Applied Pragmatic Cataloguing: a reading list

I’ve long been an advocate of what I call ‘pragmatic cataloguing’. You may know the phrase ‘user-centred cataloguing’, which is similar, but narrower in scope.

Being a pragmatic cataloguer involves taking a good hard look at:

  • what you record
  • where you record it
  • how many times you record it
  • what purpose you record it for
  • what terminology you use to record it and
  • whether a patron can fully access and use what you have recorded.

To give but two examples: a cataloguer may decide that the most appropriate LCSH for a work would be exclusionary and/or misleading to a patron, and so use another controlled vocabulary or some free text keywords instead. Longer-term, they might consider petitioning LC for a change of heading, but in order to best serve their patrons right now, they choose alternative headings from different sources, and inform the library employee in charge of cataloguing standards what they chose and why.

In another scenario, an audiovisual specialist cataloguer may have a large backlog and be pressed for time, yet must catalogue items from scratch. Their OPAC does not index, display or otherwise harness the detailed metadata for AV items (or indeed for any items) in the fixed fields of a MARC record. Knowing this, they may decide to skip the fixed field data entry and instead focus on fields that their OPAC can process and display to a user, even if this means creating an ‘incomplete’ record.

Normally I would sit down and write a long (and slightly inaccessible) essay about this topic, but why listen to my waffle when you can read the sources for yourself? I was inspired to collate a reading list by this delightful Twitter conversation. This list is surely incomplete, so I would welcome any suggestions for additional content. I hope you enjoy reading these articles and resources as much as I enjoyed finding them.

Where possible I’ve tried to use OA / freely available resources, because that’s chiefly what I have available to me at the moment, but some of these are paywalled and/or physical.

Hoffman, Gretchen L. (2009a). Applying the User-Centered Paradigm to Cataloging Standards in Theory and Practice: Problems and Prospects. 2009, Vol 2:27-34. [Open access]

Gretchen Hoffman has written quite a lot in this space. This well-referenced, accessible article begins by pointing out that the term ‘user-centred cataloguing’ invariably runs into difficulty because cataloguers often do not know who their users are, and in today’s world a library’s users could be literally anybody. Standards have heretofore required cataloguers only to think about their users, not actually have a user-centred approach; cataloguers have in turn believed that adhering to standards will best serve users, eve when this is patently not the case. Hoffman suggests a rethink of the widespread practice of taking ‘master’ records (eg. OCLC, but also Libraries Australia) and adapting them for local use—such adaptations could be merged into national practice, or different ‘master’ records for, say, academic and school libraries could be considered.

Hoffman, Gretchen L. (2009b). Meeting Users’ Needs in Cataloging: What is the Right Thing to Do?, Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 47(7), pp. 631-641 [Not open access]

Hoffman’s CCQ article is a revised, expanded and slightly more biting version of the OA article reviewed above. Here she delves further into the topic of cataloguing ethics, concluding that cataloguers are behaving as if they have none, and broadens the suggestion of ‘domains’ of cataloguing based on the intended user (eg. academic and school libraries).

Barbara Tillett’s response to this (also in CCQ) is illuminating: having taken the article very much to heart (and understandably so), she hits out at Hoffman’s characterisation of cataloguers as ‘unethical’ and wishes the article were more ‘upbeat’. My personal thoughts on this could easily occupy another blog post; suffice it to say I’m less sympathetic to Tillett than most other cataloguers would be.

Baia, Wendy (2008). ‘User-centred serials cataloging’. In Roberto, K.R. (ed.) Radical cataloging: essays at the front. Jefferson, N.C. : McFarland &​ Co. [Not open access]

The Google Books preview of this chapter is incomplete, and so must my annotation be also. Baia clearly shares my enthusiasm for flexible cataloguing practices and disdain for those who can’t see past the rulebook. Her chief bugbear is successive entry serials cataloguing, whereby a new record must be created whenever a main entry changes (author / title / uniform title). Users hate this because it means various ‘bits’ of a serial are strewn throughout the catalogue, yet cataloguers persist in doing it anyway. The end of the chapter includes a very helpful bullet point list of characteristics a user-centred serials cataloguer ought to possess, which largely boil down to pragmatism, open-mindedness and a user-focussed approach.

