Why I Unsubscribed from Autocat

This news may come as a surprise for those who read this blog because a great majority of the writings here I have originally sent to Autocat. I have been active on that list for several years. Yet, I have decided to unsubscribe. Why?

I began a discussion about a topic that I felt was highly important: the LC proposal to change the subject heading Illegal aliens into two headings: Noncitizens and Undocumented immigration. The proposed change had even been discussed in the US Congress, apparently something that had never happened before. I had originally wanted to send a reply to the New York Times, which also discussed the change in an editorial (!) and led me to write the post, but I decided that my reply was too technical and preferred to send it to Autocat.

In short, I said that changing headings happen all the time, but I claimed that the proposed change would actually make it much more difficult for people to find materials on that topic. For more information see the original post.

The reaction on the list was puzzling. While there was genuine dialog on the topic, some became angry and then a few others called for those carrying on the discussion to stop because they were tired of it, although we were right in the midst of the discussion. I found, and still find this attitude very strange. It seems to me that so long as people are making substantive points, i.e. not adding simply Idiot! or +1 or -1, like on Facebook or Twitter, but are making genuine contributions, and doing so in a civil fashion, then the discussion should continue. For those who are uninterested in a topic, it is very easy to delete any email they receive, or set the email program to delete entire threads or even all postings from any individual, automatically. Very often, I delete posts that are uninteresting to me but I don’t try to silence others because I find that deleting their messages is too much trouble.

At one point, the moderators said that we could no longer continue the discussion on the list. I questioned the decision, pointed out how the discussion had gotten very interesting, but nevertheless, I stopped posting to the list.

A few days later, I received an email from the moderators who said that I would be placed on “review” that is, all of my messages would be filtered through them before being sent on to the list. I asked where in my posts that I had written anything objectionable, but was told there was nothing objectionable, I just hadn’t gone silent when told to.

That is when I decided to unsubscribe from Autocat since I was being punished for doing nothing wrong. In fact, I felt I was maintaining high professional standards.

At such a difficult time in the profession, it is truly unfortunate that this is what the cataloging world is coming to. How will issues be discussed that are far more divisive and that have far greater consequences than just a heading change? After all, I am sure everyone realizes there are lots of such issues in cataloging. Will those issues too be shut down because some find the discussions too troubling or too boring?

I will continue to contribute to other lists that are more welcoming to me and continue this blog. I may become more active on Twitter also.




  1. Julie Hankinson said:

    I would very much like to stay in touch with you, James, and I am saddened that you will no longer be posting to Autocat.

    July 11, 2016
  2. Charles said:

    Your AUTOCAT post on the subject was not the first. There had already been a long and detailed discussion of this exact proposed change, and that first discussion was shut down after it devolved into people spouting their personal politics. You revived that discussion (why, I have no idea, since you brought up no new salient points), and the conversation AGAIN devolved into mean-spirited comments and personal political rants. You continued the discussion after being asked not to – that was wrong. The moderators took appropriate action. Your taking umbrage at that fact is absurd.

    The discussion was not shut down for being too troubling or too boring. It was shut down because people were not responding professionally. You contributed directly to that negative atmosphere by continuing a discussion that had already been thoroughly discussed and put to bed.

    This entire blog post smacks of “privileged white male can’t stand being told that he doesn’t have anything of interest to say.”

    Frankly, your AUTOCAT posts will not be missed.

    July 11, 2016
    • I agree that YOU thought the topic was put to bed. Other professionals obviously disagreed, but you are free to consider all those others absurd. I am just pointing out that it is not so difficult to delete posts you don’t want to read instead of shutting down the conversation–especially on a matter of political importance.

      To be honest, I find your statement that “privileged white male can’t stand being told that he doesn’t have anything of interest to say” very strange in this context. This is more revealing of you than of the topic being discussed.

      I have felt a lot of animosity on Autocat toward me for awhile. I guess my feelings were correct.

