Catalog this!
February 22, 2012 9:14 AM   Subscribe

Librarianfilter: I think I'd like to be a cataloger. Librarians, tell me about it! (Also, tell me how cataloging is changing as Library Science becomes more Information Science-y, and about jobs in other fields that use similar skills.)

I've considered getting my MLS on and off for quite a while, but had always figured I'd go into either YA services or academic librarianship. I've recently started working in my local public library, and the more I learn about cataloging (and tech services in general, but mostly cataloging), the more I think it sounds interesting. I also recently organized my (large) personal collection of nonfiction according to the Dewey Decimal System, and found it interesting to see where books were categorized. (Are my books about women in Nazi Germany in the 300s with the women's studies books or in the 940s with the German History books?)

I have a BA in History and Sociology and am 22, so probably have lots of time ahead of me. I know that the job market is bad, but my other main interests at this point are academic history and public history, so I think I'm probably doomed regardless. I'm introverted and kind of socially awkward, but not painfully so. I'm already bilingual (English/German) and working on more languages.

Things I like: books, learning things, putting things in categories, sorting things, solving puzzles, researching, figuring out how systems work and how to make them work more efficiently.

So... tell me about your job as a cataloger. What do you do? What are other jobs (librarian-y or otherwise) that do similar things or use similar skills? What is the future of cataloging, given the changes in librarianship? Are there any ML(I)S programs that are particularly strong in cataloging? (That last question is a little silly, I suspect.)
posted by naturalog to Education (19 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Unfortunately, classic cataloging has pretty much disappeared from library school curriculua in the past 20 years or so.

If you're really interested in cataloging books, you would need to be highly specialized - perhaps working with old and rare materials, or know a non-western language. Very few libraries do any of their own cataloging anymore.

BUT, the good news is that the conceptual foundations of cataloging are still alive and well, just expressed in different settings. People still need to organize and classify "information objects." This class in classification theory, at UT Austin's iSchool, is fairly representative of how these concepts are approached in MLIS programs these days.

I've been in academia for awhile, so I'll let others talk more about the jobs aspects, but if you have (or are willing to learn) the technical skills, database design/management and metadata applications are probably going to be a reasonable direction for you.
posted by pantarei70 at 9:24 AM on February 22, 2012

Building on the above, there are specialized cataloging systems such as MeSH for medicine/health information. I'm a law librarian and I do the cataloging for my firm. It's mostly copy-cataloging though occasionally I add or chage LC subjects (or, rarer still, original cataloging). I suspect that's the case for most special libraries.

Also, the major academic publishers will provide the MARC records when books are purchased. Perhaps working as a cataloger for a publisher (Wiley-Blackwell springs to mind) is an option, but I don't know much about jobs in that industry.

Good luck! Tech services is a great place to nerd out.
posted by orrnyereg at 9:33 AM on February 22, 2012

Ah yes -- what ornyereg said.

I worked as a librarian in the Texas Legislature for several years, and part of our duties were to attach subject headings to proposed legislation....using a taxonomy we built ourselves that corresponded to no previous structure known to man. This was an approach I don't really recommend, BUT it was great opportunity to get real nitpicky and analytical about "what is this thing?" Which it sounds like you like.

So, if you have a specialization that calls to you, maybe that will suggest something. Also, this a great opportunity for an informational interview. If there is a college or university library nearby and you suspect they have some catalogers hidden away in their basement, just contact them, tell them you're interested in taking about 30 minutes to hear about their work. They'd probably be glad to tell you about it!

Good luck!
posted by pantarei70 at 9:39 AM on February 22, 2012

First off, what pantarei70 says about cataloging classes is absolutely correct. I did some research on it a few years ago and it really is damn near impossible to get anything more than just the barest basics in cataloging from a library school.

If you really want to learn, you are going to have to get internships with libraries and get one on one training. You can also get classes from OCLC/Lyrasis for the basic down and dirty cataloging.