Baia, Wendy & Randall, Kevin M. & Leathern, Cecilia (1998) Creativity in Serials Cataloging, The Serials Librarian, 34(3-4), 313-321 [Open access]

An earlier article from Baia expands on her notion of ‘creative cataloguing’, outlining what a serial record catalogued according to latest entry rules might look like. This article is old, and the example of course is an AACR2 record, but the theory holds true.

Drabenstott, Karen, Simcox. Schelle and Fenton, Eileen (1999). End-User Understanding of Subject Headings in Library Catalogs. Library Resources and Technical Services, 43(3), pp. 140-160. [Open access]

This article outlines a study of adults’ and children’s understanding of Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) and the assignment thereof. Participants were issued questionnaires at selected public libraries in the U.S with a set of headings, and were asked to interpret what they meant. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people weren’t very successful at this; less than half of the LCSH corpus were interpreted ‘correctly’ (i.e. in accordance with the opinion of an expert subject cataloguer). Prime reasons for this included the difficulty of vocabulary and the obtuse structure of LCSH subdivisions. Is LCSH an appropriate controlled vocabulary, if users don’t understand what headings mean?
While the structure of LCSH has remained more or less the same since this study was carried out, the introduction of faceted (i.e. not subdivided) vocabs like FAST may improve comprehension of headings by end users.

Hufford, Jon R. (2007). The Pragmatic Basis of Catalog Codes: Has the User Been Ignored?. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University. [Open access]

The gist of this article is basically ‘People who invented cataloguing codes did so without doing any UX research whatsoever’. Serving as a general history of the topic, Hufford illustrates how professional librarians (read: white, male, educated, nominally Christian librarians) in the 19th and early 20th centuries devised lengthy, arcane rules for establishing name and title headings, while failing to consider the needs of users. Whether this failure was conscious or subconscious is not explored, but considering a library’s userbase at the time probably roughly mirrored the librarians who ran it, staff may well have considered themselves ideally placed to decide what would suit users best.

Morris, Ruth (1994). Towards a User-Centred Information Service. Journal of the American Society for Information Science 45(1), pp. 20-30. [Open access]

It’s not often I read articles saying LIS needs more theory, but Morris’ 1994 piece argues quite strongly for a better theoretical and conceptual understanding of what a ‘user-centred service’ might mean, so that librarians might begin to provide one. Yes, begin. (sigh) Beginning with an intro to the constructivist theory of LIS research and discussing the theories of four prominent researchers, Morris then deconstructs each aspect of librarians’ interactions with the public.
The section on cataloguing talks about getting users to stop ‘constantly constructing and reconstructing reality’ when considering search terms, and encouraging them to think outside the box. It also discusses the user unfriendliness of internal cataloguing notes on the whereabouts of an item.

Olson, Hope A. and Schlegl, Rose (2001). Standardization, Objectivity, and User Focus: A Meta-Analysis of Subject Access Critiques. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 32(2),
pp. 61-80 [Not open access]

Olson and Schlegl explore the difficulty of locating various critiques of indexing and classification that have taken place over the years (with respect to gender, race, ethnicity, religion, disability etc.) because the databases that index this information adhere to the same biases and paucity of headings that the critiques themselves discuss. The reference list to this article encompasses some of these articles, which are good reads in their own right. (Alarmingly, their research database has vanished from the Web, and is not available in the Wayback Machine.)
Apropos of nothing, I love their phrase ‘exploited serendipity’ (p. 64). I think I might borrow it for a future post!

Deodato, Joseph (2007) Deconstructing the Library with Jacques Derrida: Creating Space for the Other in Bibliographic Description and Classification. In Leckie, Gloria J., Given, Lisa M., and Buschman, John (eds.) Critical Theory for Library and Information Science: Exploring the Social from Across the Disciplines. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited, pp. 75-87. [Chapter is open access]

Finally, because who can resist a little existential philosophy with their cataloguing (I know I can’t), Deodato takes us through an exploration of deconstructivist French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) and his theories as they might apply to librarianship. It is, by definition, not an easy read, as Derrida’s work seeks to illustrate the plurality and ambiguity of meaning. This represents a challenge to LIS notions of a fixed relationship between meaning and text, as expressed in subject headings and classification schemes. The article also dissects inherent bias in LCSH and the resultant ethical responsiblity of cataloguers to recognise and address these biases. It’s an excellent, if slightly heavy, article.