Cataloguers, step into the limelight

I have always said that if librarians as a profession struggle with their public image and with public understanding of what they do, then cataloguers are the librarians of the library world.

When people talk about the “echo chamber“, where librarians need to talk to the wider public rather than to each other, I can’t help but think that cataloguers are stuck within their own little bubble inside that echo chamber, mainly talking to other cataloguers.

So, for a long time now, I’ve been interested in promoting cataloguing and cataloguers within our profession, to other librarians and information professionals. And within our institutions – there has been a tendency to describe us as “back room staff” and “back room activities”, tucked away in our fusty corners, poring over rule books, measuring things with rulers, preparing antiquated records fit only for card catalogues while the whizzy, modern, exciting work of whizzy, modern, exciting libraries takes place around us, even in spite of us. This isn’t the case, but we really need to get better and telling people the facts. And showing them what we do.

Biddy Fisher talked about library advocacy and the role of “cat & class” within the new heart of the library profession in her keynote speech at the CIG conference in September (the powerpoint slides are available here). It was a subject that came up a lot in general discussion, over tea, at dinner during the conference.

At the conference (and mainly due to us both being on Twitter), I met Venessa (who tweets as @scarlettlibgirl and blogs at Scarlettlibrarian) and since then we’ve been talking about our mutual interest in proactive advocacy for cataloguing and metadata. Talking about the new roles and activities for the staff traditionally called “cataloguers” (you will note that my job description places me in a “cataloguing” department whereas Venessa’s calls her a “metadata adminstrator” but that’s only the tip of the iceberg in what our various roles cover). We also interested in how cataloguers promote themselves and their work within the wider library, perhaps even the whole institution.

See Venessa’s call to arms on her blog. Our aim is to promote debate and discussion within the cataloguing world but also to encourage promotion to librarians who are not cataloguers. All of this is with the aim of making cataloguers more visible, we need to step into the library limelight and do more to promote our contributions.

We’re particularly interested in anything (official or not) that cataloguing staff have done to promote themselves or their cataloguing work to their colleagues. We’re working on raising our profile so hopefully you will hear more from us in due course (Venessa is working on this right now).

Please do get in touch, on Twitter or via our blogs. I think there’s a real groundswell of broader library advocacy and promotion going on from grassroots level in the wider profession and I really want to see the cataloguing community build on that.

I’ll be posting more about this shortly…


20 comments so far

  1. Girl in the Moon on

    It makes me sad that cataloguers and cataloguing aren’t properly appreciated. If we don’t have catalogues and cataloguers then we don’t have libraries – we just have great big piles of stuff.

  2. Steven on

    Good luck! One of the things that has baffled me over the years is some public librarians’ distain — or even contempt — for cataloguing and, by extension, cataloguers.

    I think this has helped damage the argument for employing librarians, as opposed to skilled non-librarians, in public libraries.

  3. Jay O'Val on

    I think it takes a clever mind to be able to organise and describe information (cataloguing) and I think the attitute of other library staff is because they don’t have the right mindset for the job > they end up feeling inadequate > their corresponding lack of confidence makes them over compensate and trivialise … all in all we should pity them.

  4. McKillopCataloger on

    At my institution, I am “in the back room” and out of the public eye. I wanted to change that, so I started a blog. It’s not that exciting yet. Mostly, I pick three titles that I cataloged that day, and post them with links to the catalog record and to the publisher’s description. (We don’t have an RSS feed in the catalog that would do something similar.) I explain my rationale here:

    I recently wrote a post that was well-received by staff and administrators, which again explained something about my work and its impact:

    I know my readership is mostly local. I barely get 10 visitors a day, and those are probably co-workers. But it’s just my small attempt to shout to the world, “Hey! Over here! There’s cataloging happening here, and it’s important and valuable!”

    (My most important reader is a particular administrator who does not value cataloging. She follows the blog, and thus it is my attempt to subtly show her, regularly, that what I am doing is valuable.)

