now a JSC member, with Christine their representative, a fact which I managed to miss during her talk but which is a great move given all the work the German cataloguing community have done to contribution to the development of RDA.

Christine also spoke about the work of EURIG, the European RDA Interest Group, which held its inaugural meeting in December 2011 and plan for annual meetings. There is full information of their meetings, technical meetings, recent European survey and membership on their website. EURIG now has 30 members, including the British Library and the National Library of Scotland among the European national libraries and they are making proposals to the JSC. As RDA develops and expands internationally, it strikes me that it will be useful that the UK has representatives in this European forum as well as on the JSC.

Having seen a European perspective, we also heard from Ageo Garcia about RDA in Central and South America. Ageo is working on the crucial Spanish translation of RDA, to be called Recursos, Description, Accés to preserve the acronym. He spoke about the regular meetings and greater cooperation among Latin American countries. Despite the unity of language, the number of countries makes this a similar situation to what is happening in Europe with EURIG where the need for a formalized regular forum for discussion of international cataloguing standards becomes apparent.

Similarly, the situation in China is surprisingly fragmented, as Li Kai of the National Capital Library (and about to start library school at Syracuse University) outlined in his talk about RDA in China. There is a complete division between cataloguers working on Chinese-language material and those working on Western-language material, the books are shelved separately, catalogued according to different rules by different staff. A survey carried out this year shows a fairly low level of awareness of RDA and there are specific problems (Chinese cataloguing rules have no concept of main entry or authorized access at the moment), but there is apparently some interest in linked data, the semantic web. Work on a translation of RDA began in May, though Li Kai had some doubts about the likelihood of RDA being adopted in Chinese cataloguing.

I found the situation of New Zealand, described by Chris Todd, particularly interesting as there are some parallels with the UK situation as I see it. They are not JSC members but have always heavily relied on US and Australian cataloguing in particular, so their national practice is affected by decisions taken abroad. There is a very useful New Zealand Cataloguers’ Wiki which includes a whole section on RDA with their current activity: they are looking at the RDA proposals and commenting on them, looking at the LCPS and the various options/alternatives within RDA to decide what national policy should be. Chris stated that they have held local seminars, workshops and also have a New Zealand email list to keep cataloguers up to date with developments. There is a lack of local trainers for any future RDA training (though Barbara Tillett is planning to visit) but the National Library is committed to supporting training throughout the country.

At the recent RDA Toolkit Virtual User Group webinar, it was mentioned that other sets of “policy statements” will evetually be made available in the Toolkit as the LCPS (soon to be PCC/LC Policy statements) currently are. Given the levels of international interest in and activity on RDA demonstrated at the RDA Worldwide session, this will be extremely useful as national policy statements can be made available, fully integrated with the relevant rule (I know they’re not “rules” but it’s the most straightforward word to use).

Like most people, I imagine, I spend a lot of time thinking about RDA at the micro level: how will it affect our procedures, what decisions will we make on my library about options/alternatives. RDA Worldwide offered a chance to step back from those considerations and get a view of RDA at e macro level, which was very refreshing.

To read another write-up of this session, see Cheryl Tarsala’s blog post. The slides for all the talks (except Ageo Garcia’s) are available online too.

Informal RDA discussion for RLUK members: what I got out of it

As I mentioned in my previous post, yesterday was the informal discussion about RDA that Helen Williams and I organised for RLUK members. Helen and I were really gratified to see so many people turn up and felt the discussion went well. I personally found it very useful and got a lot out of it, I hope the other participants did too. We held the discussion under the Chatham House Rule, to facilitate open and free conversation. At the start of the meeting, I did mention that I’d be blogging about the discussion but would not identify any individuals or institutions that took part or say anything that could identify them. Everyone is of course free to report back to their institutions about what was discussed, indeed I hope they found enough of interest that they do want to report back, but again without identifying/attributing comments to individuals or institutions. Although this all might seem a bit unnecessarily like a John le Carré novel (and let’s face it, there are few enough opportunities for that in my daily life), I firmly believe that offering that kind of confidentiality really helped everyone feel able to talk openly and made the discussions more useful.

