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