Monday, 19 November 2012

The back room and the back office

We are hearing a lot these days about the "back office". Everywhere you look, "efficiencies" are being achieved by slimming down the functions of the back office - that is, that part of an organisation which does not deal directly (face-to-face) with customers and clients, or taxpayers. (I was amused, when looking at a few websites as background for this post, to find that I couldn't view some of them in my local library as they don't make it through the local government firewall. The blocking is a bit arbitrary though: the most well-known - or notorious, depending on your point of view - UK-based outsourcing firms are not blocked).

"An alternative to hiring locally" is how one company advertises itself. Pause to consider that for a moment, and wonder just how any politician could ever recommend such a thing to his/her constituents. Pay, possibly with public money, to send work somewhere else, into someone else's economy (India, in the case of that company)? Bring this down to local level, and you are actually talking about the employment prospects of people you may know (and who have a vote) - and you are talking about impoverishing your own neighbourhood, as people without jobs cannot support local businesses, and some of them will need help in the form of benefits paid by taxing those who remain in employment. In Wales, this point appears to be at least partly understood and acted upon in the awarding of government contracts: it remains to be seen whether this idea will flourish.

I have worked in both the iniquitous "back office" and in the more immediately public parts of libraries. (I'm trying to avoid using the term "front line" here - it seems antagonistic and not an expression we should be using in terms of our relationship with the public - but I'm afraid that it's a very common term in this context!) I know that I depend on things happening successfully behind the scenes to make the "public" part of my job work well, and it is sad to see that the back office is seen as an inefficient encumbrance merely because it is hidden from view. (Is that the problem? Perhaps people don't really believe in the value of things they can't see happening?)

Capita is one of several well-known firms who offer not only to achieve efficiency in this area, but also, note, to "improve the end user experience" by doing so. The implication is that the users will be better off without your own in-house way of doing things (and your expensive staff with their long-standing employment rights). This is not very pleasant for a cataloguer to read, but if you're not one you might very well think that's fine. In which case, why stop there? Information Literacy in academic libraries might be a good candidate for outsourcing, when you consider it. Qualified teachers working for an agency (which could be one of the same well-known outsourcing firms) could do the work with more consistency across subjects than subject librarians, and less duplication of effort. (I'm not particularly advocating it myself, just playing devil's advocate and idly wondering whether the reaction to outsourcing might be rather different if it affected people in a more visible role).

The High Visibility Cataloguing blog is one step towards improving the general awareness of what cataloguers do in that mysterious and much-maligned "back office", encouraging cataloguers to emerge and engage, where possible, with the wider library community and beyond.

All larger workplaces have an element of hidden or "invisible" support. There used generally to be far more of these roles: those who have been around for a while will remember that at one time typing was confined to those who had qualifications in it. The back office has been shrinking for a long time. And the back room? A different thing entirely! Possibly not shrinking, but definitely has fewer cataloguers!

Friday, 9 November 2012

The Rule of Three

"The Rule of Three" - I love the name, it sounds like a Sherlock Holmes story! Nothing so exciting, of course: it is the name commonly given to a cataloguing rule from the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules, and it's been there since the 1970s. (Wikipedia seems to think differently. "Inherently funnier, more satisfying"? hmmm). As AACR2 is on its way out, so too is this cast-iron rule, and it can't be allowed to pass without comment.

Here it is :

If responsibility is shared among more than three persons or corporate bodies and principal responsibility is not attributed to any one, two, or three, enter under title. Make an added entry under the heading for the first person or corporate body named.
[from AACR2, 1988, but the rule predates this edition].

RDA, the new code which is due to replace AACR2,  takes quite a different view, abolishing the idea of a "main entry", allowing all the authors to appear in their own right in the catalogue, and leaving far more policies up to "cataloguer's judgment".

What was the reason for the Rule of Three? It always seemed a bit mean to cut the authors off arbitrarily. A book with one, two, or three authors would include an entry in the catalogue for all three authors: more than that, and they were abruptly relegated to an added entry for the first author, and not even a whisper of a mention for the others. The trouble with it, at least for academic libraries, was trying to stick to the rule in the face of upset authors (often members of the academic staff known to the librarians) who didn't take kindly to being airbrushed from the catalogue.

Cataloguing rules seem to be a mystery to non-cataloguing librarians, who probably think that the cataloguers in their institutions make all these things up as they go along. We have had librarians of long standing (caught between intransigent cataloguers and miffed authors) insisting to us that they have never heard of this rule. Making things up might have been possible when each catalogue was a separate being in its own institution, but these days everything is visible on the web and many records are shared. This saves a lot of time and money and avoids the waste of duplication. It also means you need the rules even more - all that saving of time and avoiding of duplication goes down the drain if you are then constantly altering policies to suit local needs or tinkering with individual records on a random basis (i.e. when someone complains).

Like many rules, it dated from the days of the card catalogue, and it was probably partly designed to reduce the typing and filing of catalogue cards. Three was as good a cut-off point as any. Technology moved on long ago, and the idea of the "main entry" is no longer so important in the catalogue (it's still useful for allocating suffixes to classmarks for shelving purposes). While there is some additional work involved in including all the authors of a multi-author work, it is not the laborious drawer-filling process it would have been in terms of extra cards. There was a bit more to it than that, though: AACR2's definition of a personal author is "the person chiefly responsible for the creation of the intellectual or artistic content of a work" (21.1A1), and once you get beyond three authors you might well wonder whether you can say this of all of them. The "main entry" concept is also still as relevant as ever in bibliographic citation, which can these days be derived directly from the catalogue.

I think I can safely say that of all cataloguing rules the Rule of Three has probably been the cause of most complaints over the years, at least in the academic libraries I have worked in. Heddwch i'w llwch, as we say in Wales.