Wednesday, October 02, 2013

The answer to life, the archives, and everything

So, here's a story problem that I never faced while a fledgling archivist at the iSchool:

You have been tasked with creating an archive for a university of 14,000 students, 700 faculty, and a forty-year history. When you arrive on the job, you are given 10 large boxes' worth of material which has been "donated" over the years. There are no donors noted: everything has been put into boxes cheek-by-jowl. You know the rough layout of this University and its organizational flow, but many projects and publications are joint efforts by multiple offices within the University. How do you organize those ten boxes into a cohesive grouping of materials while maintaining the integrity of the archival system and also setting up the archives for future scalability and storage of new materials?

Answer: Um....42?

Honestly, I am floundering a bit here. Intellectually I know that at this point, with so little material relative to the grand scheme of things, I can do whatever I want and rearrange things in the future if needed. But I really want to create some order, and I want that order to work long-term with relatively little re-walking of the same paths. And more things are of course coming in all the time, which just leads me to even more uncertainty as holes are filled in and new holes are discovered. "I don't know what I don't know" seems to be quite a common problem for me these days. My gut tells me to create some broad umbrella super-series or record groups and make everything fit under those umbrellas, but that comes with its own risks and weaknesses.

I have a terrible gut sometimes. But I can't get paralyzed by indecision, either; I have shelving being put up, which will force me to impose some kind of system on these things whether I am ready or not.

As my advisor used to say, "Into the breach!"

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Decision-making and management

Yesterday, we had our professional development meeting. This is for the librarians, and we talk about issues that surround moving up in your career, libraries generally, or management issues. The reality of the meeting is that it's a chance to sit around and think bigger thoughts than we tend to do in staff meetings, where all we talk about is systems, schedules, conferences, etc. I really like the professional development meetings.

Anyway, so  yesterday we all read an article about decision-making, and how people tend to make decisions with their "guts" and how that's really a terrible way to make a decision. We talked about why institutions will sometimes get themselves in trouble over a poorly made or impetuous decision, and how individual personalities and politics are usually wrapped up in that. We also talked about how decisions can be made by thinking that you only have two choices, when in reality you may have four extra choices that you're not seeing because you're too close to the issue in the heat of the moment.

This discussion led me to think of my past bosses, and how I tend to be as a boss (or as part of a project team). When I was younger, I was a true drama-creator. I would blow something way out of proportion and then eventually I'd sit back and say "what the...? Get a grip on yourself." But by then it was usually too late.

In my second "real" job, I had a boss who, while he didn't cure me of this tendency, certainly gave me the tools to keep it in check. He did it by example. Whenever someone came to him with a crisis, his first move was to say "let's think about this" and we'd sit down and talk through the scenarios. If you asked him about something less critical, he would always listen to the whole spiel, then say "great, I'm going to give this some thought and I'll get back to you." He always made a decision, but he also always made his decisions after giving the matter some consideration. There was no wringing of hands and discussing the matter ad nauseum, and also no brusquely telling people that his way was the best and then being afraid to back down. Consequently, he really was the best boss I ever had. And not just because he took the time to make decisions, but because he was a fantastic example of how to make decisions well.

Now, obviously, you could have someone who took time to make decisions and then made poor decisions. I think the genius of his approach was that he not only gave himself time to make the decision, but he gave me (and my peers) time to give the matter more thought. So when I came back to him the next day, he would tell me what he thought and I would have new things to say, and we could come to an agreement with some distance and with calm minds. Even today, when I am about to send an email, I will hold onto that email for 20 minutes or so, come back to it, and re-evaluate.