This blog post is a report of the main points of discussion during an extremely full two hours of conversation, but is obviously slightly affected by that confidentiality. It obviously reflects my own personal impressions and the things that struck me as most interesting. I could never hope to cover everything discussed in those two hours. Doubtless other attendees would have taken home a slightly different impression and may, indeed, decide to blog about it themselves or add to the comments here to offer a rounder picture.

For me, the best thing about the morning was just having a rare opportunity to talk openly and freely to UK colleagues in a similar situation, colleagues who are thinking about RDA implementation, planning or worrying about training needs and figuring out how to tackle the same hurdles. I now have a network of people I have met personally who are dealing with these issues in other institutions which will be extremely valuable over the next few months. People did air some unresolved issues about RDA itself: the timing of implementation, the content of the RDA rules/guidelines, the problem of not having had easy access to the Toolkit to make a full assessment, the value of RDA while still in a MARC environment. None of these issues will be new to people who’ve been following RDA over the last few years and many of them I feel are extremely valid concerns. However, putting those aside, I think there is a general acceptance now that RDA is coming (finally!), it really is happening and we simply need to prepare for it now that we know the Library of Congress and the British Library are moving to RDA on March 31st 2013. I’d sum this up by saying that we’re now in a “when not if” world and that represents a change of mindset.

Having said that, the “when” is not a straightforward question to answer and only a couple of institutions represented at the meeting had made a firm commitment to move to RDA on Day 1, along with LC and the BL. Some were waiting for a new library system (or necessary upgrades to an existing one) or a new discovery layer. However, in general, the majority were preparing to accept RDA records from Day 1 and a smaller number of people expected to be also creating RDA records. The general sense was that this wouldn’t be a “big bang” switch to RDA, but a more gradual process possibly over the course of the whole of 2013. Again, while there was a variety of experience round the table, very few people had actively begun RDA training for their cataloguing staff or had written RDA documentation or even created RDA catalogue records. However, there is a real sense of movement with this and those institutions with some idea of a timetable were certainly looking at training within the next year.

An interesting aside, more institutions than I expected (from an admittedly small and interested sample) had access to the RDA Toolkit and few more were actively planning to get a subscription in the coming year. However, there seems to be some concern about how much use of the Toolkit can be assumed for the majority of staff, especially paraprofessional staff, copy cataloguers or those who do cataloguing as part of a much broader job description. Several participants plan to create documentation separate from the Toolkit that will work as a “cheat sheet” set of instructions to walk someone through the steps need to edit or create an RDA record (or update an AACR2 record to RDA) without requiring any access to the RDA Toolkit. This matches current practice for many, where staff are not expected to look things up in AACR2.

At one point, when speaking about the need to make senior library management aware of the implications and costs (in productivity terms but also for the RDA Toolkit, etc) of RDA implementation, I realised that the seemingly constant delays to the arrival of RDA may have made those of us talking about it seem like the boy who cried wolf. And it’s only finally this year that we’ve been able to say “it really is coming this time, we have a date, honest!”. Getting RDA into annual appraisals and objectives for managers (and sometimes also for staff) or into the annual plan for the department seemed to be a common way of getting the message out to senior management about the changes coming.

Someone asked whether we have any actual measures, for example from the US National Test libraries, of the drop in productivity when training staff in RDA, either of how great this drop is or how long it lasts before productivity begins to pick up again. I have to say I haven’t seen any hard measures of this, though I remember being surprised by reports from test libraries that the productivity picked up more quickly than they expected. That’s something I’d be interested in following up, though, as we’re all very conscious of the need to maintain productivity and hit rates in our ongoing work even during this transition.

