Friday, 25 July 2014

Cataloguers, the scapegoats of the library world

"People think librarians are odd, but even librarians think cataloguers are odd" - or words to that effect, said to me long ago when I (inadvertently) became a cataloguer in a prestigious university library in London. It's certainly true that cataloguers don't seem to have many friends, especially when the cuts bite. They are a discrete bunch, easy to separate from colleagues and perhaps easy to dispense with (this has certainly been the case over the years in public libraries). They tend to work out of sight of the rest of the library service (at Cardiff University cataloguers are in an office block some way away from most of the libraries we serve).

Out of sight doesn't necessarily mean out of mind, but it does mean that cataloguing can be seen as something isolated from the immediate role of the library. Out of sight also means that the quantity of books allegedly sitting on shelves and not reaching the readers can grow to mythical proportions. It's a difficult thing to counter once the belief becomes widespread in the library service. "Oh, it hasn't come yet, it's still in cataloguing" soon becomes "there must be quicker ways of doing this", "couldn't we get a student to do it for work experience?", and variations on the theme. How big does a backlog have to be before it can be said to be having a negative effect on the service and the end-user? Our backlog of current material, that is new books bought for research and teaching, including reading list titles, was about half a shelf at the beginning of this week. At no point during the last six months has it been more than four shelves at the most - it is usually less than that - yet in the minds of those who have not seen it it seems to rival the contents of an actual library.

As for the current material, cataloguers rarely catalogue from scratch: the new textbooks nearly always come with an existing record which simply needs some tidying up to conform to the requirements of the system. We classify them ourselves. Very little cataloguer time is spent on some of this material. The things which do take more time are the more esoteric publications, particularly overseas material, and audio-visual material. (If you don't spend time on these, your lovely new whizzy discovery platform won't work properly.) External companies which offer to provide a cataloguing service tend also to be quicker and stronger on the "bread-and-butter" textbooks, and less able to fulfil requirements when it comes to the more obscure material, as you would expect.

The cataloguer wastefully doing everything from the beginning every time, and duplicating the same work done in other libraries, is another myth which is hard to crack. Cataloguers have shared records for decades - and I do mean a long time (i.e. even before I was born!) - but this fact doesn't seem to be widely known even in libraries. Every now and then someone comes up with the brilliant idea of speeding things up by doing, yes, something we have already been doing for many years.

We do have a larger backlog of donated material, some of which arrives in large and unpredictable quantities (after a death, for instance, or the retirement of an academic). We catalogue this material as and when we can, but it isn't planned for in the way the usual throughput of new books is. Basic records are added to the catalogue by assistants before they reach the cataloguers' shelves, so they can be found on the catalogue and requested if wanted.

Cataloguers do not process the books themselves (again, perhaps something which is not fully understood), so once we have catalogued and classified we think our work is done and the books have become a processing backlog (and the processors' backlog is not large either, except at times of staff shortage). Turnaround for processed books is usually 24 hours.

Anecdotal comment is very hard to prove or disprove. We monitor our throughput (for the new material), so we have evidence of the amount of time taken, and of course our empty shelves are there to see, if anyone would like to come and look. Perhaps we should lure our colleagues down to our lair (with cake?), and dispel the myths. Any suggestions gratefully received!