Decision-making is hard, being a boss is hard, but it was so great to get to work under someone who refused to see his job as putting out fires. I think he saw his job as never letting the fires get started in the first place.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A Defense of MARC

Today I decided to work on the procedures that we will use in the future to create finding aids. I'm trying to keep things loose and relatively flexible, so I'm creating a form that will have space for typing in all the things we need in a finding aid, and making each heading a combination of both the DACS elements and the MARC field that one would associate with those elements. This way someone else could conceivably take a finding aid and turn it into a cataloging record without me there.
Anyway, so I'm looking through the DACS crosswalks, using the DACS/EAD/MARC table. And here's what I see:
2.1.5 Country identifier COUNTRYCODE

The MARC21 format does not contain a straightforward mapping for this DACS subelement value.
And, in another place, a footnote: The two-character country code is found in the latest version of ISO 3166-1 (Codes for the representation of names of countries and their subdivisions). While EAD requires the use of the ISO 3166-1 standard for names of countries, the MARC 21 standard has not yet adopted this code list. Use the code appropriate to the output system for a given description. The MARC Code List for Countries is used in archival cataloging (e.g., mixed materials) to indicate the country of the repository in the 008 field.

So, the first part made me really angry, and the footnote kind of makes me upset as well. First of all, there is indeed a very straightforward way of noting the country in MARC. The issue seems to be that DACS doesn't trust its poor archivists to read or interpret the MARC country code list. It's not that hard; any fool can google MARC country code list and find it. Plus, why not help archivists understand what MARC is doing and how it relates, rather than just throw up your hands and say "well, its in the 008 field; what can we do?"
And as to the footnote: if you're wondering why MARC hasn't adopted the ISO-3166-1, it's probably because the ISO standard does not allow you to represent the individual states of the United States in the code like MARC does. Which, for an archival system like DACS that is pretty much just for Canada and the U.S., you'd think they would embrace this functionality.

I know I've harped on this before, but I get so tired of people treating MARC like it's a junk standard. It's NOT. It's brilliant. It packs more information into a few lines than most of these standards could ever hope to include, and it does it in a language and system-neutral way. I guess this functionality is what makes it scary, I don't know. I remember being afraid of MARC in graduate school because of its immense complexity. Most of the archives people treated it like a black box, and the cataloging professors were teaching AACRII, and used MARC as its framework, rather than taking the time to show us how MARC supported and built upon AACRII rules.

I'm sure that someday we will give up MARC entirely. No standard lasts forever. But I don't like that people are throwing it over with so little thought, and treating its flexibility as a liability.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Ode to Dublin Core

I'm currently trying to take the courses necessary to fulfill the DAS (Digital Archives Specialist) requirements and get certified. I took my second of the first tier of classes yesterday, which is called Standards for Digital Archives. It was an overview of the different metadata standards and some of the tangential programs that go along with metadata. So, the usual players: OAIS, MIX, MODS, PREMIS, we dabbled in JHOVE, and TRAC and some things similar to that. And we also went over Dublin Core.
My comment to an archivist friend was: "unless you've been literally living under a rock for several years, how is it possible to have archivist who have not heard of Dublin Core?"

I know that this was mean-spirited of me. But seriously. Who on earth is going to be taking the DAS courses and hasn't at least a passing familiarity with DC?
I think my main beef was with how it was presented. "This is *Dublin Core*, named after Dublin, OHIO, where OCLC is located, and it has FIFTEEN elements."

I've heard this so many times, and its starting to feel like one of those Archival Fairy Tales.
"Oh, tell me again about the development of DC! Did they end up with 15 elements?"
"Now, now, let me tell it!!"
"Ok, ok, I promise to be good. But don't forget about qualified Dublin Core!"
"If we have time, and if you're good."

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Access in Archives

I'm back, to ponder the nature of service in the archival world. Get ready to gaze at those navels, people.

When I left the realm of "pure" archives, almost 7 years ago, most large archival institutions had *some* digital content available online, and had EAD finding aids available in union catalogs or online repositories. They had websites that mostly directed patrons on how to come in to the physical building and do research. It was at this point that I left archives and went into cataloging/library metadata.

For a few years I worked as an original cataloger and maintained the ILS for a small university library. Then I worked as a metadata liaison between an archives, digital library, and cataloging department of a medium-large research library. And then...well, then I came back to archives.