Another quote I came away with was the notion of “accommodating RDA versus creating RDA”. That the process of implementation might be in several stages, the first one of which we are currently in as we see RDA records arriving from external sources. Training could take place in stages: train cataloguers to recognise RDA, deal with copy, before moving on to creating RDA records. “Accommodating RDA” also points to wider issues around derived records, batch-loaded records, vendor records (for shelf ready, e-journals, etc) and various workflows where decisions will have to be made about what kind of records are acceptable. Even once cataloguing fully in RDA, there will be many situations where AACR2 records are still being downloaded into the catalogue for one reason or another and it is unrealistic for most libraries to attempt to convert these to RDA. The notion of hybridity in the catalogue proves quite a relief, then, as we can accept the plurality of records.

There was a huge amount of enthusiasm during the discussion for pooling resources and sharing training materials. There was interest in training events, perhaps even a train the trainer model where possibly the British Library, CIG or even RLUK might provide something centrally. However, there is a real shortage of experienced RDA cataloguers in the UK (outside of the British Library certainly). There’s obvious concern about everyone being self-taught – someone queried where the quality control would come from if everyone simply interpreted the guidelines for themselves. I mentioned something someone had said to me at ALA last month and which I found extremely reassuring: a colleague from one of the US test libraries said that during training she was only ever half a step ahead of the people she was training. This is a very different situation from the one we are used to as experienced cataloguing trainers and needs some different approaches. The best ideas discussed yesterday included:

  • Sharing training material and documentation, ideally by making it public
  • Making workflows within the RDA Toolkit public (the BL has said it will be doing this shortly but possibly other libraries should do it too)
  • The possibility of a forum or other space where people could discuss issues, ask questions (I had some hesitation about this as it feels like that may be reinventing the wheel but I also agree that the main mailing lists are not always the most helpful venues for advice or answers at the moment)
  • Building in ongoing support after the initial training, things such as “open clinic” or regular meetings where staff can come together and look at records they have been working on to discuss questions or where decisions might have been difficult
  • Developing some kind of “application profile” – almost a subset of the LC/PCC Policy Statements – to help with the options and alternatives in RDA as cataloguer’s judgement is not always a helpful concept

We also shared resources we have found useful. My personal favourites, which I’m going to come back to in my write up of ALA too, include:

  • the ALCTS webinars which are extremely reasonably priced anyway but which also become freely available (audio & slides online) after a 6 month period and where there is already a huge amount of great RDA stuff
  • the entire training schedule and documentation from the Library of Congress and all the new links being added to Cataloguers’ Learning Workshop
  • finally I mentioned a great idea from Lauren Bradley (@BibliosaurusRex on Twitter) who I spoke to at ALA. She has created a training checklist in a Google doc, pointing people to various online training resources but suggesting an order and making a selection of what she feels is useful. I think this is a fantastic idea and think I’ll be adopting a similar approach. Lauren very generously made her checklist available as a Google doc and she was asking for comments, so please do have a look and let her know what you think. If I do develop one then I’d like to make it publicly accessible too. Obviously each institution will have its own requirements but the basic skeleton is a very useful way to navigate around the huge amount of RDA training material available online

I’ve only skimmed over our discussion but my conclusions are that this format of open, confidential discussion in a small enough group to enable everyone to participate (we had 12 people) worked very well. Much as Helen & I would love to spend our time travelling round the UK talking about RDA with people (seriously, we would, especially if you offer us biscuits), that’s not really going to be possible. However, we are reporting back to the CIG committee the outcomes of this first discussion and the fact that we feel there’s a lot of interest in this in other parts of the country and from a broader audience than just the RLUK membership. If you think a similar discussion might be useful for you then do let us know and we can pass that on to CIG, who might be able to help facilitate other meetings. We were very grateful to RLUK for covering the cost of tea, coffee and biscuits (the things which allow a discussion of RDA to be civilised and enjoyable). Mike Mertens is reporting back to RLUK on the discussion to see how they can further support their members and the users of the Copac database.

