Posted by: mhdiaz | November 8, 2011

The Past vs. The Future — The Problem with Cataloging

Jane Burke returns to InfoViews for a new series – Crushed by the Tsunami: Are Libraries at Sea?  The focus of this series is resource and data management challenges and their implications for demonstrating library impact and value.  In her fourth post, Jane discusses issues with cataloging systems and processes.

As I write this, I am reflecting on the key messages from the (wonderful as always) Charleston Conference.  Our keynote speakers were advocating that librarians take on new roles with linked data and research data sets.  When asked about the “business models” for these roles, the suggestion is that the library’s existing investment in cataloging could be redirected to these new efforts.

I am a proponent of linked data.  The use of RDF triples and URIs could make significant contributions to research, teaching and learning.  And I think librarians are the right ones to do this work.  But I do not believe that current staff resources can be successfully redeployed within the existing library technology environment.  The current ILS and its resulting workflows force staff to continue to perform duplicative work around standard published works.  This is because each ILS has a separate copy of the record.

Despite cries to “get rid of MARC”, the MARC format continues to dominate our descriptive work, partially because it is baked into the ILS.   The ILS allows – and assumes – that each library edits bibliographic and authority records, and so they do.  Maybe not every record — some bibliographic records are accepted from suppliers.  But even then, there is usually a manual process to add holdings and item records.

Original cataloging is creating descriptive metadata for data sets, web resources, etc. – work that is vital within a linked data research environment.  This has potential embed libraries’ vast expertise within the research environment.  Yet, libraries are locked into the repetitive work in managing their local instances of standard bibliographic metadata.   Recent research from the journal Library Philosophy and Practice noted that the average library spends 396 days a year doing copy cataloging.*  That’s nearly 2 person years of work.

The value of the library as the “describer” of scholarly resources continues to be recognized.  As researchers look for help navigating across the vast landscape of electronic research, the need for better description and for linking resources grows.  Libraries can and should emerge as real contributors to research by taking on this role.  But the ILS, with its fixed MARC metadata model and print-based workflows, prevents libraries and librarians from realizing their full potential.

Librarians are powerful.  We can do anything, but we can’t do everything.  We need tools that give us flexibility to create better roadmaps for our electronic collection and the new digital world.

*Source:  Library Philosophy and Practice 2007, Special Issue on Libraries and Google,ISSN 1522-0222 , A Rough Measure of Copy Cataloging Productivity in the Academic Library, John Buschman Professor-Librarian and Chair, F. William Chickering Dean of University Libraries Rider University Library.

In her next post, Jane will talk about systems and process challenges in the management of libraries’ physical resources, including the handling and management of print collections.

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