When we think of librarians, we think of the people ready to answer your reference questions, visit and instruct your classes, help you locate source material and curate the collections you rely on.
“What I do is mostly considered public services,” said Art and Architecture Librarian Alex Watkins.
In order to use the libraries effectively, Watkins relies on catalogers like Chris Long, whose work has a huge impact on how all of us use the libraries. Catalogers are the behind the scenes librarians who work to make books and resources easier to find using search tools.
“You might say, we sort of unearth the resources," said Resources Description Services team lead.
On this episode of CU at the Libraries, Alex and Chris talk about the effort that goes into the partnership between subject librarians and catalogers. They’ll debunk stereotypes and dive into topics like, why it’s so hard to make changes to classification systems, a hot button issue in the world of library science.
Part 1 - Stereotypes, Accessibility and Contributions to WorldCat
Alex Watkins: "So collection building anything has a pretty clear connection to public services. I don't think we always think about the work that goes into cataloging and making those materials findable in the catalog. But I think also understanding that helps me teach people how to use our systems right. So be able to understand the subject heading is really important in order to teach students to search our catalog because subject headings are a key tool in order to help people find things on topics that might be described using different words by different sources.
"So I don't know, Chris, you've done public services before. How does that work inform your cataloging or your work leading catalogers?"
Chris Long: "So I found that the public services were really informed by cataloging and helped improve it. I always encourage catalogers that if they have the opportunity to work on the reference desk or in some sort of public services role because it's much different when you're trying to provide the best access in your catalog records. It's different if you're just sitting at your desk in isolation than if someone from the public needs something immediately. And so that helped me early in my career just trying to make my catalog records as easily findable as possible.
AW: "There's sort of a stereotype of catalogers, of being really fastidious and rule-bound. Cataloging has really specific and technical rules. But what you just said about actually making your entries more findable based on the needs of actual people is that sometimes the best way to make a resource findable is to bend those sort of strict cataloging rules. And that flexibility is actually a really important trait of catalogers. What are your thoughts about that?"
CL: "Now, I agree completely, we do have the sort of stereotype of maybe being too wedded to our rules and our standards, and there is value in those standards because when we catalog something, we don't just catalog it for our library. We're basically cataloging it for the world since we put it into the OCLC database. So by adhering to standards, that makes our work more easily usable by other libraries, so that we all don't have to catalog every single thing we get in the libraries.
"At one point, there were a lot of stereotypes back and forth between technical services and public services, librarians. That was certainly a hot button item when I was a younger librarian. When you were in library school or in your career so far, have you heard of any stereotypes about catalogers that you found to be true?"
AW: "That I found to be true, no, I don't know if I found them to be true necessarily. I think there are some stereotypes about the kind of work, you know, that it's boring and exacting, and if you don't see other people. But I guess I do actually know a lot of catalogers and I've hung out with a lot of catalogers and they like to party. So I think any kind of stereotype about what catalogers personalities are like is maybe incorrect."
CL: "So I earlier in my career, one of the stereotypes or frustrations that catalogers had with public services people was that the reference librarians, they don't know how to use the catalog. They don't want to learn how to use the catalog. They want to be a keyword searching on everything. They don't want to teach the public how to use the catalog. And I found some of that to be true. But then I realized it's mainly because the catalogs are so hard to use, you know, and we can't use them optimally.
"My work cataloging things has been conflated with, I also have ownership of how the catalog system works. And it's like, well, I didn't buy the catalog system. I'm trying to use it to the best of my ability. But I have limited ability to change how the cataloging system works. So I always make a distinction. I'm in charge of the cataloging, but I'm not necessarily in charge of the catalog. And I think a lot of that has changed with the new [discovery] systems where we can do a more Google-like search and still find relevant things. So I realized that while something may have been true, it's really because our systems were up to snuff."
AW: "I think that is true, that catalogers ask me like, why don't I teach how subject headings are created? And it's like, well, because that's too hard. Right? I think we need to think more about how we can make our systems more usable. I don't train people how to use catalogs. I teach people how to think about information and how to think about evaluating that information, to engage in thinking about who has authority and why, to think about information, access and information privilege. I don't have time to train people on how to use a hard to navigate system. The system's job is to be usable. It's my dream that the system is so usable I don't even need to tell someone what buttons to click and how to navigate our catalog because it's just so intuitive that I could spend no time covering those things and instead train people on concepts and then show them the database. And then they're just like, 'Wow, this is so easy to use! I think I'll use it all the time because it's not hard.'
"I know we're part of the program for cooperative cataloging and that our records go into a database, we provide catalogs to the rest of the world and then other people can use them."
CL: "That's a fair point. Worldcat is basically a giant catalog of records. There are tens of thousands of libraries worldwide. They use that database. You can share the ones in your library crates and you can also take the ones that other libraries have contributed. Every library is more of a taker than a giver, but everything you contribute to that catalog record helps other libraries. So there are hundreds of millions of records. And so when we catalog something originally that makes it visible to other libraries in the world, not only for the catalogers might also have that item and they can take our catalog record and put it in their local system. But it's also a discovery tool so people can see that we have this item and ask for access to it.
AW: "I know there's a lot of resources that go into maintaining membership in the program for cooperative cataloging and what is, I guess, the value of doing that?"
"So the value of the program for cooperative cataloging is those records are considered gold standard records on par with the Library of Congress records, which typically are considered gold standard records, which means that another library can comfortably accept those catalog records without having to review too many of the points of the catalog record itself."
AW: "Can you tell me more about how our records get used and how important they are?"
