Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Radical Cataloging: Essays at the Front edited by K.R. Roberto

I just realized that I finished this a while back, and I haven't really written about it much. Like any book of essays, some of the essays are better than others. I'm probably not "radical" enough for some of the writers who contributed to this book, but I appreciate that some of them care enough about certain issues (like queer subject access, or the classification of Native American materials) to force the cataloging world to change, however slowly.

I think, for me, the most enjoyable and potentially useful section of the book was part 3, which included essays on innovative cataloging practices. One essay (Michelle Emanuel and Susannah Benedetti's "Browsing Berman, finding Fellini, cataloging Kurosawa: alternative approaches to cataloging foreign language films in academic libraries") would be good for me to consult, if only to get myself in the proper mindset, if we ever decide we need to do a cleanup of our DVD/VHS call numbers and subject headings (or genre headings). I've started trying to formulate and follow a plan for how I construct call numbers for DVDs such as those based on plays or books, but that doesn't take care of previous inconsistencies in practice.

Another good essay I'm going to have to go over again sometime is Wendy Baia's "User-centered serials cataloging," which includes tips for serials cataloging damage control. I don't know that we'd necessarily want to follow all those tips, but I can understand why she thinks they're necessary, and it wouldn't hurt to look through them and at least consider them and figure out what their implications would be for both our users and future serials record maintenance. Or maybe I'll just recommend this essay to Janie - I'm sure she'd like some of the tips.

Although it was short, I enjoyed Robin Fay's "'Why isn't my book on the shelf?' and other mysteries of the library," which was about error reporting. The author's library's catalog has links to an error reporting form at the bottom right of the screen - sometimes users report actual errors in records, and sometimes the "errors" they report are actually indications that the library needs to be clearer about certain things (for instance, the meaning of the word "discharged," letting students know what they need to do if they can't find a book the catalog says is there, etc.).

Jennifer Erica Sweda ("Dr. Strangecataloger: or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the tag") and Dana M. Caudle and Cecilia M. Schmitz ("Drawing reference librarians into the fold") also wrote essays I enjoyed, although, with me anyway, they were preaching to the choir. Personally, I love the idea of user applied tags (in conjuction with the continued application of LCSH by catalogers, which I'm a little worried about the future of, after reading Thomas Mann's "What is going on at the Library of Congress?"), and getting input from reference librarians on how to improve the catalog seems like a no-brainer to me.

I'm going to have to take a closer look at Dana M. Caudle and Cecilia M. Schmitz's "MARC: it's not just for cataloging anymore," although I think some of what they describe in their essay is stuff we accomplish with ItemCat1 and ItemCat2 in our item records. However, I love their description how their library maintains its lists of electronic databases - using information drawn from the MARC records in their catalog, Perl scripts generate updating A-Z and subject-specific lists. Database cataloging might seem a bit less like slogging through thigh-high mud if I knew that the information I was inputting might end up being used as more than just a bandaid for confused students. I keep putting my database cataloging off in favor of other things.

An essay I was particularly looking forward to reading was Carrie Preston's "High-speed cataloging without sacrificing subject access or authority control: a case study." I already do some of the things Preston mentions, like making use of macros (although I really need to figure out how to create a macro that strings together several macros, so I don't have to run each one separately). Some of what Preston writes is a little more painful, like choosing not to enter certain information that is considered optional. One thing I've incorporated into my current regular cataloging is the elimination of bibliography pagination - I still check it if it's already in the record, but I don't add it if it isn't, and probably no one will ever miss it. I consider table of contents notes or summary notes to be more worth my time than bibliography pagination, and, using a combination of copy and paste and several nifty macros, I can create summary and contents notes more quickly than I used to be able to. One thing I incorporated into my cataloging of our databases was sitting down and figuring out which fields absolutely need to be there, which fields need to be checked if present but don't need to be added if they aren't, and which fields don't even need to be checked. Having a set list of things I need to pay attention to has helped speed things up a bit (when I actually choose to work on the project, which I've been really bad about).

The thing about all "radical" cataloging decisions is that they need to be applied consistently. If a cataloger decides, for the good of his or her library's users, to do something differently from what the rules say and what other catalogers do, that's fine, but those decisions need to be documented for future catalogers.

One thing I think also needs to be taken into consideration is whether or not the benefits of any local changes to the rules outweigh the drawbacks. For instance, Brian R. Thompson's "Monographic collections structure and layout revisions: or, how to tweak LC call numbers for the good of your users" details how his library came up with an implemented a huge reclassification project that tweaked LC call numbers so that books were grouped together in a more user-friendly way. This sounds great (and exhausting to do), but it also means that this library may never again be able to use call numbers in records they import as they are - in order to keep their clean, user-friendly arrangement, they might need to tweak the call number of each book they have to catalog. That works fine if you've got enough catalogers, or at least enough people trained in assigning call numbers that follow local practices, or if catalogers don't need to catalog much, but otherwise it's potentially a nightmare. Currently, however problematic LC's assignment of call numbers sometimes happens to be, I accept almost all LC-assigned call numbers without question. I can't imagine having to at least look at, if not tweak, each call number I encounter. Cataloging takes long enough as it is.

Overall, this book was pretty interesting, and some of the essays would probably even be readable by noncatalogers (it should be noted that not all of the essay authors are catalogers). However, catalogers in particular should be able to get something useful out of this, even if only a different way of thinking.

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