Beyond ‘Ditch Dewey’ in the academic library

An old 90s television displaying a blue screen, set in front of a red brick wall

‘Why don’t we just ditch Dewey?’

Well, why don’t we just. After all, it’s a fair question, provocatively asked by a client services librarian at a session of our week-long end-of-year zoom gathering. My heart sank. Of course somebody asked this. A fellow colleague cheekily posted in the zoom chat ‘Your time to shine, Alissa!’ I can’t recall ever meeting him properly, but I guess he knew who I really was? I could see the University Librarian about to respond, as the Q&A portion of the hour was intended for the library executive, when suddenly I found myself interrupting, unmuted, to over a hundred people:

‘Uh, could I just say something here?’

With approximately zero seconds notice I ad-libbed five or so minutes of explanation around this idea, having entirely forgotten to put my camera on. My hands were shaking by the end of it. Surprise public speaking is really not my thing.

Here’s a much fuller version of what I think I said, with some added points that I only thought of after a strong peppermint tea and some chillout time with my fern collection. I know my comments were recorded for an internal audience but I’m deliberately not going back and listening to them! While I’m not a classification expert, I have spent many years agitating for more critical attitudes to this work, and I am the metadata team leader here, after all. If anyone was going to give a (decent) answer to this question, it was gonna be me.

Smart move, loser. Now you’re gonna have to say something!

Shut up, brain.


These days, ditching Dewey is no longer an outrageous, unthinkable suggestion. Only 19% of American academic libraries were found to be using DDC in 2018, with that number steadily dropping. The biggest problem now is what to replace it with. If there existed a better classification system for generalist academic libraries like ours, chances are someone would be using it already. I could spend my entire career devising something better and still never be finished – and it’s not like OCLC are resourcing this work for DDC anymore. The only other system in wide use in Australia is Library of Congress Classification (LCC), which isn’t exactly a better option. It encodes the biases, perspectives and priorities of the United States government, just like LCSH does, and why would we want that in our library? The nexus of classificatory power is located far, far away from us, when it needs to be right here. LCC has a tendency to historicise Indigenous peoples—that is, place everything about them in the history section, as if they have ceased to exist entirely—and encodes archaic and offensive perspectives on topics as diverse as Arabic literature and the geography of Cold War-era Eastern Europe.

Genrefication isn’t really an option for academic libraries. Our collections are designed for serious research and study, not recreational reading or other types of lifelong learning; whimsical genres are largely inappropriate for an academic setting. Besides, even public library genrefication projects, such as the one at the flagship branch a stone’s throw from my office, are often built on Dewey’s foundations; the books are shelved in distinct genres, yet continue to use a DDC number as a shelfmark, meaning the substrate logic remains the same but is made impenetrable to a casual browser. It makes the browsing experience more frustrating, because you no longer have the granularity of Dewey to guide you, only a broad category. Academic library users are typically quite focused in their browsing. We couldn’t just say ‘here’s the economics section’ and leave them to it—we need the kind of granularity only a formal classification system can provide.

Our print collections have been largely unavailable for browsing for the best part of two years. We’ve been doing distance education for decades and have a large and growing cohort of exclusively online students. It’s not like a lot of people are actively browsing our physical collections right now. Also, reclassifying an entire print collection fills me with dread! My team of 1.6 FTE are nowhere near resourced enough for such a enormous undertaking – physically retrieving, reclassifying, restickering and reshelving every single print book in our branches would take months and involve huge amounts of work. We just don’t have that kind of capacity.

Besides, is large-scale reclassification truly the best use of my team’s limited time and considerable talents? I feel like there are more immediate and more focused things my team and I can do to improve the cultural safety of our metadata. We could be adding AUSTLANG codes and AIATSIS subject headings to our First Nations materials, overlaying records from Libraries Australia that already feature this data. We could work to contextualise offensive and culturally unsafe depictions of First Nations topics, adding content warnings where necessary. We could work with our Indigenous knowledges institute and our colleagues in the Archives to apply Traditional Knowledge and Biocultural Labels for materials we collectively hold, ensuring their provenance, protocols and permissions are clearly documented.

