Thursday, November 20, 2014

So You Want to be a Catalog Librarian?, by Christine DeZelar-Tiedman

It may or may not be true that catalogers are born, and not made, but most catalogers I know naturally drifted toward it. For some it was through pre-professional work experience, for others it was in library school, where they were one of a handful of students who actually liked their introduction to cataloging class. However we got there, changes in technology, standards, and funding have all led to a radical evolution in what we professional catalogers actually do. This means there’s been a change in what skills are needed and desirable.

Caveat: My comments are from the perspective of a cataloging manager in a larger academic library, although a lot of what I have to say may also apply in other types of libraries.

The Cataloging Life
If you have a romantic notion in your head of spending your day with a stack of books, carefully crafting MARC records, think again. Although monographic cataloging tends to be the default in introductory cataloging classes and training sessions, in many libraries a large portion of books are received shelf-ready, and the batchloaded vendor records receive at most a cursory glance by a copy cataloger or acquisitions staff member. Also, larger and larger proportions of acquisitions budgets are going toward ebooks and electronic journals. Professional catalogers are much more likely to be managing copy cataloging staff, editing and loading records in batches, ensuring access to online resources, or providing cataloging expertise in a specialized format, language, or subject area. If you are an academic librarian, you will also be expected to serve on library and campus committees, be active in professional associations, and do research and publication. While many of us find cataloging relaxing and meditative (as well as intellectually stimulating), you’ll be focusing on item-level original cataloging far less often than you might expect.

Cataloging or Metadata?
Job postings for Metadata Librarians sound an awful lot like cataloging positions. Many libraries (including my own) use Metadata as an umbrella term to encompass traditional cataloging and metadata creation in other schema, such as MODS, METS, EAD, and Dublin Core. The most common model for a Metadata Librarian is to provide consultation regarding metadata standards for digital collections or other units or departments creating metadata, though some metadata postings seem to be traditional cataloging positions with a little bit of metadata thrown into the mix.

Desired Skills
The current library job market being what it is means there are a lot of aspiring catalogers out there looking for work. When hiring, there are particular job skills I’m looking for (and rarely find) that would help an applicant rise to the top of the pile.
  • Programming skills. Linked data is getting more and more important. Add to that the development of BIBFRAME, and you can see why catalogers who know how to code and can speak the language of IT staff will have a leg up in helping us use and transform cataloging data in multiple platforms.
  • Batch editing skills. Know how to use MarcEdit or OpenRefine? If you haven’t had the opportunity to use these tools, I recommend you start playing around with them. The ability to analyze data sets, and to see the big picture, rather than thinking record by record, is what’s needed.
  • Foreign language proficiency. If there are monographs sitting around my department waiting to be cataloged, chances are they are in a language that no one on staff can read. The tricky part is that the default languages taught by most colleges and universities are Western European languages such as French, Spanish, or German. We have numerous staff who can deal with those. I’d love to find someone who can handle Russian, or Arabic, or Hebrew, or South Asian languages like Bengali and Gujarati.

The good news is that there are fairly inexpensive ways to acquire most of these value-added skills. MOOCs, online tutorials, and open source software abound. Although cataloging has never deserved its reputation of being rote and rule-bound, the life of a cataloger today is dynamic, challenging, and at the center of cutting-edge technology. In fact, I’d say there’s no better time to be a cataloger than today.

Christine DeZelar-Tiedman is Manager of the Archives and Special Collections Metadata Unit at the University of Minnesota Libraries, and has worked as a cataloger in academic libraries since 1995. She received her MLIS from the University of Iowa, and is active in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of ACRL. You can follow Christine's musings on books and reading on Twitter @Place4Readers and on her blog The Reader's Place.

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