Changing libraries, changing catalogers

library catalogers

Catalogers at work

Shortly after I graduated from library school, I met with a library director who told me that librarianship had changed a lot since I was in library school. I pointed out that I had only graduated two weeks earlier. She repeated that librarianship had changed a lot since I was in library school. I doubt that it really changed much in two weeks, but it didn’t take long for me to begin to see big changes.

Until the late 1800s, library catalogs were contained in books. Whenever the library acquired anything new, the cataloger had to make note of it in the margin of the book. After a while, the catalog became illegible and it was necessary to start a new one from scratch. Then someone invented the card catalog, probably the biggest change in cataloging since the invention of movable type more than three hundred years earlier.

That was then

Card catalog

Card catalog, an old but very sophisticated technology

After that, changes started to come thick and fast. For example:

  • The Library of Congress began to sell sets of library cards to other libraries, the beginning of shared cataloging.
  • That, in turn, required shared standards among libraries. Cataloging no longer depended on the erudition of individual catalogers. For some of them, cataloging became much less fun!
  • Various sets of cataloging rules developed over the course of the twentieth century. British and American librarians discussed rules a lot, but never came to agreement until late in the century.
  • Henriette Avram of the Library of Congress devised a method of using a computer to print catalog cards, called MAchine Readable Cataloging (MARC), in the late 1960s. MARC was eventually recognized as the earliest metadata standard. By 1970, other large libraries started to do it.
  • Once shared cataloging happened on computers, a new kind of shared standard became necessary. With the various International Standard Bibliographic Descriptions (ISBDs, slightly different ones for each format libraries collected), it became possible for people to recognize where the author, title, publisher, etc. was printed on the card even if it was in a foreign language.
  • The Anglo-American Cataloging Rules (AACR) were published in 1967. Despite the title, British and American librarians maintained separate interpretations until 1978. Anglo-American Cataloging Rules, Second Edition actually amounted to new rules that ended the transatlantic disagreements.
  • Libraries began to look to computers as a means of replacing card catalogs, which had come to seem cumbersome and awkward wastes of space, time, and effort. The public hated computerized catalogs at first, but eventually the Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC) proved its usefulness. Despite the fact that the library world has not attempted to replace the now obsolete ISBDs with a new display standard, OPACs eventually won public approval. They are searchable in greater depth and even tell patrons which books are currently circulating.
  • Libraries began to subscribe to large utilities so they could obtain original records from other source besides the Library of Congress. One called OCLC eventually took over all the others. With all of these records available on a computer terminal and easily transferred to the OPAC, copy cataloging became much more common than original cataloging. Paraprofessionals began to take over more and more tasks once reserved for professional catalogers.
  • The earliest OPACs were delivered on dedicated terminals, that is, computers that couldn’t be used for anything else. Once personal computers became commonplace, libraries began to use them instead of the older terminals. By that time, more libraries than not had gotten rid of their card catalogs.
  • The Internet, developed in the 1960s for national defense and at first used only among major computer centers, became available to the public beginning in the late 1980s. It was opened up to commercial use in 1995.

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This is now, for a while

WorldCat search screen

I graduated from library school in 1996. I kept my first cataloging job until 2002. Google was incorporated in 1998. How many readers even remember what a hassle searching the web was before then?

Google has probably had more impact on reference librarians than catalogers. Here are some of the ways cataloging and the catalog have changed:

  • Library holdings have shifted from mostly print materials and other physical formats to mostly electronic formats—at least in terms of new acquisitions and cataloging records. These include ebooks, PDF files, electronic databases that have superseded many older print reference materials, and streaming music and video.
  • Many public domain books (basically, those published before 1923) have been digitized. Some are available for free through the OPAC. Others are available only by subscription. These latter must be in the OPAC even though only people with the appropriate library card can actually read them.
  • Instead of a single OPAC, libraries are likely to make various other catalogs available on their computer networks. Nearly all of them have OCLC’s WorldCat, which enables people to see the holdings of other libraries.
  • Although catalogers still write or edit individual records, more and more they must work with batches of records, including mass editing.
  • Where once cataloging records came only from the Library of Congress, and then eventually only from OCLC, now publishers and vendors also supply records.
  • Many more metadata schema besides MARC exist. Increasingly, catalogers must be familiar with at least some of the others. For example, many libraries also include archives. MARC has never been suitable for the very different needs of archivists. While not everything in the archives needs to be in the catalog, much of it does. Understanding how to move data back and forth among various metadata schema has become increasingly important.

Some basic principles remain the same. Someone has to write each bibliographic description and all the other aspects of cataloging that the public never sees. A collection of records does not constitute a catalog. Someone has to make sure that the catalog remains a coherent whole.

While those basic principles are likely to remain the same as long as there are libraries, the division of labor and the skills and technology necessary to do the work will continue to change rapidly.

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Photo credits:
Catalogers at work. Some rights reserved by sundaykofax.
Card catalog. Some rights reserved by candyschwartz.
WorldCat: Screen shot


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