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.


11 comments so far

  1. darklecat on

    My cataloguing training was partly through stealth; I was an acquisitions assistant, and these were the days od Libertas. At first the cataloguer pointed out to me and the other assistant that when we added basic records in the acquisition side of things for ordering books, how punctuation and placing really mattered when it came to the cataloguing side of things. Then it came the time for him to leave, so he gave us some basic training on what to do (using libertas), there was a huge gap between him leaving and being replaced, and then the replacement was a systems librarian rather than a cataloguer. Anyway inbetween myself and the other assistant had to cope as best we could (not knowing when/if he would be replaced). So we started doing the easy stuff – extra copies, new editions of stuff we already had. Understanding how to create a record is also different from working out the classification and subject headings, but we more or less worked those out as we went. We used Dewey, and we were used to tidying the shelves, and were familiar in general with where things went, so again it was a case of, picking the easy things first, and graduating to more complicated stuff because if we didn’t do it no-one did. Essentially we only had a little bit of training, and then we learned on the job helping one another. I think we did a pretty good job considering we didn’t have lots of training. I’ve since gone on to a professional cataloguing job, and the initial training there helped to fill in some technical gaps (and has also highlighted that we were cataloguing to a slightly lower level in my previous job). I’m still asking questions (I think we all do), but learning on the job is the best way to go about things. My initial training, in hindsight, was only adequate for an emergency stop-gap which was all it was intended to be, but circumstances dictated otherwise. I’ve since done some basic cataloguing training for other members of staff who have to enter basic records from scratch (they are upgraded by professionals at a later stage), I usually have to stop myself from telling them too much! And this training doesn’t included classification. I’d be interested in hearing about other people’s experiences (sorry if I have waffled too much here). Karen

  2. Céline on

    Thanks for this Karen – you’ve made me realise I omitted a whole category of people who are cataloguers “by stealth” as you say, or accidental cataloguers (a subset of which is reluctant cataloguers). I’m sure there are plenty of people who are essentially self-taught as you describe.

    I completely agree that we should all be still asking questions. I see asking questions as a very positive trait in a cataloguer.

  3. Rachel Oldridge (@RachelOldridge) on

    I did a bit about cataloguing for my masters, a basic introduction to what MARC looks like, but learnt most of it on the job, mostly on a “what you need to know about how we do it here” basis rather than from first principles, working in a university which bought in records for most things anyway. When I started work on a project catoguing ejournals, I was trained by a very keen and enthusiastic cataloguer, and I got to love it. But I wouldn’t describe myself as an expert cataloguer – I enjoy it, it’s always been about making the resources available fast rather than creating the perfect record.

  4. Tina Reynolds on

    I more or less trained by doing too. My manager showed me our LMS, explained roughly what needed doing, handed me the (short) manual we had lying around for guidance and let me get on with it. For the first few months I had all my records checked by him but then it stopped. I’m not certain that this approach would work as well in a library more interested in following actual standards but it seemed to work well.

    I then did a module in Cat & Class (distance learning with Northumbria) which I found really interesting and quite easy to do but felt it skipped over a few things. Didn’t really apply anything much of that at work.

    I’ve never done copy cataloguing and I don’t really understand it to be honest…

    We catalogue(d) books. Most other things it was just updating a record. We don’t have any multimedia holdings.

    I think it worked well but if I was using a more complicated system – I would have wanted more handholding.


  5. Helen on

    Hi Celine. Good post! I think you make a really good point about institution-specific versus general cataloguing, but there’s another specific/general point to be made too. For me, the big question is: what’s the actual purpose of cataloguing training? Is it about training people to be proper, bona fide cataloguers (in an existential sense!), or about training people to get by in their jobs?

    The training I got (probably very similar to yours) was definitely the latter. It was a bit of Marc21 background, a very handy handout, a bit of AACR2, and very little of it hands on. At the time, it was pretty confusing and probably not ideal. But it suited the kind of cataloguing that I had to do (and still have to do).

    Cataloguing makes up about a third of my job, and probably a bit more when I’m reclassifying (which feels like all the time these days, stupid Shakespeare writing so much). But the kind of cataloguing is about 95% copy, and about 80% English modern monographs. The other 20% is made up of things like CDs and DVDs, foreign language materials and special collections (gawd help me). I’ve had a bit of “troubleshooting” training in the latter two, which helps. But what it means, ultimately, is that while I’m definitely not an expert, and while I can’t do owt fancy, and struggle a bit sometimes, I do know how to catalogue a book properly, to the Cambridge standard, and at speed. Which is all my job really requires.