After having worked in places where ensuring usability was always my top priority, it was strange to come back to archives, especially as I remembered it. Archives have not historically been known for their accommodating nature when it comes to user needs. In fact, many archivists prided themselves on how restrictive their use policies were.

However, luckily just as I was returning to the world of archives, I got to see the results of the most recent SAA conference and some of the discussions that are percolating through the community. A small sample of some session titles: "Exploring the User Experience with Digital Primary Sources", "Disruptive Components: Reimagining Archival Access Systems", "Archives without Walls".

While some of this was happening when I was an archival student and young professional archivist, mostly at that time we were just trying to come to grips with the realities of electronic records and digitization. Usability was an afterthought in many ways. But now--! As a person whose career focused exclusively on the user for many years (and I hope this job will allow me to stay focused on the user), I feel so much more comfortable now than I did when I was pondering this move back to archives.

The moral of this blog post is best stated by Socrates (forgive the translation as I assume most people do not read Ancient Greek): "the secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but towards building the new."

I should make a motivational poster.

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Public Face of an Archives

I've been going around and around in my mind about how I want to present this archive to The World. Since we have no public face yet, I'm pretty open to possibilities. The question that I've been facing over the past couple weeks is one of storage. Where do I want to store our metadata?
Now, for the digital/digitized things, I used CONTENTdm and it works pretty well. It's not perfect, but the perfect is the enemy of the good. I like it well enough, and it seems to like me ok too. The metadata for those items are kept in its brain. But what about the metadata for the collections as a whole? I feel as though I have a couple options in this regard, and I keep going over and over it in my mind, even though I'm not at a point where I can put anything in place anyway.
First option: The Old School
Straight-up MARC cataloging, and paper (well, Excel) accession records. No EAD. Now, this may seem like a dumb strategy, since EAD is what everyone uses, etc etc, but hear me out. In our library, where this archive is a little lost lamb, no one uses nor has heard of EAD. The catalog runs on MARC and RDA/AACRII, and I could, with relatively little trouble, create some pretty ballin' MARC records for the archival collections. I used to do it for a living, and I felt pretty good about the amount of information I could pack into a MARC record. Of course this leaves Future Archivist in the cold a little bit, because damn, everything's in MARC, but guess what? We'd have to do this work anyway so that it could go into OCLC, and I would have the added benefit of getting to use the power of the library's discovery portal for all my collections. That would be nice.

Second option: Archival Management System
I am going to get myself set up with a test system of Archon and we're gonna play around with it. But given the state of our archives and its newness, I am not confident that we could secure or maintain funding for a pay system, and of course Archon is going the way of the dodo and then we'll have to pay at some point. Plus, this is a TINY archive, do I really need that much computing power at this point or even five years in the future (when there will inevitably be something way better to implement)? Also, the discovery portal that the library is using is not compatible with EAD, so catalog records would still be necessary if I wanted to mingle with the library's holdings.

There are a ton of kinks to work out, but I want to try to create a system that overlaps and interlinks, so that even if I'm using a weird mashup of ILS, website, and CONTENTdm, that the user isn't feeling confused or let down by a poorly thought-out system. I have more thoughts on the user-driven model for archives, too, which I will probably talk about more as time permits. I was so glad to see that the SAA meeting was so devoted to exploring the idea of service, because after having been in libraries for several years, I was pretty disappointed in many ways at the way that archives still serve (or don't serve) their patrons.