CL: "It's hard for us. We don't really track how many other libraries use our records. I will say the portion of the catalog that we do every year that's original cataloging, which are things that no one else has put into the database yet it's probably less than 5%. But we have so many unique collections in our special collections, our government documents, so the ones we do put in I think are valuable because we're exposing really unique things to the rest of the world."
Part 2 - Social Justice Initiatives and Library of Congress Classification Systems
AW: "AW: "When I talk to students, one way to actually get them engaged with call numbers and subject headings is to get them very mad about call members and subject headings. And the way to do that is to sort of discuss the ways that subject headings are biased. And there's a lot of different ways that this happens from outdated terminology to say having a category... like the default category is fraternities, and then you have like sororities, see fraternities. So there's this privilege to be unmarked, right? To be the one that doesn't need an appendage on it. And that's sort of that default of the white male in the catalog. And so I point those things out to students and then they always ask me, 'Well, then what can we do to change it? What's happening to change this?' And I have to say, I don't know."
CL: "I think catalogers recognize all the bias, discriminatory language in our subject heading systems, even in the Dewey Decimal Classification System. The problem is what can we do about it? One approach has been to try to actually propose alternative headings to the Library of Congress. The Library of Congress is very conservative in changing that for political reasons and also for practical reasons. Because if you change a heading, then you have to change all the records that have that heading. So that becomes a very difficult proposition within an individual library. And then think about WorldCat. If you make a change in the OCLC record, now tens of thousands of libraries have a catalog record that's not current. So everyone recognizes the problem. The approach of changing the headings doesn't look very promising.
"So now we've been focusing on what can we do locally in our catalogs. We do have a process for the illegal alien subject heading and sort of related headings. So that addresses maybe that particular heading. But there are hundreds, maybe thousands of other headings. So how do we tackle that? We are basically reacting. We have tens of thousands of records that come in that we didn't create. So it becomes a practical problem, okay, how do we manipulate all those hundreds of thousands of records coming in? That's something that we're grappling with. So I'm hoping that at some point we can come up with some solutions or maybe it becomes a thing where you can do it for everything, but you target a collection or you target a type of material or something."
AW: "So one of the things that I think is the most problematic for me is the E99 Library of Congress call number. And so the Library of Congress call members are controlled numbers that we apply to books in order to arrange them by subject in our collection and make them findable on the shelf. And E99 is the Library of Congress call number for Native American tribes. And there are a couple of issues in the 99 section. First of all, 99. That means Native American tribes. And then the next letter after that denotes the tribe and it's usually a letter and a number. And so it'll be like 'C' for Cherokee. But a lot of the letters actually don't use the preferred name of the tribe, they use the name that was applied by colonialists. They use the French name or they use the English name for the tribe and they don't actually use the culture's preferred name. But then after that, so all the books on the Cherokee are in one section and that 99, C7 or whatever, I forget what it is. But within that they're not organized by subject, they're organized by the author's last name. So the next cutter after that immediately is the author's last name. So that means it's like 'art' and then 'folklore' and then 'medicine' and then there's no way to actually grapple with a tribe. And it's also really problematic because those authors last names, those are mostly white authors who are writing about Native American tribes. So it's actually organized first by the settler colonialist's name rather than the actual topic that is important to research the tribe. And so it makes browsing, say, the Cherokee section, impossible, because you see 'art' here and then you'll see 'food' right next to it. And then there's another book because it was written by someone with a 'W' for the last name. It's a big problem and Native American research."
CL: "So you're looking for a more granular classification of topics within indigenous people, Native American tribes or something like that. And that does exist for some tribes like the Maya and the Aztec. But a lot of the North American tribes that you describe, I don't think it does exist. So you're right in all sort of gets lumped together. So can I change that? No, but can we work to work that into the cultural cataloging conversation? Possibly, because there is a lot of work being done with indigenous people in the cultural catalog. So maybe that is an area where there might be some change?"
AW: "Yeah, I mean, I think there are two qualities of concern, right? There's also the fact that, say any kind of Native American knowledge or indigenous knowledge is classified in E, which is a history section, even though these are living cultures. And so Native American medicine is an E rather than R, which is medicine. And Native American art is an E rather than an which is fine arts. There's also this sort of lumping together of Native American knowledge and history rather than sort of placing it in the call nowhere it actually belongs, which is another separate issue."
CL: "So the Library of Congress controls the Library of Congress subject headings system, and they also control the Library of Congress classification system. And if you want to propose a new subject heading or suggest a revision to an existing one, same thing for classification numbers, you can send in a proposal. Those are reviewed by the people at the Library of Congress and they are very conservative, and what may change for both political and practical reasons? A case in point is the illegal alien subject heading. When that was changed, there was a giant political furor that came out of that in Congress and the Library of Congress had to rescind that change."
AW: "Yeah and I'd say also probably for what I'm asking is that that knowledge organization work hasn't been done, right? Like you can't just say take a book and be like, well, we're going to divide these into subject categories. If no one has done the work to make those categories, right? Like someone would have to come up with a defined list of those categorizations that we would divide the work on indigenous tribes. And it could be done, but it would take a long time and a lot of people power and the ability to sort of invest in creating that. Right? If the Library of Congress did that, it would be a lot easier. But if we were to do all that work, we'd really only be able to apply it locally."
CL: "We'd have to find topics that were common so that you could apply it across theoretically every tribe, yeah.
"So, hey, thanks Alex! It's been great having this conversation and you definitely have affirmed my work and also given me some challenging things to think about."
AW: "Thanks, Chris. It was a great conversation. I think what stood out to me is just the sheer amount of cataloging that we do and the work that goes into it and the thought that makes finding our books possible."