Finally, I wanted to say thank you to everyone who came along and particularly to Helen Williams at LSE for following up on my initial “wouldn’t it be great if we could get everyone involved in planning for RDA implementation in a room” tweet, for offering us a room at LSE and for basically making this happen.

Going to London, where the streets are paved with acronyms…

Tomorrow I am going to London for a very full day of RDA and FRBR. In the morning, it is the informal RDA discussion for RLUK libraries which I’ve organised with Helen Williams. I cannot say how much I’m looking forward to it – born from a little casual remark on Twitter (as are all the best things I find). I’m hoping it will be a really useful opportunity to talk to other people thinking about RDA implementation in RLUK libraries, talk about what we’re planning, what we’re worrying about, what we’ve yet to decide. I’ve been doing a huge amount of preparation for RDA training/implementation since I returned from ALA so it will be great to chat to other people and see how my ideas and plans fit in with those of other people.

In the afternoon (must remember to have lunch in between), Helen and I are giving the FRBR for the terrified workshop for CIG in collaboration with CILIP in London. I have spent the day finalising my preparation. The workshop was fully booked within about 24 hours and we already have a waiting list so I think Helen and I are just really aware that we want to do a great job for all the participants and do justice to the fantastic workshop designed by Esther Arens. I think I’m going to dream about entities tonight.

I’m still writing up all my RDA-related notes from my fantastic trip to ALA in Anaheim last month. I promised to post it all here and I will, sorry it’s taking a while but I hope this post demonstrates that I am still very much actively thinking about all these issues. I hope to bring a lot of what I learned at ALA from colleagues in the US to my discussions tomorrow, with colleagues in the UK. Which is what it was all about.

Adventures at ALA

I’m in Anaheim, California for ALA Annual. It’s hard to type that sentence without doing a little happy dance.

I was extremely fortunate to be awarded one of the conference bursaries from the John Campbell Trust this year which has allowed me to attend ALA. In my application for the bursary, I explained that there is such a lot of change going on in cataloguing at the moment with RDA implementation early 2013 and the LC Bibliograpic Framework Transition Initiative and that a lot of progress reports and announcements will be made here at ALA. So I will be attending pretty much everything on RDA that I can (and that’s quite a lot of things). It’s great to be able to get the information directly, rather than relying on Twitter and blogs for reports from others. I will be writing up everything I learn at the conference here on the blog as soon as I can and in as much detail as possible to share information with the my UK colleagues. I will also report to the CIG committee to feed into our training plans, as well as doing a formal report at the CIG Conference in Sheffield, September 10-11th.

Another part of what I’ll be doing while I’m here is working on the new project for High Visibility Cataloguing which I’ll talk about more over on that blog. For a year now, we’ve been thinking about the idea of a “23 Things” style programme for cataloguing and what we’ve come up with is something a bit different. We are working on phase one right now and part of that will be happening while I’m at ALA  (intriguing, eh?). I’ve got some HVCats cards to give away and hope to meet lots of catalogers/cataloguers while I’m here for that too.

I know, I know, it’s a hard life, right?

Train the cataloguing trainer: interesting conversations on Twitter, part I

This blog post was inspired by a fascinating conversation I had on Twitter* today about training cataloguers. There were some ideas there that merited a little bit more breathing space and a chance for wider input so here I am, hastily blogging about it.

I have trained a lot of people to catalogue, in virtually every library job I’ve ever had. Even in my graduate trainee year, where I first tried my hand at real cataloguing, I wrote guidelines for my successor as trainee (bringing in one of my other favourite things, documentation but that will have to be for another blog post). Come to think of it, I think my successor as graduate trainee left libraryland and never catalogued again as far as I know so maybe that wasn’t a good example to pick. Not everyone I’ve had a hand in training has run screaming for the hills, though, and sometimes – mmore often than you might think – I’ve had the privilege of watching someone gradually realise that they’ve got the cataloguing bug. I love training, it’s one of my favourite things in my current job. I like training one-to-one at someone’s desk in the intensive way you need to with a new colleague, I enjoy classroom-style training sessions to larger groups, I even like writing training handouts.