  5. Céline on

    Thank you all for the comments and support.

    McKillopCataloger – that is a brilliant example, thank you for posting it! That’s exactly the kind of initiative I like hearing about and you’re absolutely right, the internal marketing to the rest of the library and library admin is as important if not more important that marketing to the wider world sometimes.

    I’m off to enjoy reading your blog!


  6. Lex Rigby on

    Our cataloguers are part of a team widely know as MeTs (Metadata and E-Technologies Section). Sadly we don’t call them cataloguers so much now. I’ve never really catalogued before but always wanted to and so have started on a small project in special collections to learn more about it. I wrote about this today on my blog in fact:

    Also I thought you might be interested to know that we had a couple of ladies talking about the importance of cataloguing at the New Professionals Conference this year. I wrote a bit about this too: They inspired me to learn more!

  7. Gary Green on

    I work in public libraries and we used to run cataloguing workshops for other library staff in the service. It would cover a number of areas. (1) The cataloguers role and how cataloguing fits into the supply chain. (2) How the quality of data in the catalogue record and the way search indexes are set-up affects the users ability to find the resources they want. (3) A look at different catalogues outside of the library system eg.

    We haven’t run this for a number of years now, but it did give other staff members a greater understanding of why the role was important.

    We also have an open door policy – we accept comments forms from members of staff about ‘issues’ with the catalogue/catalogue records. We always respond and explain any decisions we have made, so again, they have a better understanding of how the information in catalogue records all sits together.

    I also get involved in data mashups and have presented at 2 of the Mashed libraries events. To create the mashups I often use data from the catalogue.

    For example, I put together Surrey Fiction Book Map (,-0.484772&spn=0.404623,0.88028&z=10), originally as a way to promote stock in a new way and push people back to the catalogue.

    I also started creating a historical/travel map, by pulling out subject index data we have on our catalogue and automatically mappeding it using Yahoo pipes onto a map. If you click on a marker it performs a search on the catalogue via classification number and retrieves books linked to that class number. (

    It’s not perfect, because the data I used wasn’t perfect either – but that just shows that to get a good result you need to have good data and it makes sense to invest the time in doing this. I didn’t have the time (I do the mashups at home)

    Just being able to present at the Mashed libraries events also gave me the opportunity to promote what you can do with the catalogue and the data in it to a group of people who work in a wide range of libraries, but aren’t necessarily cataloguers.

    I suppose with the data mashups, what I’m saying is that if I wasn’t a cataloguer I wouldn’t know the intimate details of data in the catalogue records, how the data is structured, how I can pull out that data and and then make the best use of it outside the catalogue to pull people back into the catalogue.


  8. Gina on

    I work in a small academic library where I am the only cataloger. I try to get out of the back office whenever possible and I look for opportunities to assist or collaborate with other staff members. One of the things that I try to do regularly is to listen to the library staff. Occasionally, there are opportunities to make their job easier by making local modifications to data or by adding local subject headings to the catalog. This kind of just-in-time response shows that catalogers have a relevant role to play in the operations of the library.

    I also try to solicit specific feedback. I ask them if there are any topics that are difficult to find in the catalog or on the shelves. That kind of feedback helps when I’m making cataloging decisions & demonstrates that I am approachable & that I want to support their work.

    When we subscribe to a new electronic resource, I talk about how that source can be promoted in our catalog through the addition of records that link back to that resource. In fact, I do more than talk about it; I add the records to our catalog & then show them the benefits.

    Cataloging is often considered a ‘back room operation’ but just like the front desk operations there should be an emphasis on customer service. When library staff members ask me for something (rush processing, help working the front desk, to fix call numbers/labels/etc.) I do my best to respond quickly, fix the problem if I can & communicate to them about what I’ve done.

  9. Anon on

    Don’t you think we are in a bit of a bind, given the ways things are (and will be, for a while)? Of course cataloguers are important – but our colleagues don’t want to believe this, because they want us (rather than them) to be the ones cut to ribbons, and noone wants to put the boot in to people they know, like and respect. Sorry – years of cynicism behind me!

