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.

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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.