I had a conversation with one of our liaison librarians and her boss a few weeks ago about her campus library shelving First Nations Dreaming stories in 398.2, the myths and fairy tales section. The juxtaposition of core cultural and religious texts with lightweight children’s stories is manifestly inappropriate; the former’s continued placement here, in spite of clear DDC instructions to the contrary since 2003, is a damning indictment of the cultural incompetence of library cataloguers.1 My liaison librarian colleague mentioned this situation in the zoom chat—I suspect it was a surprise to many of our colleagues, including the University Librarian. I responded after I had finished speaking with ‘Absolutely – I look forward to fixing this next year’. I was going to do it anyway but it’s nice to have senior management buy-in for these things 🙂

The Dewey Decimal Classification was designed by a particular man, at a particular time, in a particular place, with a particular collection and for a particular audience. His notoriously questionable values and those of the classification system that bears his name are, by and large, not those we share today. But who is ‘we’? Who gets to put books where? Whose values are encoded and embodied in the placement of books on shelves? What values would our institution like us to project in our physical and digital spaces? What about the multitude of value systems that our students and researchers bring to those spaces? How do we represent such multitudes in a linear shelf arrangement? Should we even try?

Don’t get me wrong, colleagues: I am all in favour of doing classification differently. But please don’t underestimate the difficulty and the sheer amount of work involved. It’s not as simple as just ‘ditching Dewey’.


At this point I ran out of courage and trailed off. The University Librarian, who I get the impression chooses their words carefully, said nothing for a few agonising seconds before inviting a question from another audience member. I had noticed them listening intently as I spoke. I hoped they didn’t mind me interrupting.

Two days later, in another session of our week-long end-of-year zoom gathering, the conversation turned to the ethics of AI, and how systems reflect the biases and perspectives of the people who build them. The UL remarked that the discussion really went to the heart of critical librarianship—recognising that the library profession also has a long history of perpetuating all sorts of biases and harms in our work. And I just about fell off my chair.

Was this real? Did I really work in a library where the University Librarian not only uses the phrase ‘critical librarianship’ in front of the entire staff but makes a point of actively living those values? Did I really hear the directors echo those comments and agree that perhaps it’s time to reconsider our classifiation practices? Did I really hear the UL namecheck me twice in the closing session, for both my colleague’s presentation on our project to fix our batch file loading processes and also for my impromptu Dewey comments? Did I really say all that in front of everybody?!

Truly I feel like I’m working in paradise. It’s one thing to blurt out my Big Metadata Feels in response to a question that wasn’t even directed at me, but it’s quite another for my senior management to embrace these ideals, making a point of publicly supporting the work I do and the things I am so passionate about. Hearing ‘critical librarianship’ out loud at work has just about made my year. Every day I am so grateful to be here. I can’t wait to make good on this promise.


  1. I did not say this part out loud. 

Classifying autism spectrum disorders in DDC, LCC and NLM

Everyone, justifiably, wants to see themselves reflected in their library’s classifications. But the two major classification systems used in Anglophone libraries—Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) and Library of Congress Classification (LCC)—as well as the (American) National Library of Medicine classification (NLM) have a long history of reflecting the biases, perspectives and limits to knowledge of the times and spaces they were first devised. Sometimes small aspects are updated, but structural biases are baked in, and far harder to fix.

The following outlines the treatment of autism spectrum disorders in these three major classification systems. None of them are sympathetic to the neurodiversity movement, and range from the benign to the downright offensive. It’s an insight into the history of social and medical attitudes toward autism, but a classification system is not the right place to be storing that history. I wish we could move with the times.

