For almost forty years I have been in charge of law libraries. During that time I have acquired great appreciation and respect for the value and work of library catalogers. This posting is a small token of that respect and gratitude.
Have you ever wondered how all the information in library online catalogs, or OPACS is collected and organized in a way that makes it accessible and useful to us when we need it? As it turns out, the process of collecting–and especially organizing–this information and making it accessible to us is quite rigorous, involving complex, exacting standards and rules.
To perhaps oversimplify, cataloguing involves listing, analyzing, describing, classifying, identifying points of access such as subject headings or titles (access points) to the information being cataloged, and making any necessary preparation for user access from both within a library or through remote access from various locations, of knowledge based structured content (bibliographic content) associated with a library or group of libraries, all under the direction of specially trained professional catalogers. To ensure consistency and overall coordination of these processes both within and among libraries, it has been essential to establish well coordinated and agreed upon standards and conventions which catalogers working from diverse locations and organizations can rely upon to provide maximum benefit to us the end users.
For cataloging standards to remain relevant, they must take into account various factors including the preservation of the integrity and accessibility of the collection being cataloged, the mission of the organization housing or hosting the collection, needs and concerns of end users, and changes in information needs and cultural values over time. Depending on circumstances, such changes may necessitate either comparatively minor revisions or major revisions in order for these standards to remain relevant as the basis for effective cataloging. Judging from what I have read while preparing this posting it appears that catalogers have always been and continue to be very diligent and effective in this regard.
For many years the rules of cataloging have been primarily governed by a group of standards and rules called Anglo American Cataloguing Rules (AACR) and later AACR2 which is still being used as this is being written. Both AACR and AACR2 were designed to accommodate either hard copy (print or card catalogs) or earlier versions of computer-based or online catalogs. By the beginning of the 21st century it was widely recognized that either a major revision in AACR2 or a new standard that goes beyond existing cataloging codes was needed to provide adequate guidelines for cataloging digital resources, responding to the challenges of the world wide web, and to provide a greater emphasis on helping an increasingly diverse group of users to find, identify, select and obtain the information they need. After much discussion, consultation, and deliberation it was decided to go with a new standard called Resource Description and Access or RDA, which is scheduled to replace AACR2 later this year, 2009.
Why is this being discussed on a public blawg? Because we need to realize that although much of their work is behind the scenes and invisible to most of us, catalogers continue to play an important, critical role in enabling us to find the information essential to our going about our daily lives both at work and at home. Although search services are often useful, even vital, they are no substitute online catalogs when searching for bibliographic materials housed in libraries, groups of libraries or similar organizations. Cataloging standards can also form the basis for other forms of web searching. A prominent information consultant told me some years ago that he liked to hire catalogers for applications development in database and web searching because he found their training and expertise to be so helpful and effective.
To summarize, from all appearances cataloguers and cataloging continue to be highly relevant to our increasingly interactive and interconnected society with its growing information needs. But they need our recognition and appreciation for their many contributions. I hope this posting helps in that regard . Since this is a general discussion, I have left out many details of possible interest. To help fill in the blanks I have asked Joni Lynn Cassidy, President of Cassidy Cataloging Services to write her own article for this blawg. I am happy to report that she has accepted and we can all look forward to her forthcoming article.
_______________________________ *David Badertscher is the Principal Law Librarian at the New York Supreme Court Criminal Term Library, First Judicial District in New York, NY. Although not strictly a cataloger, he is interested in technical services issues and is a member of the AALL TS-SIS.
For those who are interested in pursuing this topic further, you can click on the link below to see some of the sources consulted in preparation for this posting.: