Bringing a balance to cataloguing

Today I learned that the old-fashioned cataloguer is not, in fact, extinct. You know the one: the process-driven, rules-focused, slavish adherent to The Done Thing who can’t handle change and can’t see the forest for the trees. I thought they were all gone. Turns out they’re still out there.

At first I was disappointed to find this out, as I’ve made a point lately of trying to smash these stereotypes about cataloguers. But then I remembered people I’ve met who have the opposite problem: people who don’t care enough, who see no value in structured, tidy metadata, who are, in fact, so user-focused that they forget what their users might actually want.

I’d like to think the optimal position is somewhere in the middle. I like a cataloguing rule as much as anyone, but I also like breaking them if it results in a better user experience, or if the rule doesn’t result in a net gain for staff. There is a balance to be found in cataloguing, a compromise between what the rules want and what a user wants. Pragmatic cataloguing, if you will. It’s entirely possible to create beautiful, 100% RDA-compliant MARC records that are also functionally useless. It’s also possible to break almost every rule in the RDA Toolkit and yet present a functional, accessible, meaningful catalogue. I’ll pick the latter every time.

These needs must also be balanced with what your ILS and OPAC are capable of. I recently discovered a former OPAC didn’t display 545 (Biographical or Historical Data) fields, which I had used in MARC records for archival and manuscript collections. I was extremely annoyed by the failure of our OPAC to do this, but I was also annoyed at myself for not discovering it sooner, and not habitually looking at the records I create from the user’s perspective. I resolved instead to use a field the OPAC did display, like a 500 or 520, so that the information would be accessible to the user. Yes, it’s breaking a rule, and I would rather not have to compensate for an OPAC’s failings, but I’ll do it if I need to.

Cataloguing rules still have their place, but I feel it’s important to take a pragmatic approach to metadata creation. The rules are a guide only. Do what you feel is best for your users, and bring a little balance into the world. 🙂