Dewey Decimal (DDC)

Works on the medical aspects of autism are classed at 616.85882, under ‘Intellectual disabilities; developmental and learning disorders’. This is how the medical establishment sees us, so therefore this is how Dewey sees us. The broader number 616.8588 sits between factitious disorders (including Munchausen syndrome) and ADHD, and is itself part of a grab-bag of socially-marginalised disorders at 616.858 that also include personality disorders, gender-identity disorders and ‘disorders of impulse control’. Can’t say I love this particularly pathologised perspective—and that’s even after looking the other way at ‘Diseases’!

The scope note reads: ‘Class here comprehensive works on pervasive development disorders’, with a note for PDDs other than autism to be classed at 616.85883. This echoes the DSM-IV and ICD-10 (that is, a previous) approach to autism, which classed autism as one of five pervasive developmental disorders. The DSM-5 and ICD-11 moved to using the term ‘autism spectrum disorder’, encompassing a range of autistic traits and severities, including those previously categorised as Asperger’s syndrome. Asperger’s is classed at 616.858832, but as this term is no longer used, I imagine the call number will eventually fall out of use as well.

WebDewey notes that the class number for autism changed with DDC edition 22, published in 2003. Previously autism was classed at 616.8982, as… a subtype of schizophrenia. I gotta admit, this was news to me too. Autism was once considered a form of childhood schizophrenia; while WebDewey doesn’t tell me when a class number was first introduced, I’m guessing this dates from around the 1960s or 1970s. It could be worse, for sure, but it could be a lot better, too.

A class number for the social aspects of autism was harder to find. WebDewey returned no results in the 300s for the search term ‘autism’, but returned two strong suggestions for the search term ‘developmental disabilities’: 305.9085 for works on autistic people ourselves, and 362.1968 for social services to autistic people. The term ‘developmental disabilities’ doesn’t exactly reflect how I see myself, but I’m very aware these schedules were not designed with low-needs autistic people in mind.

Library of Congress (LCC)

Until recently autism had only one LCC call number: RC553.A88, under ‘Internal medicine—Neurosciences. Biological psychiatry. Neuropsychiatry—Psychiatry—Specific pathological states, A-Z—Autism. Asperger’s syndrome’. I must admit, ‘specific pathological states’ is a more polite descriptor than I had expected to see in LCC—I don’t entirely hate it. Being a straight A to Z list it sits between ‘Auditory hallucinations’ and ‘Cognition disorders’.

Library of Congress cataloguer Netanel Ganin recently wrote about his efforts to address this absence, reinterpreting a call number range in the social sciences, HV1570, to include the social aspects of autism spectrum disorders. This accords with the treatment of other disabilities, such as blindness and deafness, whose medical aspects are classed in R and social aspects in HV.

Netanel notes that the full hierarchy of HV1570 (‘Social pathology. Social and public welfare. Criminology—Protection, assistance and relief—Special classes—People with disabilities—Developmentally disabled’) is not without its problems, as LCC can’t help pathologising autistic people as needing ‘protection, assistance and relief’ and most medical literature regards autistic people as being developmentally disabled, which also explains its preponderance in DDC. This class number is, however, an improvement on LCC medicalising the entirety of the autistic experience.

As an autistic cataloguer I applaud Netanel’s work in this area to help books find their most appropriate home in the LCC schedules, and to make the best of a bad system.

National Library of Medicine (NLM)

Sadly, NLM classification is the worst of the lot. Here, autism doesn’t even warrant listing under its own name, instead being lumped under ‘Pervasive child development disorders’ and classified with ‘Schizophrenia Spectrum and Other Psychotic Disorders’, at WM 203.5. The number for autism sits between schizophrenia and neurocognitive and perceptual disorders.

In a rare act of classificatory transparency, NLM schedules are full of ‘[This number not used]’ where a call number has been removed and its subject classified elsewhere – unfortunately, between the Cutter number and the see reference text, one can often surmise which archaic or offensive words or concepts were previously listed.

Unlike DDC, NLM continues to encode the discredited view of autism as a form of childhood schizophrenia by choosing WM 203.5, instead of an unused number in the WM 200s. Yet as medical understandings of autism spectrum disorders have grown and improved, their classification here remains stuck in the 1950s. It’s also very strange that a call number relating to child development disorders, a diagnosis typically made in, you know, childhood, is specified for works relating to adults only.

