Thursday, January 14, 2016

Public Services Skills and the Technical Services Librarian: A Post-MLS Primer, by Catherine Oliver


I was a cataloger from the word go. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed my reference sources and services class, but I felt out of place. Reference and I, I figured, had no chemistry. Cataloging, on the other hand, was fascinating. The poet Joseph Brodsky frequently compares translating a poem to solving a crossword puzzle whose answers wouldn’t be printed the next day; for me, cataloging was like solving a crossword puzzle whose answers would make people’s lives better- and getting paid to solve it (ideally). I was hooked!

All this is to say that, like many librarians, I chose a camp in library school and figured I’d carry its banner through to the end of my career. But library life is never that simple. Most of the cataloging and metadata job ad descriptions I saw, whether academic or public, stipulated that reference and/or instruction responsibilities would be part of the job. And as I began working in the library field, I saw the wisdom of these requirements. Getting to know users and their needs does help catalogers do their jobs better, and there are few surer ways to do that than by working with the public directly.

When I finally got my first professional position, I knew that a certain amount of public service work would be part of the job, and I knew that was a good thing. However, I also remembered how out of place I’d felt in that reference class years ago. What could I, as a tech-services librarian, bring to the table? How could I stop seeing myself as a second-rate reference librarian and utilize my cataloging skills to help patrons in my own way?

Here are some of the thoughts I’ve come up with along the way. I hope they’re of value to other tech-services librarians who are wondering how to become valuable 700 $e contributors to their libraries’ public services:
  • We, as tech-services librarians, are skilled natural language to controlled vocabulary translators.
If you catalog for a living, you spend a lot of your time figuring out how to transform your own thoughts about a resource into the preferred terms allowed you by whichever controlled vocabulary you happen to be using. This gives you a significant advantage when you help a patron search in our catalog or in any kind of database. Not only can you translate patron queries into terms the database can understand, you can help patrons develop their own translation skills by encouraging them to think of searches in terms of nouns rather than phrases, to reflect on their needs and select the most specific terms possible, and, if that doesn’t work, to use the database’s cross-reference functionalities to play around with ideas rather than giving up.
  • We know our metadata standards.
I don’t want to get into the debate on the merits of MARC and RDA. Regardless, we know what uniform titles are, and how they can be useful. We know- and depending on the OPAC, we may know more than the catalog can display- how the 780 and 785 fields show the soap-operatic lives, loves, offspring, and deaths of serials and what that means for a patron seeking a particular issue of The Atlantic Monthly. We can show you exactly what the relator terms signify. In other words, we can open the record to patrons in a way no interface can.
  • The joy of browsing is ours to share with others.
The work of classification and subdivision assignment is done to allow patrons to browse, whether physically in the stacks or virtually by scrolling down a screen. We can use reference and instruction to show patrons how books are arranged on the shelf to allow for serendipitous discovery and demonstrate how perusing a list of subdivisions can be the key to finding just the right resource. We can also guide patrons to collections that might not be obvious, such as government documents or the bibliographies located in Z.
So remember that we, as tech-services librarians, have a lot to offer our patrons. And if all else fails, feel free to borrow my own pre-instruction session homily: Suddenly, Last Summer was not a documentary; they won’t eat you.

Catherine Oliver considered becoming a sheep shearer, a lyric soprano, and a sociolinguist before finally finding her niche as a cataloger, a career that combines elements of all three. Don’t ask about her novel unless you really want to know. She lives in Marquette, Michigan and is Cataloging and Metadata Services Librarian and Assistant Professor of Academic Information Services at Northern Michigan University. She tweets @marccold. [Editor's note: you really should follow her there. HIGHlarity always ensues.]

1 comment:

  1. I agree. I have always thought it important for "tech services" folk to work reference--to see how the call numbers and subject headings they've assigned "work," and also to see what the patrons need, how they approach research, etc., and how that knowledge can better help them organize the collection. Thanks for this post.