Re: The Process of Cataloging in the Future

Posting to RadCat

On 17/05/2013 10:43, Michael Gorman wrote about the “Structured Data Markup Helper”: at

It all depends what you mean by ‘cataloging.’ Michael

Since this is RadCat, I guess this can be asked: what exactly is the purpose of cataloging today? Also, what will be the purpose and significance of a “local catalog” in a networked information world where everything is available at the click of a button, as it will be eventually?

Even Melville Dewey, writing in Library Journal in 1877 (its first year of publication), laid out the problem very clearly in his article “Co-operative Cataloging”, with a few points that I emphasize:
“At the present time, if a specially valuable book is published it finds its way to at least a thousand different libraries, in all of which it must be catalogued. One of the highest salaried officers(!!) of each of these thousand libraries must take this book and examine it for the scores of points that only a cataloguer can appreciate the necessity of looking up. Perhaps a half day is spent in preparing a satisfactory note to append for the benefit of the readers(!!), etc. etc. And all this work is repeated to a certain extent in each of the thousand libraries! Can librarians complain if practical business men call this sheer extravagance?”

Well, we can all agree that things have changed since 1877: catalogers are mostly no longer the “highest salaried officers” and taking a “half day” on a note or two would be–at the very least–frowned upon by most cataloging departments. But I see the main point differently: Dewey does not so much question that each library must do some level of cataloging when an item is received, but he questions how much extra work should be done when a matching catalog record can be found for the item the cataloger is holding. After all, that is what cooperative cataloging is all about. Dewey seems not to question that there should be at least some level of work, and while he does not state it explicitly, this is because there can be a huge number of details that may distinguish the item the cataloger is holding, from the copy record that the cataloger sees. And these details may be significant. So, the cataloger should at least check that the title is the same, the dates of publication and paging and so on. This is because there are definitely two separate items: the one described in the catalog record that the cataloger cannot see, and the one the cataloger is holding.

With online materials, we are dealing with something Dewey could probably not have imagined. If you and I wanted to catalog/index Dewey’s “Library Journal” article I cited above that is in the Internet Archive, we would be working on exactly the same thing–we are looking at precisely the same file. If practical business men called “sheer extravagance” the earlier methods of cooperative cataloging when they added copies of items to a catalog, what would they say about people working on exactly the same things?

Additionally, if materials are available with no labor or hassle, but immediately with a single click, at least some descriptive cataloging seems to be less needed. Even Dewey in his article mentioned the possibility of cooperation with publishers, and there could be far more cooperation today. And as far as subjects go, many members of the public think that is the least useful of all of the information in a record, while I try to maintain that it should be the most useful. But I admit that the “could” and “should” in those last two sentences are the real kickers, because the way subject headings are implemented in catalogs now, it must be admitted they simply don’t work. Also, shared, enforceable standards would have to be a part of any new solutions.

Finally, local catalogs themselves are being questioned as obsolete today. A comment on my recent podcast pointed out what I think many may agree with: “local cataloging as it exists today is a waste of time” These ideas must be dealt with, and RDA/FRBR wave it all away.

I think a tool such as the “Structured Data Markup Helper” could be useful as a first step toward something that might show the public that value of standards-based cataloging. And if they see the value, they may even be willing to support it.