Adding ‘spectrum’ to the broader category doesn’t change which individual disorders are collocated with each other. Nor does it change the overall message that sends. Am I supposed to be grateful that autism isn’t classed as a mental illness, or an intellectual disability? I would have expected NLM to be more in line with the classification decisions made by the DSM and ICD, but instead they’ve changed a dressing instead of closing an open wound. I hope they will reconsider this classification in future.

Don’t dream it’s over; or, A return to cataloguing

A double rainbow joins the National Book Church™ and the National Science Temple™ against a backdrop of dark clouds, November 2018. Photograph by the author

A handful of Wednesdays ago I quit my job at a mildly prestigious library that shall remain nameless, after just over three years of employment. I wore my favourite cataloguing-themed t-shirt to work, bought one last book with my staff discount at the bookshop, and treated myself to a final helping of bain-marie slop at the cafeteria across the road. It still doesn’t seem entirely real that I’ve left. I still had so much to do.

The last six months have been the happiest and most fruitful of my entire career. I’ve absolutely loved being a systems librarian. I’ve had great fun crafting Access queries, running Perl scripts, devising Excel macros and more, while running complex data reports and conducting bulk data edits for business areas. I learned a heck of a lot about how data and systems work together (or not). But more than anything I’ve really loved my team. They’ve been wonderful people to work with, and I wish them every success.

I was a little surprised by how much time I spent saying ‘thank you’ during my last week. I’m not sure I expected to feel quite so grateful at the conclusion of my time there, but I guess I had a lot of complex feelings about the whole thing. Besides, it turned out I had a lot of people to thank: my wonderful boss Julie, my colleagues Sue and Brad, my director Simon, my previous director Libby, my old boss Cherie, good people like Ros H and Ros C and Catherine.

I wanted to finish that job feeling like I achieved something of lasting value. Instead I settled for starting something that will outlive me and hopefully become standard practice. Sure, helping implement a new service desk ticketing system was useful from an internal workflow perspective, but it’s not quite what I went there to do. Instead I called a meeting with a bunch of managers (well, my boss called it for me) to highlight several pieces of egregiously and systematically racist metadata in our catalogue, mostly relating to Indigenous Australians. Some of the old subject headings hadn’t been updated to the current terminology, while other headings should never have been in our catalogue in the first place. I outlined how my team could remediate these problems, but some policy decisions needed to be made first—ideally by those attending the meeting.

It’s a shame this meeting wound up happening on my last day. But the looks on the faces of my Indigenous colleagues convinced me I was doing the right thing. These terms should have been nuked from the catalogue twenty years ago, but the next best time to do that is now. I kinda felt like this shouldn’t have been up to me, a systems librarian, telling a roomful of people who all outranked me how to fix a data problem. But it needed doing, and I was in a team that had the technical ability to make the necessary changes. I regret that I won’t be around to see them happen.

Shortly after this meeting my director Simon was regaling us with an anecdote about longitudinal datasets; he has a background in statistics and often compares library metadata to things like the HILDA survey. But the key difference is that while HILDA’s questions and expected answers have changed over time in a discrete fashion, making it easier to see where such changes have occurred, library metadata corpora are a total mismash of standards and backgrounds, with each MARC field potentially having been added at a different time, in a different socio-cultural context, for a different purpose. Metadata librarians are grappling with the ongoing impact of data composition and recording choices made decades ago. We have virtually no version control (though it has been suggested) and little holistic understanding of our metadata’s temporal attributes. It makes retrospective #critcat efforts and other reparative description activities a lot harder, but it also hinders our ability to truly understand our descriptive past.