Today’s Twitter conversation was about how we train new cataloguing staff. Now, I was a graduate trainee at a college that was brilliant in many ways but does seemsto produce more than the average number of cataloguing-inclined trainees (you know who you all are!) which indicates that the experience of being trained and of cataloguing there is a very good one. I also had the good fortune to work at Stanford University and received a rigorous training there (in NACO and BIBCO as well as the quite different approach generally to cataloguing in the US). It’s maybe worth noting that I learned nothing at all at library school about cataloguing, it has all been on-the-job training. This is something to think about when training new staff – don’t assume very much prior exposure, even in qualified librarians.

I could tell you a bit about how I go about training new staff (some of which is part of the culture and tradition of my library but part of which is my personal choice as I deal with quite a lot of training): in essence, I believe cataloguing is something you can only learn by doing, ideally I start people will creating original records from scratch (but for carefully selected titles and usually starting with fiction, moving into biography and works of literary criticism). I start with descriptive and only move onto subject analysis and classification later. I find it’s better to do some original cataloguing first before talking about copy cataloguing (better to start with the false hope that there is one right answer before demonstrating that there are many possible right answers!). Exactly what needs to be covered depends what kind of post the person will be in, but on the whole training someone to catalogue requires time spent sitting together with catalogued items on a desk and records on a computer. I loved my training period at Stanford but it’s extremely labour-intensive and possibly not a luxury many places can afford these days.

When we think about cataloguing training, it can be hard to separate the institution-specific (“this is how we classify cd-roms” or “this is how we enter a new subfield in our LMS”) from the general (“what is an authorised form of name and how do we find it” or “what do we do with a parallel title”). However, I think there’s still a lot to learn from each other. So I’m interested to hear from you:

  • how were you trained in cataloguing?
  • What type of materials did you work on first?
  • How were you introduced to original or to copy cataloguing?
  • And, crucially, what do you think now – with hindsight – of that training and the way it was organised?

If you train people yourself, how do you go about it? What can you share about what new cataloguers should work on first and what type of cataloguing they start with? Or if you were designing training from scratch, how would you do it? Please comment (anonymously if you prefer) as I’d love to hear and think we have a lot to learn from hearing how different people achieve the same aim.


*Twitter is amazing. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I learn so much there and it opens up avenues for conversation that just wouldn’t be possible any other way. If you’d told me 15 months ago that I’d say such a thing, I would have guffawed.

Anatomy of a cataloguer, or, I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed

This blog post started life as a comment on the “Anatomy of a cataloger” post by Theresa Schultz over at LISNPN but it got a bit too long and then moved slightly in another direction anyway so I’m posting here on my much-neglected blog.

First of all, it’s not entirely true that I wasn’t angry. There was definitely some anger, in fact there may have been a little mention of Hulk Cataloguer on Twitter last night. After thinking it through, however, what I’m left with is disappointment. First of all, please do read Theresa’s post. And definitely also read the comments there, eloquently and coherently written (thank you all). I’m not interested in any ad hominem attack – Theresa has replied to the comments and explained her position, welcoming the discussion. She points out that the piece is meant to be humorous. Let me just indulge in a little experiment to see if I can show why the reaction to her post wasn’t just a sense-of-humour-fail on the part of the cataloguers I know.

What if, instead of being a piece about cataloguers written by a non-cataloguer (or a very reluctant cataloguer, by her own admission), it were a piece about librarians written by a non-librarian. Replace “cataloguer” with “librarian” (and a couple of the other words to the new context) and see what it gives:

Is there any position more dreaded than “librarian”?  Not because they’re scary, but because none of us really want to do it?  Because we don’t really love books, electronic resources, searching, referencing, or silence?  Or any of the library standards?

I can’t think of anyone I went to university with who liked librarianship.  We all thought of it as a necessary evil.  I’ve had to do some work in a library, and I haven’t changed my tune overmuch.  Borrowing a book is fine, but working on an issue desk?  Forget it.