I was in academic cataloging for ten years and was head of my department, I left due to un-job related reasons and after a year off, I'm back in cataloging at a public library. The biggest difference between the two is the volume and variety. At the academic, we did a lot more serials, government documents, and ebooks. At the public, we do mostly genre fiction and popular non-fiction. I did get spoiled at my academic library because we almost never ordered self-published/vanity work and that's a bear to catalog.

So far, my traditional cataloging skills have been an asset. Because so few folks are coming out of library school with a clue about cataloging, libraries are having a harder and harder time replacing their retirees. If you're willing to move, you should be fine.

That said, one of my major selling points is that I'm very database and tech knowledgable. At my last job I was the back up system administrator for our ILS, and I've led a conversion to a new ILS. Understanding not only how the catalogers see the data, but also understanding how programmers see the data will be invaluable. As more and more ILS companies merge and with the push towards outsourcing a lot of cataloging, it will be more and more helpful for you to understand the concepts of databases and mapping and how to break the pieces out and explain them.

I say go for it. One last thing, back when I was hiring, one of the things I looked for in a cataloger was someone who understood the rules but who was capable of finding ways to make the cataloging rules bend. A person who knows enough about cataloging and classification to make it meet the needs of a varity of users is awesome and I want to work with that cataloger. Because the ones who sit there and say that we can't do something because it's against AACR2 or not in LC, are going to slowly get phased out as the system changes.
posted by teleri025 at 9:42 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I went to Dominican University just outside Chicago 5 years ago they had a very strong cataloging program. From what I've gleaned from my colleagues and other library professionals, this school is somewhat unique in its rigor. A lot of cataloging is done out-of-house for most public libraries these days, but in large urban systems there is still some original cataloging done; my library system employs 4 catalogers. Another related career could be an archivist many of which are employed by museums and large library systems. You also might enjoy being a buyer - the person who decides what books the library gets and/or which books go to which location of a library system. Best Wishes!
posted by lodie6 at 9:43 AM on February 22, 2012

Oh, gosh, you're me. I went into my MLS program with a Sociology undergrad and a list of "things I enjoy" that was very similar to yours.

Are there any ML(I)S programs that are particularly strong in cataloging?

I got mine at the University of Missouri. There's only one cataloging class in the program, but it is very intense. At the end of the semester, there was a very clear line between students who LOVED it and found it to be the most practical class in the program, and students who thought it was tedious and boring. There was another class you could take to fill the same core requirement: Organization of Information. This is more theory-based, but also hits on digital organization standards. I took both. I did a short internship that was both traditional cataloging and e-resources work. I definitely encourage you to explore both areas if you go for the MLS. You're into history; archives work will have a cataloging component to it. I definitely think the program will fit your interests; if you decide you don't really love cataloging (and believe me, you have to REALLY LOVE it), there are a lot of other options that provide you the opportunity to do the neat organizational stuff without the rules and tedium.

Memail me if you have any specific questions about this program.
posted by almostmanda at 11:01 AM on February 22, 2012

Book cataloging is dying and/or being outsourced. Local materials of all types -- particularly images, amps, and various recording types -- are still being cataloged, though, so if you're not married to book cataloging (and don't want to work for LoC) that might be a direction to go in.

Like everything else in libraryland, the more technical you are, the better your job prospects will be. Metadata specialists with experience running, troubleshooting, installing, updating, maintaining, and fixing specific systems are always in demand. Not just the big ILSs either; expertise in repository systems like DSpace and others is in particular demand right now, and -- as some of us have seen first-hand recently -- hiring someone to use these systems without a good technical background is a disaster.
posted by coolguymichael at 11:03 AM on February 22, 2012

gah don't do it! Really. You said "sorting things, solving puzzles, researching, figuring out how systems work and how to make them work more efficiently." Go learn about databases and programming and web stuff, become a web master or a database person, someone who runs the OPAC or something like that.
posted by Blake at 11:03 AM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Don't just attend any old library school if you decide that you want to catalog. As mentioned above, there are schools that really focus on it and others (mine!) that only made you take one class. One not-very-hard class.