  10. Céline on

    Thanks for all the examples, they are really interesting and useful.

    Anon – I know what you mean in a way, the timing is bad. But that’s actually one of the reasons to start shouting a bit more about what we do and why we’re useful, no? Maybe I’m not cynical enough?

  11. Anne on

    I’ve been reading this thread with interest. Didn’t want to contribute straight away, as more interested to hear other people’s views!

    Just wanted to say that I find it interesting when cataloguers and others talk about their role as “backroom” – even if it’s physically located away from the service desk, the online library catalogue has become the library’s shop window to the world, and that’s the trick library management is missing in organisations where cataloguing and acquisitions is not nurtured and valued as much as desk service.

    I tell my students (in the last standing compuslory core module on cataloguing) that while on the desk, I could only help one person at a time, and only for that time, but there are thousands of records created over my fifteen years as a cataloguer and each of them help library users and enquiry staff every time they are called up. If that’s not a return on investment, value for money, and, buzziest of all buzz words, impact, I don’t know what is.

    • Céline on

      Anne – I love that! I’m now looking at my 12 years’ worth of cataloguing as a legacy I leave to library users and staff.

      Agreed, it’s more about getting people to understand that (and possibly sometimes refusing to accept the quiet, efficient, invisible box that we can sometimes get put into). I read somewhere recently (bad librarian, no citation) that for other institutions/companies a catalogue is a marketing tool and therefore those who produce it are marketing staff, not backroom staff.

      The backroom thing was specifically aggravating people at the time of the CIG conference because it was being used by Tim Coates as an argument for removing public libraries from professional librarians (they just waste money paying “backroom staff”). I am starting to feel that the issue now is that, with outsourcing and an increased reliance on vendor records, the cataloguing is actually happening off-site more and more so it’s easier to forget that someone actually still has to create that record, those authority records, verify that information. As though outsourcing means it all just happens by magic and no people are required at all…

      • Anne on

        You’re thinking of Heather Jardine. ‘“Recruiting the attitude”: a public library viewpoint.’ Catalogue & Index 155 (2006).

        As far as I know, Heather’s the last standing of the traditional public library “chief cataloguers” (though her branding changes regularly with the times, which, as you imply, is important, that’s essentially her role) and she manages to demonstrate every year that City of London is financially better off with a big team of in-house cataloguers and acquisitions staff than outsourcing everything (though they do outsource their most basic cataloguing). I think cataloguing managers could, and should, learn a lot from her in how to talk to management about what the so-called backroom does in language that they (a) understand and (b) respond to positively.

        I agree with everything you said. The one thing I’d add to the mix is that I think Cilip (then the LA) dropped the ball when it accredited library school courses without compulsory cat and class. Now we have a generation of senior managers in which those who understand the basics of knowledge organization are in the minority. Talking sense (not jargon) to power is tricky without patronising or dumbing down.

        We should talk more. Give us a shout next time you’re in London. (Sadly less likely I’ll be in Cambridge any time soon).


  12. Céline on

    Very interesting, will definitely let you know if I escape as far as London any time soon (you never know…) as would be lovely to meet up again. Happy to “talk” virtually about all this any time though.

  13. Jill on

    I am a cataloger working in a medium-large public library system. Two years ago, our cataloging staff started doing annual visits to each of our library branches. We divided up the list of branches among the cataloging staff so each librarian had 4-5 places to visit and completed the visits within 2-3 months. The first year we went, we were going primarily to let the public branch staff know who we were, what we did, and how we could help them. We took a survey of yes/no type questions with space for additional comments to gather information about the public staff’s awareness of cataloging policies, how much they liked/disliked things, what they wanted to see in the future, etc. All these comments were compiled, and after review by the supervising staff, a couple of changes were actually made as a result. This past year, we performed our site visits again, and asked some follow-up questions regarding the new policies recently implemented, and gathered input on some new things the cataloging dept. was considering. Overall, I think this has been successful for us on many levels: the public staff feel included in cataloging policy changes, the public staff is more aware of what the cataloging staff does and some feel more comfortable asking questions when they don’t understand something, or when they find a problem (I personally have about 3-4 people who email me regularly with questions–I never had this before we did the branch visits), and I hope most of all, this shows the value of having an in-house cataloging department.