Librarians are respected in an abstract way, I think, when they’re thought of at all.  It’s not a glamorous position, a high-visibility position, or one with a lot of change.  If you like a reliable, steady sort of work, then libraries might just be for you. 

You get my point, right? If someone wrote this in a magazine or website, the library community would be all over it. Even though it’s intended to be humorous, the use of stereotypes, the “necessary evil”, “who’d want to do this” aspect would get our backs up and we’d be advocating and busting out of the echo chamber about libraries and librarianship. Wouldn’t we?

And rightly so. It’s particularly disappointing that this was written on a website for enthusiastic, interested new professionals, library school students and people interested in the profession. As part of a series that, while light-hearted, states its aim to give “a better understanding of what our colleagues do and so students might have more realistic ways to potentially decide which track to focus on”. Yes, the author gives some praise to the importance of cataloguing and the catalogue but all the while says “we’re lucky other people like to do this so that we don’t have to”. Who is going to finish reading that and think “Hmmm, I think cataloguing’s for me, I love to be under-appreciated, mocked and considered nitpicky”?

More importantly, I’m disappointed because we’re obviously not getting our message out. It’s been nearly a year since High Visibility Cataloguing was set up and we’re not much further out of the cataloguing echo chamber. I’m disappointed because we should have been *offering* to write a piece for LISNPN about the realities of being a cataloguer. As part of the discussion on Twitter last night, Doreva Belfiore made the suggestion that a cataloguer write about their work for the Hack Library School blog. Brilliant idea. We should have thought of that. Proactive not reactive!

In true schoolteacher-y style, I’m most disappointed in myself. Must. Do. Better. This high visibility stuff won’t happen all by itself, we need to be looking for avenues to promote and describe what we do ourselves, take charge of the narrative so that other people don’t do it for us.

This was my own personal reaction so I’ve posted it here but please do keep an eye on the High Visibility Cataloguing blog as we would really like to collect proactive ideas and ways to get our message out there. We need you! If only to make sure the Hulk Cataloguer doesn’t make another appearance.

Thank you to all the wonderful cataloguers who commented on the original LISNPN piece and talked about why they love cataloguing, superstars one and all!

P.S. I heard a rumour that the Hulk Cataloguer may have a Twitter account. If any gifted person would like to design an avatar for Hulk Cataloguer, I…. er, I mean he‘d be very grateful 😉

Creating spaces for cataloguing conversations to happen

At the start of year I said I hoped 2011 would be another Year of Cataloguing Conversations. I’ve realised that this is already happening in a variety of ways and I am thinking of more ways to create spaces for these conversations to happen. I hope this will continue over the rest of the year. At the moment, I’m tying up loose ends at work before going on leave so – in a similar vein – here’s a post pulling together all the disparate threads of cataloguing conversations and my thoughts about them (in case I don’t get much chance to blog for the next couple of months).

Catbkchat & Conversations with Catalogers in the 21st Century

The idea of a Twitter cataloguing book club was just floated on Twitter and then managed to embed itself in enough minds that we’ve been doing #catbkchat now for a few weeks. We’re currently reading our way through Conversations with Catalogers in the 21st Century section by section. It has been quite successful, there is now talk of a more general library book chat (#libchat), and an off-shoot of the first #catbkchat was Anne Welsh’s experiment with her Advanced Cat & Class students at UCL, opening up the classroom to Twitter discussion of a freely available chapter of the book. I think this is a simple model that obviously attracts a lot of people so I’d expect and hope to see more of this kind of Twitter chatting.  

CIG E-forums

Okay so this isn’t really a new communication medium as ALCTS have been doing it for a while now, but I am really excited that CIG is trying out the e-forum format too! I’ll be co-moderating the first one on RDA on April 18-19th and really hope it provides a useful, free, open-to-all discussion channel for cataloguing debate and exchange of views.