But also, cataloging is a tough field to compete in. I did some cataloging for my local history museum and found it to be interesting but very repetitive.

I totally hear you about the fascination with putting things in places and assigning roles and all - I am the exact same way. As a career, though, it may not be for you. I took my library science degree and turned it into a resume builder for a web startup where I manage structuring product hierarchies. Very close to cataloging in my mind. Be creative.
posted by amicamentis at 11:15 AM on February 22, 2012

A tangent is to get into Linked Open Data, RDF, Open Data. These fields are growing rapidly. I dare you to watch this video from Europeana on Linked Open Data, and not be inspired.

Another idea: I managed a major project at my last academic library to implement a discovery system, which allowed users to search and browse by facets. What I really needed was a cataloguer who could help with MARC data cleanup, working with records from multiple systems, and as teleri025 says, someone who knows but can bend the rules. Almost all larger libraries have or will be implementing these systems, so there is a need for this type of knowledge.

I would suggest to get involved with the Code4Lib crowd and other online Semantic Web groups and start learning before you choose a school.
posted by wingless_angel at 11:29 AM on February 22, 2012

2nding the recommendation for Dominican above. I graduated about 5 years ago and had one basic and one fairly rigorous cataloging course. There were lots of other cataloging electives offered but they didn't fit in with my schedule, or I would've taken more. I've since worked mostly in reference but have done cataloging at a part-time job at a special library (it paid minimum wage!) and I back up the cataloger at my current job when she's out. Entry-level cataloging positions seem fairly hard to come by, but there are a million head of tech services jobs out there.
posted by jabes at 12:24 PM on February 22, 2012

I am an IT guy in a library whose office is in tech services. No nof the librarians here who do cataloging actualy specifically studied it. Most public libraries just hire librarians off the local list and wil ltell you at time of interview where it is.

Our tech svs dept is staffed more by clerks then librarians.
posted by majortom1981 at 12:36 PM on February 22, 2012

With your history background you should consider becoming an archivist. It's an interesting field with a lot of cataloging involved because it involves so many one-of-a-kind items. Google archives and cataloging to check it out.
posted by mareli at 12:45 PM on February 22, 2012

Here's a link to the Society of American Archivists.
posted by mareli at 12:47 PM on February 22, 2012

I was like you: humanities undergrad with strong interests in classification, details, puzzle-solving, and fixing things. I went here, 02-04, and they made a cataloger out of me. As the profession's going, so went my first job out of school, in Big Academic Library: started out doing some cataloging of books and oddball materials, gradually switched over to doing a lot of work on batch MARC record cleanup and electronic resources. That was actually very cool and fun, but the frustrating thing was that my then-employer drew a bright line between librarians in tech services and the digital library people down the hall, and we didn't get to collaborate nearly as much as we should have. Tech services is often kind of a ghetto, and at least in academia it seems very gendered.

Suggestions in light of all that: should you go to library school, definitely don't be afraid of learning to code and work on systems, even if that means you have to take some classes in the computer science department (I wish I'd done this). Look into not only rare books cataloging and archival description, but also digital humanities, information architecture, and taxonomies.

(Also, if the UNC/NCSU dual degree program in library science and public history is still around, it might be a good fit for you. The usual caveats apply, though: do not go into debt to do this, because the job market is extremely tight.)
posted by clavicle at 12:55 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

(Also also: In my current job, I was brought on as a cataloger and webby person. Due to weird circumstances, I am now a solo librarian, one of those jerks who "doesn't have time for cataloging," and I have to do all sorts of crazy things like reference and tech support and making decisions about budgets. The transition is tough for me, but I'm glad for the challenge; it's not a bad fit for my fix-all-the-things interests, and as I get older, I'm tending to want to expand my hermity introverted horizons more. Something to keep in mind.)
posted by clavicle at 1:07 PM on February 22, 2012

I've been a librarian for 13 years. I started out doing indexing and abstracting of tobacco industry documents (metadata creation), then built a digital library of same (metadata management and standards-creation), consulted as a researcher, then returned to college libraries as a reference/library instruction librarian. Now I'm Head of Cataloging and Library Instruction. I didn't do much cataloging before I was here (some retro projects) and didn't find my one library school cataloging course that useful, as all of the hardest things had to do with dealing with OCLC and in-house workflows. My metadata experiences were obviously the most relevant. I could have gone more into Systems Librarianship with my skill set, but this job came up and I took it.