      July 12, 2016
    • John said:

      >not responding professionally

      >mean-spirited comments and personal political rants

      >This entire blog post smacks of “privileged white male can’t stand being told that he doesn’t have anything of interest to say.”

      Hypocrisy much?

      July 12, 2016
  3. A said:

    I agree that this was shameful. On-topic, respectful conversation of a relevant topic should not be suppressed. (Not that everyone’s contributions on the topic were on-topic or respectful.)

    July 11, 2016
  4. Jeff Edmunds said:

    Hi James,

    To be frank, your post strikes me as petulant grandstanding.

    Your facility with English has served you well in terraforming a boring molehill (the discussion of/dispute over “Aliens”) into an even more boring mountain (“I was being punished for doing nothing wrong.”)

    You were not “punished.” You were placed on review.

    You imply (“I just hadn’t gone silent when told to”) that the intent behind this action was to “silence” you. Wrong. The intent of placing you on review was to allow the moderators to review your messages before they were posted to the list so that they (the moderators) could do precisely what their role as moderators is: moderate. Their apparent sense (right or wrong) was that the Aliens discussion had run its course and one means of moderating (“to reduce the excessiveness of”) the dudgeon was to review your posts for content. You were free to post anything you liked (you were NOT silenced), and the moderators stepped in to do their job, moderating.

    You write: “At such a difficult time in the profession, it is truly unfortunate that this is what the cataloging world is coming to.” Heavens to Betsy, coming to what? Moderators reviewing messages?

    You aver that there are cataloging issues that are “far more divisive and [..] have far greater consequences than just a heading change?” Really?! Name one. Sayre’s law: “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.”

    Let’s face it: cataloging is boring. Autocat is boring. Injecting politics (“aliens”) into it certainly livened things up a bit, but cataloging is not politics.

    Best wishes,


    July 12, 2016
    • Jeff,
      “At such a difficult time in the profession, it is truly unfortunate that this is what the cataloging world is coming to.” What do I mean? That if people cannot handle a technical discussion on the consequences of a simple heading change, what does that mean for the hard issues? What are some of those issues? Here’s just a few.

      Look at this chapter I wrote with Julie Moore and published in “Rethinking Library Technical Services : Redefining Our Profession for the Future” http://eprints.rclis.org/25338/ To begin, there are serious problems with budgets. For instance, the FRBR/Bibframe project will admittedly require decades and vasts amounts of money. Libraries have so far experienced only the very lightest effects of the ultimate costs. Will the funding be there, or the staff to do it? Where will funding come from? From staff budgets? From new acquisitions? From some new places we don’t even know about yet? Will it drop from heaven?

      How about the fact that the number of people in cataloging is going down while the work is going up? Some libraries are getting rid of their catalog altogether (http://libereurope.eu/blog/2012/09/04/thinking-the-unthinkable-a-library-without-a-catalogue-reconsidering-the-future-of-discovery-tools-for-utrecht-university-library/). Some are reconsidering subject headings and analysis, called “giving up on discovery”. There are serious consequences with the single search box. I discuss much of this in that book chapter. I could go on for awhile but I won’t. In any case, we are not discussing subject heading changes but people’s lives and careers. The future of the profession.

      Last but not least, how about the incredible finding (that was met with complete silence) in the report “Survey of Emerging Cataloging Practices: Use of RDA by Academic Libraries”. It costs $100 so I am relying on the summary. http://www.primaryresearch.com/view_product.php?report_id=595

      In the summary, it said (quote):
      – According to the survey participants 111.72 minutes is the mean extra time needed for every 10 library items cataloged using RDA vs. prior procedures. The median time was 50 minutes, and the range was from 0 to 600 minutes.
      – A plurality of survey participants were not in favor of retro-conversion services for RDA cataloging as they do not think that it will result in saving of time and money, and high quality records. Out of all 56 responses received 26 were against retro-conversion, 12 favored it, and 18 responses contained mixed opinions.
      – 35.59 percent of all survey participants say the library has spent “about the same” on cataloging over the past five years, while 32.20 percent estimate that they have spent “somewhat less.” Just 8.47 percent of participants say their institutions have spent “somewhat more” on cataloging.

