Changing rules, changing roles: being a cataloguer in 2012

Changing rules, changing roles: being a cataloguer in 2012

The text of the paper that Heather Jardine delivered at the 2012 Cataloguing and Indexing Group Conference in Sheffield

The one thing that everyone is agreed about is that change is the new normal, which makes for anxious times.  

The first sort of change that we are facing is changing rules.  Rules have always changed – before AACR2 there was AACR1, and before AACR there were rules which have replaced each other down the centuries, all the way from the Library at Alexandria. The same is true of formats – we’ve seen UKMARC change to MARC21, and now we are anticipating the end of MARC altogether. So changes to rules and formats are nothing new, and although they are uncomfortable and unsettling, as professional cataloguers we can cope with them.

The second change is in the sorts of things we are cataloguing and, again, we’ve always had this kind of change.  I remember when everyone was fearful about what we then called “audio-visual materials”, when we were wondering what we were going to do with sound or (even worse) video cassettes. Today this sort of material is mainstream, and we don’t think twice about cataloguing a Blu-Ray or a Playaway or any of a wide range of formats. Now we are facing a challenge in cataloguing everything “e-“ – but we’ll survive, we’ll cope, as we did before.

The next kind of change has happened before as well, but it is different in that we can’t control it because it’s not happening within our world, but happening to our world as a result of influences from the wider world outside. Very often the immediate driver is a restructuring and the immediate effect is that we are required to play a different role within the organisation to the one we were used to.

Restructures almost always result in an overall loss of staff, which means that there are fewer people to do the same amount of work or, to be more precise, to achieve the same outcomes. However much it is possible to streamline and review workflows, it still means that everyone finds themselves doing tasks that they are not familiar with, and these can be regarded variously as an unfair demand, a challenge or an opportunity.

A very common outcome is that bib services are combined so that acquisitions work is integrated more closely with cataloguing, under the same manager and with the tasks spread more widely across the whole bib services team, so that cataloguers find themselves doing acquisitions. Of course, if we had wanted to be acquisitions librarians, that is what we would have chosen to be, so there can be a certain amount of bewilderment and resentment.  Of course there is a lot of sense in mixing acquisitions with cataloguing, because it isn’t like the old days, when the acquisitions team created paper records and then passed the books across to the cataloguing team, who created a whole different set of paper records.  We’re all joined up now with an integrated LMS and probably accepted long ago that acquisitions staff have to learn a certain amount about cataloguing in order to create or download bib records. The real problem with cataloguers doing acquisitions, though, isn’t that we don’t all like it, but that when we are doing it, we are not doing cataloguing.

Of course it isn’t just bib services that lose posts and people in a restructure.  So, as we struggle to keep on top of a growing burden of work, and perhaps we don’t do it very quickly because we’re learning it as we go along, our colleagues need more than ever that we get it right, because they too have less time and fewer staff to pick up any errors. Unsurprisingly, this leads on to a loss of tolerance and a loss of engagement.  Just as we are facing changes to rules (RDA in place of AACR2), changes to data structure (whatever follows after the end of MARC) and changing materials (e-everything),  my colleagues would probably say that none of this matters to them as long as it doesn’t affect the speed with which we get their books onto the shelf. We’re not going to have a great long intellectual discussion about any of it. Even the best-intentioned people don’t have the time or the energy to be interested.

After acquisitions, the next logical area for bib services to take on is management information, especially when library systems teams are also reduced or done away with altogether. And it makes sense, because we create the database, we put the information in, and we know how to get the information out. We also understand the business, in a way that centralised IS teams don’t (and can’t be expected to). If we run a query and find out that one of our libraries had 39 borrowers, we know that there is something wrong with the query, whereas a central IS team wouldn’t necessarily recognise it as odd.  I think we’re well qualified to take over the management information, because we know what we’re talking about.

Speaking personally, I have got the best team ever. They can and will turn their hand to almost anything, they rise to challenges and they enjoy doing new stuff. I could not have taken on all the new work that we have taken on, if I had been dragging a reluctant and resisting staff behind me. I also think that as managers, in the current climate, we have a duty to give our staff as many transferable skills as we can. The only problem is that when we’re providing management information, we’re not doing acquisitions and we’re not doing cataloguing.

