Chinese Periodicals and the state of the conversation on cataloging

I started my professional librarian career as a reference librarian – well, actually I was a Serials/ILL Librarian for the first 2 years, but the place was so small that everyone staffed the reference desk. After 5 years as a reference librarian, I moved into a systems position. For the next 5 years I worked with the library’s catalog. When I had worked in reference, I was a believer in information literacy and the library’s role in education. I was not really concerned too much with cataloging. When I worked in Systems, I was stuck between the need for technical services to quickly and efficiently process items and the reference librarians trying to find those items. It was clear that neither side understood the issues facing the other.

Now I follow the discussion and debate around the future of cataloging and I get concerned that neither side understands what the other is saying. When I had just started working in systems, some of the reference librarians came to me to complain about this or that in the catalog (why can’t we browse publishers? why do I get these results for that search? etc.). I tried to explain it, but the reality was they weren’t interested – they just wanted it fixed. The problem was of course, that nothing was broken. Choices had been made and these were just the consequences. To “fix” it, different choices would need to be made – with their own consequences.

One complaint I had from a reference librarian was that she had difficulty finding journals in Chinese for a student who was looking for something to use to practice reading the language. I considered the many pitfalls that could have caused her difficulty. 1) The language codes are sometimes not applied consistently in the records, and when they are, there are still some problems with how the catalog indexes them. 2) The code for serials was also problematic and inconsistently applied. 3) Maybe it was corruption in the database, or more likely the index – it was temperamental. Wow, our catalog does suck!

So I tried to recreate the problem. I typed “periodicals” in as a subject term and “chi” in as a language code (yeah “chi”, live with cataloging long enough and you’ll be surprised what you absorb). I got 117 results. When I asked the librarian if that is what she saw, her response was “how did you get that?” I described what I did. She had no idea that there were ways to search by language. In fact, there was an option to limit by language, so she wouldn’t have needed to know the cryptic code “chi”. In addition to not knowing about the options to search languages, the librarian hadn’t thought to use the subject term “periodicals” – apparently she was trying to search for a Romanization of the Chinese word for journal.

I thought about this example when I was reading Thomas Mann’s essay “The Peloponnesian War and the Future of Reference, Cataloging, and Scholarship in Research Libraries“. I thought about the level of service that he demonstrates in his example in the essay and I wondered if the rest of us are getting the most out of the tools that we have. For our catalogs, are we making the data the best it can be, or are we just waiting for computers to fix it – or at least be able to decipher it? Do we know how to use our catalogs to find the things that we, and our users, are looking for? These are the questions we need to ask ourselves. And I think that too often, not always but too often, the answer is no.

Our catalogs have a lot of room for improvement, but the value that is added by libraries is in the role played by people that making our stuff available for the library’s users. For the catalog, a large part of the value is added by the catalogers who describe the library’s stuff. The better we describe our stuff and the more useful (and usable) that description is, the more value that is added. On the other end, reference librarians add value by assisting in the retrieval of the stuff. Ideally, the reference librarians have worked with the catalogers to leverage the data in the catalog and create a reasonably intuitive interface. And ultimately, the reference librarians will serve as the user’s guide to finding what they are looking for. When the reference librarians don’t understand the catalog, the catalogers are limited in ways they can leverage the data, and the catalog suffers.

For the 5 years that I was supporting the library’s catalog, there was increasing energy behind the “OPAC sucks” crowd. And more and more energy given over to adding tagging, reviews, faceted browsing (“guided searching”), etc. to the catalog. I wholeheartedly support the experimentation with these features, but I think we could have made more improvement to our catalog by giving our reference librarians a better understanding of how cataloging (and by extension the catalog) works and by giving our catalogers a better understanding of how the reference librarians (and by extension the faculty and students) were using the catalog.


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