      Almost *two hours* extra to catalog every 10 library items?! Median is almost an *hour*?! Then, we find there is no possibility of retrospective conversion because it’s not worth it and most libraries are not spending more on cataloging even though it takes substantially longer?! The consequences are easy to figure.

      If libraries were a real business and productivity got hit with that type of finding, it would be grounds to dismiss the supervisors. This documents a total disaster looming for cataloging but nobody seems to give it the slightest thought.

      “Cataloging is boring.” Too bad you think that. I think that if catalogers do not do their jobs correctly (whatever that means today–and tomorrow), then searchers can’t find anything, or in any case will experience so many troubles that they figure that cataloging is useless for their purposes. How many professional catalogers have told me that they believe subject headings are useless? I don’t agree (as I have discussed in great depth) but still: why pay for something that is useless? Or practically?

      Parts of every job are boring but that doesn’t mean the entire field is.

      Also, maybe you find cataloging boring, but at least in this case of “Illegal aliens” some powerful people in politics, and even at the NY Times, think that it is anything but boring.

      You don’t believe I was being punished or silenced. I respectfully disagree. Of course I was. That’s why I unsubscribed. Because apparently it’s easier for me to unsubscribe than for others to see posts they don’t like and have to extend a finger to tap the delete key. (i.e. those who don’t know how to set up a filter)

      July 12, 2016
  5. Mikey King said:

    James I have learned so much from your well thought-out messages to AUTOCAT. I have always found your comments to be well reasoned, apolitical, and free of rhetoric. Unfortunately others could not separate their bias from the discussion by only seeing pejoratives rather than descriptive terms. When I have occasion to sit with a new cataloger I try my hardest to coach them on taking their bias out of their work and let the piece do the talking. I do have colleagues who will never understand the importance of separating their knowledge of a subject when cataloging a work and how not doing so hinders access. I’m not as eloquent as you and that is why I have always relished reading your comments on the discussion list. Which reminds me that I have always disliked people using the term “listserv” when referring to an email discussion list. They’re for discussion not social media.

    July 12, 2016
  6. Ann Williams said:

    I thought the discussion was still interesting, still relevant (a decision is pending) and I believe that as long as the subject heading is clear, people can skip over postings. And aside from some others’ earlier postings and responses about word choices which may have over time veered off topic a bit or perhaps got heated enough to raise some concern among the moderators, I thought there was definitely still room for discussion focusing on the change’s impact on discovery and the implications for the profession of having “outsiders” making decisions instead of professionals. In the end, hopefully people who felt passionately did the practical thing and answered the survey or sent off letters to editors.
    I don’t think truly you were beating a dead horse or having a knee jerk reaction, and as a non-professional cataloger I learn from and enjoy your thoughtful posts, but maybe the timing after the initial outpouring was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. And perhaps there is an advocacy line we should try not to cross although the RDA discussions surely have and it’s not always clear what is a professional position vs. a political one since political advocacy is an important role for many professions. And what is the mission of the listserv: whatever the moderators say in the end! As far as reviewing your posts, I wouldn’t have chosen to do so myself given your reputation but I wouldn’t have dropped off the list either in response since it’s unlikely your posts would have been objected to other than on that topic. They can review my posts for all I care and probably should! Maybe I’ll sneak something subversive in the next time a subject heading change is made.

    July 13, 2016
  7. Kathleen O'Reilly said:

    Hi James,

    I just wanted to say that I’m sorry to see you leave Autocat. While I admit I didn’t always follow or agree with all your posts (I have a delete key too!), those that I did follow were always informative, thought-provoking and respectful.



    July 21, 2016

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