The cataloguer’s dungeon

These things keep me up at night. I would usually feel guilty for not worrying about climate change and the impending extinction of humanity, but I did that last month. So I’m letting it slide.

Like any normal twenty-something alone on a Saturday night, I found myself idly browsing my workplace’s catalogue for something to read. My literary diet has long had a nihilistic flavour—the top two books in a tottering pile to my immediate left are The Shock of the Anthropocene and The World Without Us (the latter recommended by Hugh), both sobering warnings on the fate of our planet. I thought I might try something fictional and/or optimistic for a change, but instead wound up on the entry for the film adaptation of Joe Cinque’s Consolation, a true story of a murder at a dinner party. How uplifting.

Being a cataloguer and therefore not a normal person, I noticed a lack of added entries for this record. In English, this refers to additional people, entities or works associated with a work (but which are not subjects of the record). A record can only have one main entry, but it can have as many added entries as you want (this is a limitation of the MARC data format). Usually this means additional authors, translators, actors, directors, issuing bodies and so on. An added entry can also be a work which has been adapted by another work. For the film Joe Cinque’s Consolation, I was expecting to see an entry for the book of the same name, written by Helen Garner.

I flipped to the MARC view, which (to me) often makes more sense than the public view. Lo and behold, there was the added entry:

700 1# $i Motion picture adaptation of (work). $a Garner, Helen, $d 1942-. $t Joe Cinque's consolation.

I checked another DVD record with fewer subject headings, in case space was causing a display issue. Nothing. I checked a few books. Still nothing. How had I never noticed this? I tried to console myself by reasoning that I never use the OPAC for work purposes, always the staff backend, which does display 7XX fields in the bibliographic record. Nobody told me these entries don’t appear to the public! Our ILS is 14 years old and slated for replacement, but it should have been able to cope with added entries right out of the box. It copes with RDA… ish… but doesn’t do anything particularly useful with the new information RDA provides.

By now wondering if this was a common problem, I looked at a couple of other libraries that held this DVD. Some displayed the full added entry, some omitted the ‘Motion picture adaptation’ part, and others used only the author’s name without the book title (which is less useful if you have no idea who Helen Garner is, and there’s no relationship designator to tell you). One library, clearly a SirsiDynix Symphony setup, displayed almost nothing unless I clicked on ‘Catalogue Record’, the contents of which will mean almost nothing to a casual user.

I returned to our catalogue, flipped back to non-MARC view and tried a general keyword search with another added entry (an actor’s name). This brought up the record for the DVD, but gave me no clue whatsoever as to why that record had appeared. How… unintuitive.

At this point, I began to feel greatly deceived. Why am I being paid to create metadata that the public can’t even see?

I looked at the MARC record again. How many other useful fields weren’t being displayed? How much information in fixed fields could actually be used in a query? For this particular DVD record, non-displayed useful fields included:

  • creator/producer note (508)
  • performers note (511) and
  • added entries for the actors and directors, as well as the original book (700 and 710).

By looking at this record, a user would have no way of knowing the director and main actors in the film, despite this information being encoded twice in the MARC record (once in a note and once as an added entry). It’s the kind of information I would be looking for if I were an OPAC user. Other libraries were, however, much better at displaying this data.

For the last several months I’ve been happily typing away in my little cataloguer’s dungeon, oblivious to the utter uselessness of many of the records I create. Well, actually, that’s not strictly fair—the records themselves are fine, but the system that manages them is not. Yes, we’ve been promised a new ILS sometime soon. But this added-entry problem has been around for 14 years. Either nobody noticed, or nobody cared, or nobody had the skill to do anything, or nobody was game to take on our vendor and ask for a solution, or nobody even saw it as a problem that needed fixing.

There are several problems here. Cataloguers (me included) should have an understanding of how their records will appear to an end-user. Systems librarians and administrators should be aware of what sort of data a) their cataloguers are producing and b) their users are looking for, and ensure that the OPAC’s offering meets all needs. Users should be empowered to give feedback about their discovery experience and know that their feedback will be taken seriously. Vendors should perhaps be selling less terrible products. Management should perhaps be buying less terrible products.

In the immediate term, it means I have to re-evaluate my use of added entries vis-à-vis general note (500) fields to ensure maximum usefulness for the end user. It bothers me greatly that I have to do this. MARC has an abundance of clearly defined fields for a reason. It should be up to the system to display them appropriately, not up to me to compensate for the system’s failings.

I looked again at the record for Joe Cinque’s Consolation, by now a source of great frustration when all I wanted was something fun to read. Buried in the Notes section, in tiny font, were the words: ‘Based on the book by Helen Garner’. Thankyou record, you came through after all. But why was this info in the Notes field at all? We can do so much better than this…

(To be continued)