The keen but clueless cataloguer’s guide to… linked data/the semantic web/metadata futures

This is a particularly hard thing to define but is something I have felt increasingly concerned about over the last year or so. Lots of things are happening in the areas of open bibliography, linked data, semantic web. There are many exciting projects and collaborations. I feel very strongly that this is a future path for cataloguers and catalogue data, and we should be interested and actively involved. Yet, I hear people in the communities working on these projects that they struggle to get librarians – or even cataloguers in particular – interested and engaged. Meanwhile, I feel I know a little but not quite enough to participate in the conversations…

Last week I mentioned on Twitter (in yet another exchange about this favourite topic of mine) that I wish there was some kind of “Idiot’s guide…” or “… for dummies” which would help point someone like me – an enthusiastic and interested cataloguer but with very little technical expertise or knowledge in programming etc – in the right direction. A few pointers on where to start among all this information. What would I need to know to take it further. I’m not afraid to teach myself, I’m not afraid of technology, there’s just so much out there I don’t know where to start or what would be most useful/important. Particularly from the point of view of the data I work with on a daily basis (catalogue records, authority files, RDA/MARC, etc).

A few things are currently being mentioned in this discussion – the possibility of a future Mashed Library event with a focus on metadata/cataloguing is one really intriguing idea. But to gather more suggestions in rather more characters than Twitter will allow, @orangeaurochs has set up this “Cataloguing Technology Wiki“. If you’re interested, have suggestions or are someone working in linked data/semantic web and other similar areas and wish you could just let cataloguers/librarians know what you wish they knew, then please come and add to the conversation in the wiki.

Cataloguing 23 Things

As part of the Cataloguing Technology Wiki, @orangeaurochs also asked how cataloguers prefer to learn about this kind of thing. Which has grown into a much wider conversation after a brilliant suggestion (from @NunuThunder) of some kind of Cataloguing 23 Things. So please come and look at what we’re talking about with this. There’s already quite a lot of interest in cat23, but we’re trying to refine what exactly that might mean and whether it would be a separate thing from the original idea of an “idiot’s guide…” to linked data, semantic web. The 23 Things could be more about mainstream cataloguing, tools and open source programs, similar ideas. We’re hoping to set up a separate space for that particular conversation but in the meantime, if you’re intrigued or have some good ideas, come and add them to the wiki. There are already some great ideas there but we need to get a clearer sense of what the potential participants would be looking for, what we’d need to cover, etc.

Support for solo or self-taught cataloguers

The cat23 discussion has also touched on something I’ve been pondering here in Cambridge for a while (since 23 Things in fact) – the idea of some kind of online/drop-in support for cataloguing questions/queries. I have had it at the back of mind for a while but was unsure how to make it work even in an institutional context. There are many people here who are solo librarians (let alone solo cataloguers) or cataloguers by default. There are also lots of people trying to teach themselves new formats. I wondered about a regular drop-in q&a session (bring a problem, we’ll all have a look together and see what we think). I get a lot of informal cataloguing queries that I think people are reluctant to ask through “official” channels (think the query is too basic or they should already know the answer or whatever). I think there might even be some benefit to it being possibly anonymous(ish) so had looked into IM chat type functions, twitter.

The conversations about cat23 and cataloguing learning raised the issue of solo cataloguers or self-taught cataloguers – especially in an age where very few get much in the way of cat & class at library school. Who helps and supports these people? Where can they turn for the smaller questions if they’re not comfortable asking on Autocat and have nowhere obvious to turn?

I’ve been doing a bit of investigating about this as it must be a perennial problem – there have always been solo cataloguers and this situation is only worsening. I notice that the Cataloging & Classification Section of ALCTS has a Recruitment & Mentoring Committee which reported at ALA Midwinter 2011 that they are planning to roll out a mentoring programme within CCS. I’d love to hear more about that as well as any buddy schemes to partner up solo cataloguers with other cataloguers, any distance support networks or similar. Anyone know about anything like that or involved in the mentoring at CCS – I would love to hear from you in comments or on Twitter!

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