I was pleased to end my time there on a constructive note. But like I said, I have a lot of complex feelings about the last three years. I started out being one of those bright-eyed and bushy-tailed new professionals who didn’t have a whole lot else going for her, wanting to prove her passion and devotion to her dream job by working herself to death, thinking that maybe her job would start to love her back. Please don’t do what I did. I might not have realised at the time how harmful this mindset is, but I also did not realise that I deserved better from an employer. Whenever I think about my time there—barring the last six months—I can’t shake these feelings of deep unhappiness. I feel like I was thrown in the deep end right at the start and spent years desperately trying not to drown. I started thinking nobody would care if I did drown. I was lucky that the restructure threw me a life raft, but the damage was done.

Happily, I have much more to look forward to now. After a pandemic-induced false start I’m finally fulfilling a lifelong dream to move to Victoria, to be closer to friends and forests, and to take up a role as a metadata team leader at a regional academic library. Professionally I feel like I’m returning to my metadata spiritual home, and I like having the word ‘quality’ in my new job title. The ‘team leader’ part is slightly intimidating though—I have no supervisory experience whatsoever (and they know that) but it’s something I’m very keen to do right. Everyone I’ve met there so far has been really lovely. I can’t wait to start next week.

I’m glad to be ending this rather turbulent chapter of my life and beginning a new, hopefully calmer one. I took this job for many reasons, but I keep coming back to the potential I sensed in it. There’s so much possibility here. It’s very exciting.

Cataloguing the songlines

You know what? I feel like we don’t talk enough about the structure of metadata. We’ve been talking a fair bit in recent years about offensive subject headings, inappropriately-used call numbers, for and against demographic details in name authority records. But my time as a systems librarian has reignited my deep interest in library data structures. Learning to write SQL queries and structure data in my head like our ILS does (that is, idiosyncratically) has meant I now spend most of my work days staring at spreadsheets. And I’ve started to wonder about some things.

How do our data structures and systems shape our data? How do MARC principles, informed by Western ways of knowing and speaking, influence our understanding and description of the books we catalogue? What biases and perspectives do our structures encode, perpetuate and privilege?

Consider the book Songspirals: sharing women’s wisdom of Country through songlines, joint-winner of the 2020 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards non-fiction category. The book is credited to the Gay’wu Group of Women, a collective of four sisters and their daughter from Yolŋu country in north-west Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, and three ŋäpaki (non-Indigenous) academics with whom they have collaborated for many years. The book is told in the sisters’ voice, sharing women’s deep cultural knowledge and wisdom through five ‘songspirals’. Settler Australia might know these as ‘songlines’, a term popularised by Bruce Chatwin in his 1987 book The Songlines, but as the Gay’wu Group writes,

In this book we call them songspirals as they spiral out and spiral in, they go up and down, round and round, forever. They are a line within a cycle. They are infinite. They spiral, connecting and remaking. They twist and turn, they move and loop. This is like all our songs. Our songs are not a straight line. They do not move in one direction thorugh time and space. They are a map we follow through Country as they connect to other clans. Everything is connected, layered wth beauty. Each time we sing our songspirals we learn more, do deeper, spiral in and spiral out. (p. xvi)

A collective author like the Gay’wu Group of Women sits uncomfortably within Western resource description paradigms. Does RDA consider them a person, family or corporate body? Would MARC enter them as a personal name (100) or a corporate name (110)? Why are these my only options? Why are groups of people considered to be ‘corporate bodies’? Why are ‘families’ limited to those who share a surname?

I borrowed Songspirals from my local library a few weeks before I delightfully received a copy as a birthday present. Their new, shiny catalogue distinguishes one author from the rest, mirroring the main-versus-added-entry choice MARC forces us to make, but I was puzzled to find their choice of main author was one of the seven, Laklak Burarrwaŋa. Her name was misspelt as ‘Burarrwana, Laklak’, missing the letter eng ŋ, which represents a ‘ng’ sound in Yolŋu Matha. (This letter is not commonly found on a standard keyboard, and so Laklak’s surname could also be acceptably spelt ‘Burarrwanga’.) Did this record originate in a system incapable of supporting quote-unquote ‘special characters’? Was it originally encoded in MARC-8, which appears not to support the letter ŋ? Did a cataloguer misread the letter? Or could they simply not be bothered?