More on that later.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


I remember, when I was starting out in archives, getting excited about every new thing that came across my desk. I was a history major at the time, and every scrap of history was a new world, another little piece in the puzzle of "what happened." My curiosity eventually lost its edge. I mean, I didn't lose my love of history or anything quite so dire, but I definitely gave up on the sentimentality of the historical object. When you see enough old newspapers, you kind of stop caring about every article, every advertisement, every photograph. The sheet weight of all that historical material pressing on your time strips some of the romanticism away from the work.
But today, I got sucked back in. A random newspaper article, with a quote from a very famous man who recently passed away. The quote was inflammatory, and not at all flattering to either our university or the city and its population. It made me really hungry for more information about my university and its place in the history of this community.
Normally archivists don't deal with this. Rarely are we the ones who personally investigate history, but in some instances, we have to be. Because no one else is going to investigate.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Back to the Archives

It's been awhile since I last posted, but a lot has happened since I last posted, so I suppose that makes sense. I got a new job, now once again working as a "pure" archivist. It's been quite a few years since that was true, but it feels good to be focusing on archives. Luckily, the intersection between archives, digitization, and metadata is a big one, so I'm still doing what interests me the most.
Richard Pearce-Moses' new blog inspired me, I suppose, to start writing again (although he stole my blog's look-and-feel, so now I have to go change it!). Plus I hope to have lots of things to write about and think over, since the new job is a big one.
My new job involves building an archive from scratch--this university has never had one before, and at the brink of their fortieth anniversary, decided that they really wanted to start caring for their institutional history. So here I am. I'm straddling two realms in this job, both arranging and describing physical papers and objects and also trying to capture and work with born-digital materials and somehow wrangle a coherent whole out of all of it, because their users expect digital delivery even more than most traditional universities. Oh, and also go get collections and materials to fill the archive with. And write policies and procedures. And build a physical space to house all this stuff. And do it all basically alone. It's kind of a daunting task, but I prefer challenging jobs to unchallenging ones.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

LC Classification Tables

Just as fair warning: this blog entry is probably only interesting to catalogers. And maybe not even every one of them, but I really need to process my emotions about the Library of Congress Classification today.

I’m sure that all catalogers have had this happen to them: you’re assigning a call number using the Library of Congress classification, no big deal, flipping through (or scrolling through) the call numbers, you come to what you want and then BAM! “see Table XYZ.”

That’s usually when I say under my breath “Please shoot me now.”

I am not a fan of the tables in the LC classification.

Now, it’s not that the tables are hard, per se, when you get the hang of them. It’s that they are all different, and they are used in strange ways, and when you’re cataloging a lot of different kinds of materials, you don’t use the same tables over and over again. Therefore you don’t ever gain a lot of facility with any of the tables, and they are always slightly terrifying.

If you are not a person who is familiar with the tables, but have still read this far:  there are lots of tables. There are tables for assigning cutter numbers to a translation, tables for fiction, tables for art, and even internal tables for every schedule, interspersed throughout the scheme. They are little matrices for making a complex call number even more complex and unique.

I’m not against the tables; they actually serve a very important function which is to make space within the classification scheme for all the various materials that might be cataloged and classified using it. But they’re really confusing and they make me feel stupid every time I have to dive into one. I don’t know if there is a solution to the problem of the tables, and I don’t know that I would want to be the one to fix it, anyway.  But I really wish that learning the tables didn’t require 20 minutes of internet searching and re-learning every time I need to use one, either.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


I have two quotes printed out and hanging at my desk:

"When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong." --R. Buckminster Fuller

"God is in the details." --Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

I look at them every time I am exasperated, or bored, or feeling antsy. Cataloging is actually really taxing: it can be pedantic and uninspiring, which can lead to errors born of boredom or apathy. Even when we're working on something that should be "sooo interesting!" we can lose perspective. A fellow cataloger commented the other day (after spending way too long working with incunabula): “This week is dedicated to my appreciation of the invention of the goddamn title page.” Even the most rare and interesting works get tedious after awhile. 

So I keep these words in front of me all the time. The details are important; beauty and simplicity in our solutions is important. The basic tenets of cataloging.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Power of Tradition

I recently was handed “Notes used on catalog cards”, compiled by Olive Swain, from 1963, when I was having trouble remembering how to word a certain turn of phrase related to a translation. This is a fantastic little book, a second edition to an earlier compilation that I don’t have at hand. It gives examples of all the notes that you might want to use in cataloging a book (not scores or sound recordings), in an attempt to provide “good examples of notes for use on catalog cards.” Ms. Swain said that it would “help catalogers phrase quickly and keep relative consistency in expression.”