    Question is, should my training go above and beyond that?

  6. Orangeaurochs on

    I also first learned to catalogue on Libertas in a time when subject librarians had cataloguing permissions. As a student assistant (graduate trainee) I did a variety of work, including helping a subject librarian, who also happened to be a trained cataloguer and had me pulling cards out of the card catalogue then downloading and tidying appropriate records (mostly Egyptology material in German). The training was basically quite informal and entirely pragmatic. Incidentally, this was all in UKMARC, which has turned out to be very valuable experience.

    Shortly after that I did the MA where I was given the full formal cataloguing nine yards. We were taught AARC2, UKMARC, and LCSH. Incidentally, this was about the time that MARC21 was being increasingly adopted although our lecturer seemed of the opinion that learning it wouldn’t be necessary, even when raised as a possibility in a further cataloguing module (our library was in fact actually adopting it at the time so it was by no means a theoretical question). Ludicrous though this may have been, the course’s thoroughness in teaching AACR2 practice (especially punctuation) meant that adapting to MARC21 wasn’t as difficult as it could have been, especially as UKMARC hadn’t become that ingrained.

    There was enough on the job training to get settled in followed by opportunities to ask questions as they arose. This involved materials in all subjects and languages as they arose, although at that time it only really involved books. There was no real distinction made at the time between copy and original cataloguing. Original cataloguing was basically copy cataloguing from a skeleton record. I’ve always liked the idea that copy cataloguing is essentially original cataloguing but saving on the typing (i.e. trust nothing) although by necessity that will have to change I think and in many ways is changing already.

    After that, I learnt as much as I could by always looking things up. I have an atrocious memory so constantly checking rules and looking for examples is necessary for me and also a good idea to make sure that what I think is the right way actually is (and also the right way still is the right way). I think close engagement with the rules and standards is important, and when this ebbs away after training is when cataloguers can get in trouble. My preferred method of learning is to read about something and to try it; I’m not a big fan of going on training courses, although having someone explain something can be useful for something entirely new. For something like learning how to catalogue CD-ROMs, I would much prefer to sit with AARC2 and work through the rules (this is, after all, what they are for) and find it hard to really understand the benefits of paying to have someone reword it for me and give a presentation, to effectively distance myself from the standard. That said, I spent some time reading about RDF years ago and was left cold; an introductory day on the subject brought the subject to life, although this involved a number of interlocking standards/concepts (RDF, XML, Sparql, linked data, open data), as well as actual use cases, and a large amount of political/cultural background.

    I have trained various cataloguers, although rarely from scratch. When I have effectively trained a cataloguer from scratch it has been incredibly difficult. Perhaps because of my own limitations or because it’s the way I was taught, I think a big formal introduction is the best way to get started. After this, it is vital to get as much practical experience as possible as only real things throw up the enormous variety of little problems requiring application of the principles and the use of the more arcane rules. This is the area of training I’ve had most to do with, and it can take quite some time. It effectively means a) finding out what an individual has experience of, b) some introductory training in the LMS and any obvious gaps, c) a period of rigorous checking of work until I am happy. This last stage can last months. I generally don’t cushion new cataloguers from any type of material, except perhaps ebooks which are not in the normal run of the workflow. I might also hoard some of the more specialist kinds of things, such as videos, so that the new person can have a go at a run of them in one go. I periodically run training sessions for groups of cataloguers on various current things (such as FRBR) or aspects of cataloguing (e.g. authorities or CD-ROMs). I think these are useful although don’t have a lot of formal feedback to back this up.

    I haven’t mentioned classifying as we are fairly unusual here in not classifying, which is done by subject staff.

  7. John McManus on

    Hi Celine,

    Some slightly disjointed and repetitious thoughts on a very interesting blog post.

