Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ask a Librarian: What does a Cataloger Do?

So you want to know what a cataloger does, huh? And I'm assuming you don't want some snarky answer like, "catalogs stuff." Okay. Then I'll give you the long answer. The trick is, the long answer starts with the snarky answer, because catalogers really do just catalog stuff. But the trick is what does it mean to catalog stuff.

Essentially, cataloging is the way librarians make materials accessible to you, the patrons. The cataloger sits down with a book and identifies all relevant information about it: author, title, publication date, publication place, edition, ISBN number, illustrations, subject, size--you name it. And then the cataloger puts that information into a MAchine Readable Cataloging format (MARC format) that lets the library catalog find the book you're looking for when you perform a search.

That's just silly, you say. We live in the time of Google and Amazon. Can't the catalog just import that kind of stuff from someplace else? Well, in a word: no. For one thing, even among libraries, some librarians do a (gasp!) bad job of cataloging something. (Yes, there are resources where catalogers pool their knowledge and efforts, making it (theoretically) easier to catalog the same materials. (It's referred to as copy cataloging.)) For general sites like Amazon or Google, it's often a sort of wild west frontier, with who knows how many duplicates in existence, all with minor differences in the record but no real difference in the book. (If you want to see this principle in action, try doing a search on Amazon for an older book. You'll often get a slew of results, with no really easy way to determine which is the one you're looking for.)

The whole point of a catalog is to make things easy for you to find. To make things standardized. To eliminate duplicates. To assign subject headings. All of these rest on the abilities of the cataloger. Thus, a good, careful cataloger is essential to a healthy catalog, which in turn is essential to a healthy library. If the catalog gets messy, it can be a lot of hard work to whip it back into shape. Catalogers need to have an good eye for detail and be able to do similar jobs over and over. (Just ask our cataloger what she thinks about DVDs. Go ahead. Ask her.)

An even more difficult task: they need to be able to look at an item and decide what it's "about." Try summing up a novel in a sentence. Then try summing it up in two concepts. Ideally, each entry in a catalog doesn't have a slew of subjects--just three or four main ones, tops. What do you do if it's really complex, with shades of meaning and themes? Tough luck: you still have to reduce it down to its basic essence. Maybe easy with nonfiction, but it gets much more difficult with film or fiction.

Again, in a small library, this duty may be done by a librarian covering several tasks. In a large one, whole departments handle the task.

So there you have it: catalogers. Did I miss anything? Any questions? Ask away.

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