Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Don't look to me for answers

So, let's talk about content standards. More specifically, let's talk about cataloging codes.

Yesterday I read an article from 1991 titled "The pragmatic basis of cataloging codes: has the user been ignored" that surfaced for me the tension I feel about the work that I do as a cataloger. In this article, Jon R. Hufford argues that while modern cataloging codes (those codes created since 1841) have had at their theoretical center the needs of catalog end users, none of those codes appear to have taken into account actual user needs in the creation or revision of those codes. In the article, Hufford cites Panizzi and his Rules for Compiling the Catalogue of Printed Books, Maps, and Music in the British Museum (aka, the 91 Rules) as the person associated with the beginnings of modern cataloging. The article predates the development and publication of Resources Description and Access (RDA) as it discusses various cataloging codes created from 1841 to the revised printing of the 2nd edition of the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules (AACR2r) in 1988.

The argument that undergirds Hufford's article is that while many of the codes he discusses state (either implicitly or explicitly) that they are attempting to develop rules which facilitate ease of use for library users, their creation excludes actual experiences for users. Instead, Hufford argues that the codes are based either on the experiences of the single person who uses them or, when the codes are created by a committee of people, the collective wisdom of the cataloging crowd.

Hufford suggests that librarians have agreed (generally speaking) that "the catalog's main function should be to enable a user to determine whether the library has a certain item, which works of a particular author are in the collection, which editions of a particular work the library has, and what materials the library has on a particular subject" (35). If you're playing along at home, those functions share a lot in common with the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR) tasks: find, identify, select, and obtain.

The author ends his article by stating "The accumulated data derived from catalog use surveys which employ valid and appropriate research techniques should be consulted whenever professional librarians consider revising cataloging codes, public catalog arrangements, and/or the content of bibliographic records" (36).

Historically, library catalogs were not meant to aid the user in finding, identifying, selecting, and obtaining library materials. But it seems like as libraries moved over time from being closed-stacks in need of a gatekeeper to open-stacks where users can browse freely, our ideas of how a cataloging code should be constructed stayed the same. And in a world where access to information is increasingly unmediated, the seeming unwillingness to change how we create our cataloging codes mean that our library catalogs are not in danger of becoming relics of a time--but have already gone their. After all, how many times have you heard, anecdotally, that users don't start their search in the catalog? And yes, our content standards are forever enmeshed with our encoding standards and our local integrated library systems. But it's still worth considering how we've shut our users and their behavior out of all of these things.

Given how recently RDA was created and adopted, one might think that this would've provided an opportunity for those responsible for its creation and adoption to think about user needs and behavior. But in her book, FRBR before and after, Karen Coyle writes "For a study that was purported to be user-centric, the user's absence is notable. There is no analysis of users; no mention of how varied the user base is; no mention of children or elders or the disabled. Instead, to my mind, the FRBR Final report reads as a study by catalogers for catalogers" (106). It is worth noting that the FRBR model serves as the basis for RDA.

So, back to the tension that I mentioned early in the post. The description of library materials is meant to be a public service and many people who do this work see themselves as advocates for library users. But I often how can we serve the public when we create records using a standard that seems to advocate for a monolithic user without considering their needs. I don't want my work to go into the ether, never to be used by my library's user communities. And, as I mentioned earlier, the content standards we use to create metadata that describes our collections are forever tied to the encoding standards we use and the local systems into which we place records created using these content and encoding standards.

I feel badly about getting to the end of this post and leaving with more questions than answers, but sometimes an opening to a conversation is a gift. I don't think I'm advocating for scrapping our current cataloging code and starting over. But I do think I'm advocating for looking at our current catalog more critically--about who created it and who it was meant to serve--and thinking about our local user communities in how those cataloging rules get applied in a local context.

Stay positive,

Works cited:
Coyle, Karen. FRBR before and after. Chicago: ALA Editions, 2016.

Hufford, Jon R. "The pragmatic basis of catalog codes: has the user been ignored?" Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 14, no. 1 (1991).


Karen Coyle said...

Just giving the link to FRBR, Before and After, which is open access. The quoted bit is on page 106 of chapter 8 (PDF).

Rachel said...

I recently started working as a cataloguer for a public library, after a number of years of cataloguing special collections, and it's been an eye opening experience. At my previous job, we set up our own cataloguing rules based around the needs of our specific user groups (as well as the library's needs). If the users wanted something, we found a way to provide it if we could. It was all original cataloguing, and we often wondered if there was a way others could take advantage of the work we did.

Now that I'm back cataloguing in RDA/MARC etc., I'm seeing the downside of sharing information. It's hard to meet the needs of your specific user groups without going completely rogue.

(Also not answers, just agreement.)