Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Cataloging in the Digital Age

I've never found much about how our cataloging has changed with the rise of electronic cataloging, and I've been looking around quite a bit for it in the past few months. Maybe because it's so intrinsic in our everyday lives, so no one bothers to write about it. Or maybe catalogers just don't have the time, and the researchers never catalog.
The point is this: we catalog a lot more fully now, then we did before 1990. I never understood why this was. Did catalogers just not care? Was the rise of the internet and search engines creating a demand for better records? Or was it something else?
I decided that it was definitely something else, and that is the catalog card. Not user perceptions or demands, but the nature of the catalog card.
In the years of the paper card catalog, the main entry "card" was usually more like 2-3 cards. A good catalog record is complex, and has subjects, and author, and title and varying title and numbers and extant and everything else we have in catalog records today. That can be a lot of cards. When LC made your cards for you and sent them to you, they also did the cataloging, in effect, because they were making the cards. However, when OCLC came online in the 1970s, suddenly it was possible to have a much longer record. The computer didn't care how long your record was. But--here's the catch--you still had a card catalog, and when you "cataloged" in OCLC, you still ordered your cards from LC.
I have ranted and raved over the seeming incompetence of the cataloging librarian who came before me, who was in the position for 30 years before retiring, and who, in her "wisdom", deleted content note fields. 505? Gone! Anything beyond information on indexes and bibliographies? Gone! This is made me angry to no end, because of course nowadays we positively love for our books to have content fields; the users demand it!
And one day it dawned on me: she was deleting these fields because they ate up space--on a paper card. Catalogers, in the 1970s, 80s and some of the 90s, were still ordering paper from LC, and no one wants a 6-page card. So what do you get rid of? The fat. Anything in the 5xx fields was fair game. Getting a book's record down to the absolute minimum of cards was the goal. Unfortunately, the mentality (without the reason) kept on for a long time after it was unnecessary. And some of it was never fixed. Find a record in OCLC for a book published before 1980, that isn't really important enough to have been reprinted. The record is woefully inadequate by today's standards. Why? Because that was the most efficient record that could be created. Efficiency of SPACE overruled efficiency of SEARCH. Which also explains why searching an online catalog used to be so very annoying. A catalog full of small records? How can you find anything when you're limited to only 3 subject headings and no content field? What kind of keyword searching is THAT?
Today, of course, its common for records to be very long--a table of contents field, a summary field, 6 or 7 or 10 subject heading fields. Space? Who cares about space? Space doesn't exist.

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"Wicked people never have time for reading. It's one of the reasons for their wickedness." —Lemony Snicket, The Penultimate Peril.