The Importance of the MLS to Cataloging (Was: ACAT RDA’s impact?)

Posting to Autocat

On 11/3/2015 9:43 PM, Cindy Wolff wrote:
The people who are now being given opportunities will find themselves in the same position as current mid-career professionals who are still ambitious, eager to learn new things, and possess the wisdom of experience only be told to take a back seat until they retire, which for many might be a back seat for about 20 years. That’s more than unfortunate. That’s a cruel thing to do to people who still have the intelligence, the education (which wasn’t cheap), the heart, and ability to remain in the profession for a long time. There aren’t many other professions where years of experience are more of a liability than an asset.

Well expressed. Absolutely correct on all points.

The real issue, I think, is about the importance of credentials. Administrators today realize that the materials the library buys must be “described” and “organized” in some way (they tend to use the word “processed”) and the real question is: *who* will do it? Will it be people who have gotten the specific credentials from approved agencies? Or will it be anybody else who is adequately trained?

I have always believed that almost anybody who is sufficiently motivated can be competent in almost any field. (I stress “almost”) Does someone really have to have a chauffeur’s license and a medallion to drive a taxi? Or to drive a bus? Does somebody really need a 4-year bachelor’s degree to teach kindergarten? Certainly, there are specific skills you need to do any job, but are other factors more important, while you can learn any specific skills on the job?

What about experience? Do you want a lawyer to represent you who is straight out of law school or somebody who has a lot of experience? Personally, I wouldn’t care so much if the lawyer got his or her degree 30 or 40 years ago and had forgotten 90% of it, but had 30 or 40 years of experience.

I worked as a clerk in grocery stores for many years and we didn’t need a degree from some “grocery store clerk” school. Still, to be a competent store clerk, you need to know quite a bit: from knowing how to operate semi-dangerous machinery without losing a couple of fingers or toes, to learning how to order, to learning how to deal with difficult customers or colleagues. To work with produce or as butchers takes a lot more knowledge and skill in addition to those of a clerk.

Universities have always said they do not provide “vocational education”–you are supposed to get that in “vo-tech” but they provide other knowledge.

Some of the best catalogers I have ever met did not have an MLS but they had tremendous experience and knowledge and they were deeply interested. I have learned an incredible amount from them. The degree serves other purposes. I confess I remember relatively little from library school and most of that is probably more or less obsolete at this point. I am sure that those in library science schools today who may think they are “current” and that the earlier generation is “past it” will eventually feel the same as I do. I have tried my best to keep current in other ways however.

Traditionally, accreditation has existed primarily for employers who could be guaranteed that an employee had a certain level of competence and commitment. In the new economic/technological/information environment the value of almost all degrees is being questioned by all administrators.

The information world has changed radically since I got my degree. It continues to change and since budgets have become all important, it seems that employers (not only in libraries but employers in general) want to widen the pool of potential employees and therefore, accreditation is not seen as so important–especially in cataloging. Is this a correct attitude?

When you are a librarian, but especially a cataloger or IT professional, it is not so easy to consider this question both objectively and dispassionately since we all have so much “skin in the game.” It seems that almost everyone is either scared or they have a pet project that they believe in passionately and they will promote and protect that project with all means available. It’s tough to consider what they say as “objective”. I am including myself in this mix.

That is why I have tried to look at what people outside of those professions have said–that is, the users: what the scholars themselves say they are doing and what they would like; what research into “information discovery” by different communities says; what I have learned from talking to students and others; what I have discovered about my own activities and needs as a user, and so on.

Linked data will undoubtedly have major effects on catalogs. I think the “single search box” that searches all types of metadata and full-text in one search while providing a single result, will have much greater effects than linked data will, and probably already has where it has been implemented. If the majority of “information discovery” is taking place outside of the library-created tools, what does that mean for the future of library cataloging?

The effects of all this on the profession of cataloging remain to be seen but I think it is vital that it be seriously addressed, instead of putting our faith in the abstractions of RDA, FRBR, and that linked data will be good for everybody. All that may turn out to be correct, but there is no evidence. The simple fact is: nobody knows.

If such a statement of fact that “nobody knows”, which is equivalent to “the sun rises in the east,” gets a rise out of us, that is because we have “skin in the game.” It’s tough to be dispassionate.

Unfortunately, our catalogs are seen mostly as obsolete tools by people outside cataloging, including those who control where the funding goes. Those people see all kinds of new tools appearing almost daily, each of which is easier to use and much more “interesting” than what we make. “Obsolete” catalogs are made by catalogers. Draw your own conclusions.

Of course, I don’t agree with any of that, but sadly, I don’t control the purse strings. Until the cataloging community can demonstrate clearly to everyone (not only ourselves) how what we create is necessary, not in abstract terms but in useful and practical ways, I fear that little will change for the better.

Not to end on a gloomy note: I think the MLS is important for catalogers. I think what we create can be very useful, perhaps more useful than ever before. But we need new approaches.