There are several chapters, from Abridgements and Abstracts to Works Superseding and Replacing Others. There’s even a chapter that remains a mystery to me called “Habilitationsschriften,” “Rektoratsreden”, etc.—and I’m almost afraid to go look at what the “et cetera” is going to be.

Swain, who was the head of cataloging at the California State Library when she began working on this second edition, made very thorough work of researching the different types of notes, using the Library of Congress copy that they had at hand, as well as the National Union Catalog, and the “Rules for Descriptive Cataloging in the Library of Congress” (precursor to AACR).

So, what I like about this little volume is that I still use it today when my mind goes blank on how a note should read (even if I never realized I was using it). Because even though there are no “set” rules on how you note translations in the 546 or editions in the 250 or bibliographies in the 504, there are definitely turns of phrase which are more acceptable than others. This little book, compiled 50 years ago, was probably the definer of those guidelines that I still use today. And it’s funny, isn’t it? That there are no rules as to phrasing, yet any cataloger can tell you that “Latin and French side-by-side” is wrong, and “Parallel texts in Latin and French” is correct, even though they do say the same thing, and even though probably very few catalogers actually consult Olive Swain’s “Notes used on catalog cards” anymore. It’s become tradition, something that is passed down from cataloger to cataloger by the acknowledgement of the need for consistency.

What a profession we inhabit.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Yearning for the Good Ol' Days

There’s a discussion on Autocat about interfaces and how they are all different, and basically mourning the loss of the totally-standardized card catalog. Yes, back in the day, a person could roll into a library and go to the card catalog and they would know exactly what they were looking at, and how to use it (if the already knew how to use it). Today, you roll into the library and sit down at the terminal and (these Autocat people say) you will have to “re-learn” the catalog in order to do any research.

I have a very basic and negative reaction to this kind of thinking. Okay, yes, it would be great if all the library catalogs everywhere in the world looked the same (I guess? I don't know if I really care that much). However, luckily, we are human beings with the ability to adapt our learning behaviors to fit the task at hand based on past experiences. So while I may not know the catalog I see before me from past experience, I *can* use my past experiences to tell me which searching behavior has worked in the past in my former libraries. And since we catalogers all use the exact same method for creating library metadata, the chances are good that my searching behavior (which was successful before) will succeed again. Maybe the online interface looks different, but there’s still a search box there, and I still see titles and authors when I do a search. I’m still using a qwerty keyboard and a mouse and it’s on a windows operating system (probably), using Chrome (hopefully! I’m biased).

In addition, users *expect* a learning curve when they access an unfamiliar website. If I need to find a tire place, and I see that there is one near me but I have never gone to their website…do I hide under my blankie and say “oh, but I've never been there before, so I will probably mess it up”? No. I click on the URL and I go there and I cast around for a bit and find what I need.

The internet and web-based catalog interfaces have been around for about 15 years now. After all that time, I think our users deserve a bit more credit and a bit more trust.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Creative Cataloging

I was reading through the bibframe listserv, as I do, because I lurk, and I kept kind of muttering at my computer screen “what? But you’re not the user!” or “catalogers feel better when there are guidelines?” And then I happened across this from Karen Coyle:

“I'm convinced that we cannot "model our universe of data" as a metadata model that covers everything anyone would ever want to catalog, or how they want to catalog it. This is why I am highly skeptical of FRBR -- because it tries to fix one view of bibliographic data, as if the world isn't undergoing constant change. While there may well be a convenient core of elements, beyond that the main qualification, IMO, is re-usability -- give catalogers a whole host of elements that they can use wherever they want, even if no one has used that combination before. The instance data then becomes the picture of the bibliographic universe, not a pre-defined structure. In other words, create the tinker toys (or Legos for those not old enough to remember tinker toys) and let the catalogers make things with them.”