I think it must be rare in this job market for a library school student to decide absolutely what he or she wanted to do and do only that. Keep your options open. Some say Technical Services is going away, and that outsourcing will be the new way.

If you are passionate about cataloging, though, go work at someplace like Coutts and get down and dirty. (My library's director and the Acquisitions Librarian each did this and they internalized some rules which serve them in their current roles, though they did not do much cataloging after Coutts.)
posted by Riverine at 2:27 PM on February 22, 2012

Huh. I am kind of surprised that so many people are saying that it's hard to get cataloging classes in library school, and that there isn't much cataloging being done in libraries these days.

I graduated from library school less than five years ago, took three cataloging classes (a foundational classification of information class, basic cataloging, and advanced cataloging) as well as an indexing class, and am now employed as a cataloger in a public library. I do original cataloging and complex copy cataloging, and supervise paraprofessional staff who do basic copy cataloging. Most of the original cataloging I do is local stuff (government documents no one else on the planet is interested in, local bands' CDs, local authors who no one has heard of) but occasionally -- maybe once a week or so -- I get something that I am surprised to find no copy for.

It is true that it is just impossible to really learn cataloging in library school -- hell, five years in, I'm still learning stuff -- but I think that's probably always been true. Internships or paraprofessional jobs while in library school will give you a HUGE advantage in the job market once you graduate. Cataloging is something that is ever evolving -- electronic resources have made description and access a lot more complex than they were when information was only contained in physical formats -- but this just keeps it interesting!

We do buy MARC records for a lot of our material, but there's still enough cataloging that needs to be done in-house to take at least half my time in an average week (20+ hours) between cataloging, answering questions from my staff about their copy cataloging, doing recon (retrospective conversion) or other cataloging-oriented projects, and doing general database cleanup activities. The other half of my time I wear my serials librarian hat, my reference librarian hat, or my selector hat.

I work in a two-branch municipal public library with a materials budget of about $650K per year (not huge, but not tiny). The other libraries of similar size in my area also have full-time catalogers. When I was in library school, I worked in the tech services department of a large academic library and there were many, many catalogers working there, though most of them were highly specialized and had a second master's degree in the subjects they cataloged (and if you tried to catalog a graduate-level math book, you'd understand why the cataloger needs graduate-level math!) and some of them were not librarians, they were paraprofessional staff (even though some of them had library degrees).

I went to the University of Washington Information School. Take a look at their course descriptions, everything in the 53x block is a cataloging/classification course. If you want to become a cataloger, you might consider UW, I definitely feel that I got a good foundation for my professional work there not long ago.

Feel free to memail me if you have any questions!
posted by rabbitrabbit at 3:39 PM on February 22, 2012

Oh, a couple more things:

If you have German and are working on more languages, there are companies that hire foreign language catalogers. Backstage Library Works, OCLC, and the Library of Congress are the ones that spring immediately to mind, but I'm sure there are others. Language skills are really great for catalogers to have. If I knew any Asian languages, my job would be so much easier.

Also, it seems to me that catalogers get REALLY comfortable in their jobs, so there is pretty low turnover -- jobs seem to only come open when people retire, or are promoted to administrative positions. So, yeah, not the best job prospects, but if you're willing to relocate, there will be jobs out there. I see at least a couple a week advertised on LISjobs or my state job list. On the other hand, there are lots of electronic resource librarian jobs being created, which are basically just cataloging digital resources and making sure access from the OPAC to the information is seamless. Which is a lot of fun, and I wish I could do more of that in my job. I'm sure someday I will!
posted by rabbitrabbit at 4:01 PM on February 22, 2012

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