It would be nice to think that system management would be the next area to be passed to bib services because it was recognised that we had the best, the most adaptable, the cleverest, the hardest working, the most logical staff, with the most creative solutions, in the library service (which is true).  More often it will be because , once everyone realises that handing it to over central IS isn’t a good idea for the same reasons that apply to management information, they also realise that bib services staff will do it for nothing, whereas outsourcing it to the LMS supplier would cost several thousand pounds a year. While our colleagues in the libraries may not have time to care about RDA, they most certainly care if books are issued for the wrong period of time, or attract the wrong charges, or if overdues aren’t sent out. Therefore managing the LMS will make a bib services team more crucial to the running of the service, and more involved with it, and makes us seem a bit more relevant to the day-to-day business, which is certainly a benefit for everyone. The disadvantage is, of course, that while we’re doing system management, we’re not doing management information, and we’re not doing acquisitions, and we’re certainly not doing any cataloguing.

Because any restructuring, or hint of it, or just the general economic situation and the fears of redundancy, make us all feel uneasy, we cannot afford to neglect advocacy and all it involves. We must explain what we do, how we fit in, what we contribute to the service and how we support it, because bib services can be an easy target when the axeman comes a-calling. We must promote ourselves to fellow professionals and the library community at large, and to our immediate colleagues, and as well as persuading them that we are essential we must persuade ourselves, because too often we believe the poor opinion that others have of us. Therefore we take on a range of different activities – blogs, Twitter accounts, behind-the-scenes tours, anything and everything that makes us more visible (including going to conferences and speaking at them).  If we can make ourselves look like big beasts, we’ll be harder to take down.

It also includes working more closely with our colleagues – getting ourselves on working groups, doing 1-1 training, going to their staff meetings.  Every time someone sends in a complaint, whether justified or not, we to try to send back a polite and reasoned explanation. Put very simply, we’ve got to win hearts and minds. But when we’re blogging, or tweeting, or writing those polite replies, and it all takes time, we’re not doing any of the other tasks.

And then there’s income generation, the besetting requirement of the public sector nowadays.  As a result, along with everything else, we’re trying to sell our skills either by providing training, or by cataloguing other people’s collections. The money we can bring in does two things – it demonstrates that our skills really do have a market value (in other words, if other people are prepared to pay us, we must be worth something) and it offsets some of our staff costs. After all, there is really no way that you can reduce the cost of a bib services section without cutting staff, as we have no materials budget to take the hit.

Does it matter if we lose staff – aside from the human cost, that is? Yes, it does. Our bib services staff are hugely skilled and hugely knowledgeable about our collections, how to exploit them and how to get them into the hands of the people who need and want them. That skill, that knowledge, once lost can’t quickly or easily be replaced. And those skills and that knowledge are exactly what we need in a time of cuts to minimise the effect on the service. We must do all we can to retain skilled staff, who can make the best of the lean times and be ready when the cycle turns (and the cycle will turn) to get back immediately into growth.

So here we are, in a period of reduction and restructuring, with bib services taking on all kind of new tasks and responsibilities. As well as all the hard work, anxiety and stress, there are a lot of good things coming out of the changes. Firstly, we have learned new skills and tried all sorts of things we’ve never tried before – and mostly we have enjoyed it. We have certainly taken on a more crucial role in delivering services and we are working more closely with our front-facing colleagues. We are demonstrating that our skills are relevant and even marketable. We have come out of the shadows and become visible. We have even embraced social media. These things have not destroyed us but made us stronger.

Of course there is a downside too. The workload has increased for all of us, the constant pressure makes us irritable and we can’t often find the opportunity to think, to plan, to look forward.  We spend our time fire-fighting, and not even putting the fires out, just  damping them down before we have to rush off to the next one, knowing they will flare up again behind us. And we don’t have enough time to spend cataloguing.

That is the real risk, because all the jobs that we have taken on, we have been able to take on because we have good and accurate data and because we have been able to exploit the skills that we have as cataloguers. If we neglect our cataloguing, if we cut corners and start to get slovenly, the whole house of cards will come tumbling down around our ears. If the data is wrong, then the management information will be wrong. If the data is inconsistent, then the LMS will not operate reliably. If we make mistakes, then when we get those books sent back to us with complaints, we will not be able to explain anything, we will just have to apologise.  Our colleagues will lose confidence in us and we will lose confidence in ourselves. And we certainly will not be able to sell skills that we cannot demonstrate that we have.  So whatever else we do – and for sure we will be doing many other varied tasks – we must continue to catalogue accurately, consistently and with good judgement and imagination. However tempting it may be to do so, we must not cut corners and we must never think that “good enough” is good enough, because it is not.

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4 thoughts on “Changing rules, changing roles: being a cataloguer in 2012

  1. Pingback: What am I here for? « Lilian's library life

  2. Pingback: La importancia de llamarse catalogador (y de asumirse como tal) | InfoTecarios

  3. Pingback: Cataloguing in the Hybrid Environment « Library Marginalia

  4. Pingback: La importancia de llamarse catalogador (y de asumirse como tal)

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