  14. David E Bennett on

    I wrote a polemic article in Library and Information Gazette (“Where next for the back room?” Library + Information Gazette, 11-14 September 2009, p. 19) in an attempt to raise awareness and stimulate debate about the broadening of cataloguing interests. I responded to a request on Twitter for more detail on how to market ‘back room’ services in my blog thread “Forward the Back Room” (, and am about to submit an article to CILIP Update discussing cataloguing futures and directions with reference to the 2010 CIG Conference, which I hope will be accepted for publication in early 2011.

    For the last two years. I have also taken time off work to teach MA Information and Library Studies students cataloguing and classification at the University of Brighton, mainly because I believe it is very important that as many ‘library school’ students are grounded in formal approaches to information description, access and organisation (‘at. and class.’ as possible. The greatest long-term threat to cataloguers is a generation of future leaders who reach professional maturity without training or experience of cataloguing.

  15. […] you want to read more about what we are talking about then read our blog posts (Celine is at Thing blogging and Venessa is at Scarlett Librarian’s blog). We asked cataloguers to tell us about things […]

  16. lynne on

    Over the years we have tried to raise the profile of cataloguing and the cataloguers in several ways: a) we held “open days” where we would take a small group of staff from another area of the library and show them what happened to their order card once it left their office – the “route of the book” – from order, receipt, invoice payment, cat/class, local input, processing to shelf! This helped to dispel the myth (which existed even with librarians) that we just walked into the local bookshop, bought the book and then left it to fester in the “backlog” for months! We also ran similar sessions for all our team, so each could see how their small task fitted into the whole process. b)during the quieter months of the summer we offered cat/class hours to library staff from outside the team, in order to i) help us with our “backlog”, ii) help them understand our processes, iii) give them an extra string to their bow, and iv) to forge relationships between the “backroom bods” and the “real” librarians!
    More recently, however, I have been keen to expand the skill set of the cataloguers, or at lest help them to see how transferrable their skills really are. The institutional repository pilot was run by the cataloguing team, and metadata was entered by cataloguers. We have since got a dedicated Repository Officer, who nevertheless, works closely with the cataloguers.
    For my own part in 2007 I started a wiki aimed at keeping my cataloguers up-to-date with what was going on inthe world of cataloguing. I must admit the ulterior motive for this was to keep my own skills up-to-date and at least know what web 2.0 was all about! Not sure if any of this is relevant, but …

  17. Céline on

    Relevant Lynne? It’s more than relevant, it’s marvellous! Thank you, and thanks to David too. Really useful examples here.

    Lynne – is your cataloguing wiki restricted to your institutional colleagues or open more widely? Would love to see it.

  18. lynne on

    Hi Celine! Yup, anyone can look at the wiki, but it’s now 3 years old and is cumbersome, unwieldly,, too full of “stuff” and well-overdue for a re-vamp, especially since there are new/better features now available in wikispaces. I’ve also created a wiki to help our library staff keep their IT skills up-to-date and relevant – somewhere where they can easily find the answer to questions they may be asked by users, wiht the added benefit that this may help with their “backroom” tasks too. I have tried various wiki software, but always come back to wikispaces for its ease of use. Here’s the link to the IT one:
    Summer 2009 I, along with a few key people from my team, ran a half-day session on what we called “new technologies” – wikis, blogs, social networking sites, new gen catalogues etc. – showing the rest of the Bib. Services Team what was avaiable and how it might be used to help our users (and of course, ourselves in our professional capacity). This was very well-received, especially as people were just beginning to look at things like facebook in order to keep up with what their children were doing!

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