Now, I agree with her very much, but only in certain cases. The certain case that I am thinking of is the one where you have a very experienced cataloger who can make educated guesses about the thing they are cataloging. Nate Trail, from LC, responded and argued that some catalogers do like the structure offered by distinct elements for distinct classes of material. And I agree with him, too, but only in the case of an apprentice cataloger, or maybe someone who has not before been let off their cataloging leash.

I am convinced that we need to put more trust in catalogers, not because they necessarily deserve to be let loose on the wilds of cataloging, but because if we don’t create standards that allow people some free reign, they will *never* learn how to catalog creatively. And we need creative cataloging more than ever. I just heard about a book that had an ipad with it, with an app that added dimension to the book. There is no possible way to predict what the things that come into our library will look in even five years, and to try to create snuggly blankets of rules for carrier types and pre-built cataloging structures is probably going to end up making catalogers more confused and less experienced in the long run. I think we learn better when we’re a little scared.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

What Catalogers Go Through

An excerpt of a conversation between myself and a rare book cataloger:

2:27 PM AKD: Are you really cataloging a book called Pigs and Pigs and Pigs?
2:28 PM me: I am
  it's an artist's book
  of course.
 AKD: Of course!
 me: the title is tres amusant
2:29 PM but i mean that in the worst possible way
 AKD: :) I was hoping it would be more literal. Because, you know, pigs are neat.
 me: ME TOO
  but alas
  it's just abstract art coupled with pseudo-poetry
2:30 PM AKD: Gross. I am cataloging a book that is either entitled 13 Hats or is by a group of artists who call themselves 13 Hats even though there are only 11 of them.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Alternative subject classifications

So I was cataloging a book on the theory of integral equations (don’t all great stories start this way?), and I had to read the introduction because I love books about math, and the editor mentioned the Mathematics Subject Classification (MSC) (developed by the American Mathematical Society).

The what now?

So I obviously Googled it. And not only did it lead me to a fascinating system of subject classification for mathematics, it also led me to a sister-classification scheme put out by the ACM, the Computing ClassificationSystem (CCM), and to the Physics and Astronomy Classification Scheme (PACS) (released by the American Institute of Physics).

Now, all of these were developed at different times. The PACS was not developed until 1975, but the CCS was released in 1964. It’s unclear, from just a cursory search through the internet, when the MSC was developed, but someone wrote “It’s been around almost as long as the AMS.” The AMS was begun in 1888, so that would be a LONG time.

So what do they do? Well, fair reader, they are used to classify academic papers so that poor researchers can make heads or tails of what the author wants their work to relate to. I personally think this is genius. Let the author tell you what their work is about! There is only one primary subject class allowed per paper (for the MSC, I don’t know about the others), but there may be several secondary subjects assigned if the author feels that it is pertinent.

I cannot believe I’ve never heard of these systems before, but I am thoroughly fascinated. The whole idea behind allowing, or even *requiring* the author to classify their own research is such a good one. I used to do that, when I was an original cataloger and was doing original cataloging for professors at the university. I would just email them, tell them what I was doing, and ask if they had any special requests for the subjects of their books. First, it generated a ton of good will from the faculty, but it also helped me, because we had a lot of philosophy faculty and no matter how good of a cataloger you are, it's hard to figure out what they're talking about sometimes. 

Anyway, these schemes are something interesting and useful and different.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Charles Cutter and the Buffalo Public Library

 Charles Ammi Cutter did many things for the library world, but the most fascinating thing that I can find on him is his paper, entitled "The Buffalo Public Library in 1983", written in 1883 for the annual meeting of the ALA that year. You can find it in its entirety here.

Now aside from the fact that Cutter missed the mark on the population of Buffalo in 1983 (he said 2 million; it's 1/10th that), his musings are really awesome. Even though he did not, unfortunately, provide for the endurance of human nature. He claims that in 1983, because we have gotten better at teaching our children, the desire to read fiction has gone down from 75% to 40%. Oh, Mr. Cutter, you card.

