Re: [ACAT] Lubetzky’s “Development of Cataloging Rules” and Principles vs. Rules

Posting to Autocat
On 17/01/2012 21:31, SHEPHERD, MATTHEW wrote:

Good afternoon! I’ve been following this list for over a year since I took a technical services course in my MLIS program. I am breaking my silence today because of a 1953 Seymour Lubetzky article included in the readings for my cataloging course. The article, “Development of Cataloging Rules,” begins as a historical summary, but Lubetzky concludes with a statement that seems quite relevant to recent discussions about RDA, AACR2, and LCRI:

“There is a school of thought which maintains that economy in cataloging requires a code of rules which could be applied without the exercise of judgment by the cataloger. Judgment, they say, is expensive because it requires highly paid people and takes much time. It is questionable whether this theory was ever valid in large and scholarly libraries. It certainly cannot be so where catalogers are confronted with a vast and mounting variety of publications on the one hand and a growing maze of rules on the other. It also is detrimental to the future of a profession which will require a generation of catalogers able to cope with greater cataloging problems than their predecessors have faced. Such a generation could not be brought up on a cataloging diet rich in rules and poor in principles, and on a preparation in cataloging which involved the use of rules without the exercise of discretion and reason.”

It seems that Lubetzky is picturing a future world in which cataloging is done via flowchart (which I’ve seen in use for cataloging sound recordings), and in which seemingly trifling decisions are elevated to matters of great importance (which reminds me of MARC, ISBD, and AACR2).

I find it interesting that Lubetzky made these observations in a largely print-dominated environment. I think that the development of electronic formats in particular (both to be cataloged and to use for cataloging) has perhaps made the application of basic principles a more difficult prospect. The minutiae of descriptive cataloging must also be considered with respect to machine-readability, as well (such as standardizing terminology in the 300 field for faceting searches). In short, I’m not surprised that there is currently a greater emphasis on detailed rules and procedures than on underlying concepts.

I’m admittedly a greenhorn here, so I don’t have much experience to weigh in very strongly on this point. I am interested in what members of this list think about Lubetzky’s conclusion. Is cataloging theory and/or practice too heavily focused on low-level issues to consider the larger perspective? Have developments such as those associated with FRBR and RDA been working toward or against the establishment or application of principles?

I realize there’s a lot to digest in the above, but I would enjoy reading your thoughts. The full Lubetzky article is available online at the following address:

Thanks for giving me the impetus to read this famous article once again. I too read it first in library school I believe, and at least one time since, and now, once again. It’s interesting how my attitudes have changed since the first time.

Today, I ask myself: what does “cataloger’s judgment” really mean? Of course, we can say that, based on the cataloger’s experience, he or she makes the best judgment and moves on. The problem is, the term “experience” itself means many things as well, so someone with a great deal of experience with, e.g. audio-visual may not have much experience with maps, or someone with experience in legal topics may have none or practically none with theology or art. The experience of any cataloger, even over many decades, is still narrow compared with the totality of the bibliographic universe (although Mac’s incredible knowledge may be a fantastic exception). As a result, any cataloger, when faced with a dilemma and having no rules to resort to, must make a decision on something where they have no experience. What is he or she to do?

I have seen two basic methods, each of which I think, are equally valid.

The first is to conclude that because there is no rule and I have no direct experience in this area, pretty much any decision will be satisfactory. Therefore, I will make a quick judgment and continue on.

The second is to conclude that because there is no rule and I have no direct experience in this area, I must spend time to search the catalogs I have for similar examples. After all, I am sure that someone before me has dealt with this problem or something similar–I need to discover how they handled it. So, this cataloger will spend time to get the needed experience before making the judgment, which only then will become satisfactory.

Lubetzsky, I think, suggests that catalogers take the first option in his article, although I confess that I have always tended toward the second one.

But, we are living in the 21st century, so there are additional aspects when considering Lubetzsky’s article that didn’t exist in his day. One is that tremendous strides have been made in online documentation. I have a certain experience with putting cataloging documentation online, and have discovered that in many ways the problems are not that there are “too many rules” but rather, the problem is one of computer-human interaction. In this case, the question becomes: What is the best way of recording cataloging decisions? In the example above, what if there were a very quick and easy way for either cataloger to record the decision they actually took, so that another cataloger could find that decision just as quickly and easily? So, if the question to any cataloging question could be found within three or four clicks because the rules are so wonderfully organized, then less “judgment” is needed and the results will be more consistency in the catalog along with greater efficiency for the cataloger. From this viewpoint, the answer is to build such a system that allows for a tremendous growth of rules and procedures but ensures easy navigation. There are all types of documentation in various fields online, and consequently, a lot of experience people can draw upon.

Another point that is just beginning to be used now in some fields but not cataloging, is the possibility of online collaboration. In my opinion, this is one of the most exciting possibilities today. Systems can be built, and exist now in different professions, where you can post a question and get responses from catalogers with expertise in specific areas other than your own. Autocat works slightly this way but there are far more powerful systems available. Wouldn’t it be great if you could call an expert on Skype, discuss the problem and share the resource you are dealing with live? The expert may want to discuss it with other experts before giving a verdict. The verdict and all the discussions behind it could be saved for others later. These are some of the possibilities available today. And almost all the technology is open source.

So my own opinion today: I don’t believe that the problem is that there are too many rules. Although in a print environment, having thousands and thousands (and thousands!) of pages of rules and procedures would make you faint, those days are over, and they are over forever. The problem today is to make the rules and procedures as useful as they need to be to allow for the greatest efficiency and as easy to navigate as possible, while the possibilities of truly online collaboration are amazing.

Sounds kind of like what the catalog itself could become, doesn’t it?