Cataloging Then, Now, and Tomorrow

Rapid changes are broadening the role of the “guardian of the catalog”

June 19, 2012


If you think it is hard to explain to nonlibrary users what a librarian does, try explaining the job of a cataloger. Not long ago (when I was still in library school), if someone had asked me what exactly a cataloger is, my answer would have been, “a guardian of the catalog.” This still holds true today. However, cataloging is also a dynamic, ever-changing library field. Among the many useful and practical things I learned in library school, one idea stays fresh in my mind: The library world is changing faster than you think. Now that I have been a cataloger in a professional sense for almost two years, I can say that the world of cataloging is also changing rapidly.

Just as the function of libraries and the role of librarians are not the same as they used to be, the same is true of cataloging and catalogers. The Cataloging Annual Report 2010–2011 by Hannah Thomas, head of cataloging and special collections at Saint Mary’s College of California Library (SMCL), listed three trends in the changing landscape of cataloging: the increasing reliance on vendor-supplied records and services, the explosion of electronic resources, and the growing interrelatedness of local library catalogs with systems outside the library.

What do these trends mean, and how will they affect my responsibilities and workflow in cataloging and my role as a cataloger and a new librarian? While I ponder these questions, I find it helpful to draw a mind map representing the history of my cataloging experience—from my first exposure to cataloging to my broader responsibilities as a cataloging and reference librarian at SMCL.

Then: From card catalogs to ILSes

In 2002, I took my first cataloging course in a community college. For our final project, we were required to make a catalog card out of an actual 3-by-5-inch card or print one out with a word processor. Luckily, when I became a library technician in a university library I didn’t need to manage a card catalog, since it was already automated on Innovative Millennium.

When I became a cataloger in 2009 at SMCL (also an Innovative library), I was surprised that some of the college’s holdings still lacked online records and could only be located with a physical card catalog. Currently I am working on a retrospective conversion project to catalog all the materials we have in a remote storage facility, based solely on that catalog-card information. We estimate that the project will be completed in two years and we are about halfway there. With the exception of the materials in storage, some microforms, the Lasallian special collection, and a small number of LPs, everything SMCL owns can be found in its online catalogs.

Now: From print to electronic


Figure 1.1
Figure 1.1


Figure 1.2
Figure 1.2

One statistic included in Thomas’s Cataloging Annual Report showed a dramatic change in the percentage of the types of holdings in the library collections (Figures 1.1 and 1.2). In 2006–2007 we added a few electronic collections, such as Gale Virtual Reference Library, Oxford Reference Online, and Greenwood Press. Summer 2008 was the turning point for the overall proportion of print to electronic holdings: Our online collection surged dramatically following the major purchase of ebrary Academic Complete, which boosted our online collections by an additional 70,000 records. We also added nearly 30,000 online music files from Naxos Music Library.


As of 2010–2011, 39% of our collection is comprised of electronic resources (Figure 2) and the numbers will not stop there. Although our building reached its storage capacity 10 years ago, we have not stopped buying print books, journals, and DVDs. However, whenever our budget permits, our preferred formats are often ebooks, e-journals, online music/videos, streaming files, and other electronic resources.


Figure 2
Figure 2

Tomorrow: From one to many

Library school cataloging courses taught me a great deal about cataloging materials of various formats. What they didn’t focus on were the fundamental concepts of managing various integrated library systems. I acquired those skills on the job. At SMCL, most of what we do is copy cataloging. While some of our cataloging records are supplied by vendors and services like OCLC PromptCat and ebrary, the main source of our records is still OCLC Connexion.

Up until the early 2000s, libraries probably had only one catalog, hosted by an integrated library system. By 2011, most libraries had more than one catalog featured on their library website. There are many third-party information systems that work with library catalogs. Many library catalog interfaces are also powered by enhancement tools such as Encore, VuFind, or LibraryThing. In addition to the online public access catalog (Albert), SMCL also has Reference Universe, an electronic journal list (powered by Serial Solutions), and a few named special collections to facilitate access to some of our unique resources. We recently launched a new multisearch federated search engine with EBSCO Discovery Service.

Using power tools

Cataloging is no longer about knowing every card in the library catalog, or just about giving an individual touch to each record we download into an ILS. Today, catalogers need to know the various tricks of manipulating batches of records without having to edit them one by one. In addition to using OCLC to export records into library systems, catalogers often work with batches of records supplied by vendor and publisher packages.

Yes, we still embrace traditional cataloging duties: doing original cataloging, making enhancements to cataloging records, and managing other catalog maintenance work. However, it is essential that today’s catalogers be trained to use power tools in their ILSes as well as other cataloging tools (such as MarcEdit) to do batch edits. At SMCL, we use OCLC Client batch searches to export a few hundred records per week for our retrospective conversion cataloging project. Our weekly routine tasks include using “create list” and “data exchange” functions in Millennium to upload our holdings to OCLC and EBSCO Discovery Service. In fact, “Create Lists,” “Global Update,” and “Rapid Update” have become indispensable functions in our everyday catalog-record maintenance. Thomas’s Cataloging Annual Report called this “the new normal” in cataloging.

Jacks of all trades

There’s no question that the art of cataloging and the role of its practitioners are evolving. Where specialization is preferred, catalogers remain steadfastly the guardians of library catalogs to ensure their accuracy, currency, comprehensiveness, and user-friendliness. But catalogers are also mediators between libraries and other information organizations (e.g., museums and archives), as they are charged with understanding the interoperability between the MARC standard and the different non-MARC metadata systems.

The notion of catalogers “just” being catalogers is gradually being replaced by a philosophy that all library staff be cross-trained and have hands-on experience working directly with library users. At SMCL, all librarians (including catalogers) take at least one reference shift. In collection development, we are subject selectors allocated funds to purchase materials in our subject areas. In addition, selectors are responsible for maintaining their subject pages on the library website. In library instruction sessions, we collaborate with faculty members in their teaching and research.

In short, there is more about being a cataloger than “just” being an interpreter of cataloging rules (whether it’s AACR2 or RDA) or an expert on various formats of resources. Catalogers don’t live in an isolated world anymore. We are proud to be managers of resources and library systems, but we are—and should be—capable of more.

ELISE (YI-LING) WONG is cataloging and reference librarian at St. Mary’s College of California Library in Moraga.


Chicago Public Library Commissioner Brian Bannon

Newsmaker: Brian Bannon

A Q&A with Chicago Public Library’s new commissioner

Indies See Surge at BookExpo America

The spirit among independent booksellers was noticeably upbeat during BEA’s June 5–7 meeting in New York