Cutter puts a dedicated HVAC worker in this library. He also had ILL via telephone (remarkable!). Also, the library was open EVERY DAY.

But one of the most telling parts was his imagined answer to cataloging, writing some 80 years before the AACR:

“This,” said my guide, “is our cataloging and machine room. The books are classed and prepared for cataloging, each in its own department, under the eye of the librarian of that class. Difficult cases may be referred to the chief librarian, who will decide them or turn them over to the council, an advisory body composed of the several librarians, who meet every week, presided over by their chief, and deliberate on doubtful points of administration. But in the department the book is only prepared, the heading is settled, notes are written, and the like; the actual cataloging is done here by fotografy, instantaneous of course, as all fotografy now is. Here, you see, the new books are arranged, open at the title, against this upright board. These are duodecimos and octavos, the quartos are put on that stand farther off, and the folios farther off still, so that all the plates may be of about the same size. The standard catalogue card now is ten centimeters wide and fifteen high. Underneath each title you notice a slip, on which the cataloger has written those facts which the title does not show; the number of volumes, various bibliografical particulars, and sometimes short criticisms. These are reproduced on the plate. Longer notes, which are sometimes needed, must have a separate card. When a sufficient number of boards are ready one is put upon this travelling-car which is moved forward by clock-work; as each title comes in focus the slide of the instrument is drawn, and the title and its note are fotograft. The whole operation is very short, and, since the late improvements, much cheaper than writing. The printing from the negative is done in this way. We want, of course, different numbers of the different titles according to the number of times which they will enter into the catalog. A few, for instance, will only appear in the author catalog; others must be put under half a dozen different subjects. Multiplying the number of our catalogs by the number of appearances, and doubling this (for we always reserve the same number that we use) gives the required number. You see these round stands some with 6, some with 7, some with 8 sides, and so on. The cards to be printed are put into these and revolved in focus before the instrument. Different combinations give us the number of cards we want. If it is 25, two tens and a five are revolved; if it is 16, a ten and six are put on.” But doesn't the mounting take a long time? “Oh, no; nobody mounts nowdays, we fotograf directly upon the card.” The cards, by the way, were not kept in drawers, but ingeniously fastened together to make little books so contrived as to allow insertions without rebinding. “Experience has shown that they can be consulted more readily in this way than when kept in drawers.”

Friday, February 01, 2013

Process v. Product

Cataloging is changing, there is no doubt about it. Even as we hold on more tightly by writing rules and guidelines and more theory and more rules and more guidelines, it seems to be slipping through our fingers. Some of the change is coming simply because of globalization. OCLC is not just for American libraries with the money to afford to share data and train catalogers anymore. I work within a department that is traditional (by traditional I mean wealthy, with time to train catalogers, and the resources to keep them, and the culture to respect their contribution to the library world), and one that prides itself on its thorough and thoughtful cataloging. I’m a very lucky cataloger indeed, to work at a place like this. I know that very well.

But we talk a lot about the degradation of cataloging “standards” here. I use quotation marks because I’m not quite sure what that even means anymore. For the purposes of our conversations, of course, it means that what we see in OCLC (or other record clearinghouses) is not what we used to see. Missed punctuation, missed fields, misspellings. Things that, in the heyday of the marriage of MARC and AACRII, would never be missed.  We have a system of hierarchy here, where we hold DLC to the highest standard, and have several libraries we hold as almost as trustworthy, and we turn to those libraries as our trusted sources of cataloging copy. Things are not so clear now, and more work is required all the time to turn OCLC records into records we can use in our catalog.