    I learnt to catalogue in dribs and drabs over a period of 16 years. I got my first experience of cataloguing many moons ago when I worked in a library in small arts college in Dublin. It relied entirely on a card catalogue and the librarian there kindly took me under her wing and explained the basics of descriptive cataloguing. I also learnt the rudiments of Dewey which has stood me in good since ever since (it was formerly a seminary and now that I classify religion that experience is really paying off). That was in 1994, there was this thing called the internet taking off and the library was about to purchase its first computer. I remember setting up a a basic database and manually transcribing all the index cards – tedious in the extreme! – but a good grounding nonetheless. How much I’ve retained from that time I’m not sure, but I think it’s helpful to have experienced cataloguing in a non-MARC environment – albeit that MARC took its cue from the card cataloguing tradition.

    After leaving the library world for a while by the time I went to library in school I had forgotten quite a lot. The course in question had a cat & class module, but to be honest it did not prepare me for work as a professional cataloguer. I remember compiling a 16 digit Dewey number, but what good that did me I’m not sure. I agree with your contention that learning by doing is the best way to become a cataloguer.

    When I started work in Trinity I received a very thorough grounding in original cataloguing by an esteemed colleague. It was quite intensive and gradual. Very similar your own approach I was give some basic fiction to catalogue before gradually progressing to more difficult material. Each record I created was reviewed and corrected. In hindsight I feel very lucky -Trinity being a legal deposit library means that I can draw on a pool of expertise unmatched anywhere else in the country. I only really appreciated the effort expended on me when I turn began to train in new colleagues. It is exhausting.

    I employed the aforementioned “gradualist” approach – and reviewed and corrected all the records created by the trainee until they reached the point where I was happy to let them do an original record. We are, I must admit, guilty of a lack of documentation around these parts and in hindsight I could have tried harder in that regard.

    Original cataloguing is time consuming and there are always new things to be learnt. LCSH is a continuing bone of contention with me, and I am still not sure I can justify the amount of time I spend agonising over subject headings. About five years ago I lucky to get two days intensive training on LSCH from an ALA approved trainer (unfortunately I has a dreadful hungover but we won’t dwell on that). She provided really good documentation (a manual!) which I still refer to. It’s quicker and handier and consulting the red books themselves.

    I have more to say on this topic but I have an RDA presentation to revise

  8. Alison Hitchens (@ahitchens) on

    Hi Celine
    I don’t have time for a full response today but I did come across this document which was an outline for the first day of the last cataloguing associate that we hired (the associates to copy cataloguing and also descriptive original cataloguing –original subject cataloguing goes to the cataloguing librarians although in practice I don’t think that always happens!). Thought you might find it interesting! This was an internal hire so already familiar with the circulation module of ILS and the library itself:
    1. Tour of the department and introductions to cataloguing staff, acquisitions staff, binding staff
    2. Session with Systems to make sure her computer is set up; check configurations
    3. Cataloguing department policies and structure
    4. Break
    5. Outline of training
    6. Brief “tour” of cataloguing tools and software (just intro, not full explanation)
    a. Cataloguing website and UW/TUG policies
    b. Class web and Cat Desktop
    c. AACR2 and LCRI
    d. Subject cataloguing manuals
    e. MARC manuals
    f. LC catalogue and AMICUS
    g. MARC edit
    h. Macro express
    i. World Wide Web
    7. Lunch
    8. Introduction to the Voyager cataloguing module (overview)
    9. Introduction to common MARC tags (cheat sheet)
    10. Break
    11. Comparing full records to the books (she can do this while I’m on the Info Desk)

    I also came across this training checklist in my training folder:
    • Department overview & policies
    • TUG environment
    • TRELLIS (Voyager)
    o TRELLIS defaults & Templates

    • Full LC-Copy (BNA approval books)
    o Checking description and entries
    o Checking MARC coding (MARC manuals)
    o Checking subject authorities
    o Checking name authorities
    o Checking geographic names and subdivisions
    o Checking series
    o UW locations (TUG holdings manual)
    o Ownership
    o Physical processing & binding
    o 246 entries
    o Duplicate records and deletes

    • LC CIP copy (BNA approval books)
    o Cataloger’s Desktop (online tool)
     AACR2/LCRI
    o Macro express (cataloguing tool)

    • Non-LC derived copy
    o Searching for cataloguing copy
    o Classification web (online tool)
    o Cataloger’s Desktop (online tool)
     Subject cataloguing manuals
    o Checking Classification
    o Shelflisting
    o Literary authors
    o Editions
    o Translations

    • Canadian materials (FC, PS)
    • Accompanying materials
    • Multi-volume sets
    • Conferences
    • Standing orders
    • Government documents
    • E-resources

  9. Heather on

    This really is a very interesting topic – thanks for raising it!