Now, I think we all realize that we are paddling against the current on this particular problem if we think that we can control the changes that happen all the time in cataloging (and libraries generally). Most of the catalogers here are resigned to it, and we slowly change our own standards so that we don’t have to put as much time into our own work (because there’s always a backlog and it never ends).
My question, though, is…is this a value-neutral change that is occurring? Are we actually losing anything by becoming more lax in our standards? And I do think we’re becoming more lax generally. New metadata standards do not even come *close* to the kind of thoroughness that MARC contains, because they focus on a streamlined feel. Even big metadata standards tend to streamline themselves. I don’t know if this is good or bad or even something that terms like “good” and “bad” should be applied to. We *are* sliding away from strict control of our metadata though, out of necessity and out of a different idea of what we need in order for our metadata to work for us.

I’m interested in where cataloging is going, and technology has always been an aid to a cataloger, but I hate to think that we might lose our dedication to good description because we've committed ourselves to productivity.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Lingua franca

So, as I said a few days ago, I have been out of the library game for awhile. But I have a persistent question regarding MARC and BIBFRAME. Maybe it’s been answered already, and if so, some kind person needs to point me to the answer so I can lay my feelings to rest on the matter.

Here’s my question: BIBFRAME is in English. Does this bother people? Did it once bother a lot of people and it's now all fixed up and has a resolution?

I know that English has become sort of the lingua franca (haha) of the digital world, but I’ve always seen the strength in MARC as its language independence. I may not speak German, and the German across from me doesn’t speak English, but we both know what a 300 field is. BIBFRAME is, I’ve heard, being experimented with by the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek. Are they using a translated version that has a crosswalk to English? Or is it just English and they have to learn it? How do they feel about this? How do other countries’ library folks feel about this English-centric model? I’m so curious, and I haven’t really had time to dig very deep into this question of mine in search of answers, but it seems absolutely of vital importance if this is supposed to be a framework on which we rest all of our future cataloging. Which is why I assume that someone smarter than me has figured this out already. I just don't know what they did about it, and would like to.

Monday, January 28, 2013


Well, it’s officially been what? a year and a half since I last posted on this blog. I’m back in the library world after a hiatus due to babies, and of course I have things to say about things again. And since this blog was just sitting around and not doing anything (figures…lazy blogs), I decided that I can start using it again for my blatherings.

And do I have something to blather on about?! Yes, yes I do.

There was a Webinar. Hosted by NISO and by DCMI, it featured Mr. Eric Miller and he talked for 90 minutes about BIBFRAME (which I hear has its own website now checkitoutlook!).

I am so excited about BIBFRAME that I actually went home and told my husband all about it. I never do this, by the way, because he’s a very nice man and also an attorney who doesn’t even know who Tim Berners-Lee is. Anyway, so I went home and started to explain why we are in the position of needing a new metadata schema for bibliographic entities, and I only got to the point of explaining MARC and he said “that seems clunky—why don’t they just make it so that the records can be searched by Google?” And then I had to say “you ruined my whole story.”

That is what BIBFRAME, if and when it gets on its feet, is supposed to do. It’s going to open up bibliographic data to the World in the form of tagged data that can be searched by the search engines on the internet. I’ve been telling all my (non-librarian, non-cataloger) friends about this, and they all get wide eyes and go “Ohhhhhh! That’s a good idea! I would love something like that.”

Yeah, no kidding.

I also had a thought regarding the paradox of vendors who say “we will change the metadata schema for bibliographic records when our customers demand it” and the customers (libraries) who say “We can’t change schemas until our vendor changes it, and every time we ask if they’re working on RDA, they say they are but we have no evidence of this!” Eric Miller seemed to suggest in that webinar that what should happen is that the librarians should march on the vendors and demand a change. And everyone in the room with me when he said that literally laughed out loud like crazy loons. So I thought to myself: wouldn’t it be more beneficial if Eric Miller went to the vendors and said “I have a solution to your problem with implementing RDA. It’s called BIBFRAME and it’s going to rock your socks.”
"Wicked people never have time for reading. It's one of the reasons for their wickedness." —Lemony Snicket, The Penultimate Peril.