    Unlike many of the others who have commented, I did have a good basic introduction at library school to the theory and practice of cataloguing and classification, and that has been invaluable. I agree that nowadays that kind of basic training is the exception rather than the rule, and sometimes library schools are guilty of having their students leave with the belief either that noone does cataloguing any more or that anyone can do cataloguing “just like that”.

    My experience of training is that I (like Celine – I thought I was the only one!) prefer to start with original cataloguing and explaining what cataloguing – initially, descriptive cataloguing – is and what the principles are. However, I have very frequently encountered the response that, “I don’t need to know all that – just tell me what to do”. There is a perception, held by many librarians and not a few cataloguers, that cataloguing is all about rules – all you have to do is know the rules and follow them (more or less unthinkingly). Hence, I think, the popularity of cheat sheets of various kinds. When recruiting cataloguers (an experience I doubt I will ever enjoy again) I used to set a practical test of cataloguing three (not very difficult) books according to AACR, with pen and paper. The text of AACR was supplied. Quite a lot of candidates struggled – several told me that this was because they were used to filling in a form – without the form, they didn’t know what to do. And this “just tell me what to do” response is harder to counter when we are all up against a shortage of time and staff, and speed gets to be all-important.

    The lack of resources also fosters the attitude that “good enough is good enough” – and I don’t necessarily disagree. We do have to be sure that we are spending our time as usefully as we can, and possibly it doesn’t always matter if we put a colon where a semi-colon should go, or don’t count the number of pages. Unfortunately this means that senior managers tend to assume that we actually need less expertise, and what is extraordinarily difficult to get across is that the opposite is true – in order to know what is good enough, you have to be a better cataloguer than someone who always gets it right – you must be able to make a judgement, based on experience and knowledge. In order to cut corners, you have to know where the corners are and which ones it is safe to cut across. It’s a bit like Formula 1, I suppose – in order to go very fast without causing a pile-up, you have to be a better driver than someone toddling along at 50 in the slow lane!

    • Esther Arens on

      F1 – what a great analogy! And so so true about expertise for cutting corners. Just brilliant!

  10. Nicky on

    What an interesting blog post, and interesting to read the comments too.

    Like most of the other comments, I have had very little formal cataloguing training, but before I started cataloguing in a MARC sense, I had worked with a lot of databases, so I had a good idea of the importance of consistency and standards.

    My first experience of MARC21 cataloguing was only a couple of years ago in a library assistant’s post where I was introduced to the intricacies of multimedia cataloguing – not the easiest area to start with! I was quite surprised to be let loose on the library catalogue with only a short training session from the main cataloguer and a cheat sheet of the fields that needed to be filled in, but I did my best. The main cataloguer would try and help if I got stuck, but no-one was routinely checking my records and, looking back, I think a fair number of errors slipped through.

    During this time, I finished my library degree and got promoted to the main cataloguer’s post. I was acutely aware that I needed to improve my skills so I went on a couple of training courses and had a few cataloguing sessions with my new boss who was able to explain some of the trickier parts of AACR2. He did check my work initially, but didn’t have time to continue with this for more than a few days and left it for me to ask when I wasn’t sure. For the most part, I taught myself – reading the manuals, scouring web sites and forums, and asking for help from colleagues in other institutions. It has been a baptism of fire and I felt completely out of my depth to start with, but after a year, I am beginning to feel that I know my way around the standards, and I am beginning to understand the implications of the decisions I take. In time, I hope to really know what I’m talking about!

    As far as my training is concerned, I think a mix of formal training to understand the principles and hands-on experience to put it into practise was the best way of learning for me. It is only by doing cataloguing that you really learn the craft, as you see how the rules are applied in practice and as you come across the tricky records that increase your knowledge. Although I would have liked a bit more hand holding at times, this isn’t always possible in a smaller institution. I do wonder how the experience would have been different if I was working in a large team.

    I now do some informal training of other members of staff, and one thing that really helps to emphasise the importance of attention to detail is to be able to show them the effects in the OPAC of missing out an indicator or a subfield code – then they can really see why it all matters.

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