It’s a questionable choice of main entry, as the Gay’wu Group of Women are prominently credited on the cover, spine and title page as the book’s author. But knowing the history of cataloguing as I do, I suspect I know why this choice was made: an old rule from AACR2 preferred personal names over corporate names for main entries, as explained in this heirloom cataloguing manual from 2003. Corporate bodies were only treated as main entries in limited circumstances, largely relating to administrative materials, legal, governmental and religious works, conference proceedings (where a 111 conference main entry was not appropriate) and for works ‘that record the collective thought of the body (e.g. reports of commissions, committees, etc.; official statements of position on external policies)’. It’s a fascinating and bizarre set of proscriptions. At no point does the manual explain the logic or context behind these rules. They are simply The Rules, to be broken or ignored at the cataloguer’s peril.

I never learned AACR2 so this convention has never made much sense to me. But I can easily imagine an elder cataloguer examining this book and going ‘hmm, the Gay’wu Group of Women don’t fit into any of the corporate body main entry rules that AACR2 burned into my brain, the members are listed individually by name on the title page, I’ll pick the first name as the main entry’ and entering Laklak’s name almost by rote. I don’t think any Australian libraries still use AACR2, but old habits die hard. It’s ridiculous that we still have to think about these things. Don’t cataloguers have better things to do than contort our data into antique data structures?


The DDC call number, 305.89915, is a catch-all for ‘books on Indigenous Australian societies’ irrespective of topic. All kinds of books end up here: Singing Bones on ethnomusicology in Arnhem Land, Sand Talk on philosophy across the continent, Surviving New England on the Anaiwan genocide. I suppose I should be grateful Songspirals wasn’t classed in 398.2049915, the number for Aboriginal Australian ‘mythology and fairy tales’. But this book is truly interdisciplinary, transcending Dewey’s rigid classes of knowledge and encompassing all corners of the Yolŋu lifeworld. In DDC logic, it makes sense that this book would be classified in an interdisciplinary place. I guess I’m just tired of seeing 305.89915 used so indiscriminately. It doesn’t help that the -9915 suffix encompasses the entirety of Indigenous Australia, with no further enumeration of specific nations or groups.

What if… we stopped choosing only one number? What if we routinely classed multiple copies of books in multiple places? A copy in history, another in the social sciences, a third in music? What if those weren’t even the categories? What if our classification system were a spiral, with multiple lines of intellectual inquiry reaching out from a core of knowledge, instead of our current linear system of ascending numbers? I wonder where the Galiwin’ku Library would place this book, having replaced their simplified DDC with a more culturally intuitive arrangement. Perhaps we should follow their lead.

The item part of the spine label, ‘BURA’, reflects the initial choice of Laklak Burarrwaŋa for main entry. The practice of including the first three or four letters of the main entry, or otherwise constructing a Cutter number, for a spine label theoretically ensures that each physical item in a given library has a unique call number. Meanwhile the ‘CUL’ at the top stands for ‘Culture and society’, part of this library service’s continuing effort to genrefy its collections. Some branches (including my local) are still arranged in Dewey order, while others are grouped more thematically. It’s been this way for years. I kinda like that they haven’t picked one yet. It keeps things interesting.


Disgruntled with my local library’s cataloguing and the state of things in general, I next interrogated the Australian national union catalogue, Libraries Australia, which is now part of Trove. There are seven records for Songspirals in the database, two for the ebook and five for the paper book, collectively held by over 160 libraries across Australia. I’m not surprised to see so many records; Libraries Australia’s match-merge algorithm is notoriously wonky and often merges records incorrectly, which are a massive pain to sort out. I’d rather a dupe record than a bad merge.

The source record used by my local library appears to have been updated since they acquired the book, though the seven LA records can’t quite agree on whether Songspirals is one word or two (the text of the book spells it as one word). Pleasingly, Gay’wu Group of Women are now the main entry in all seven records (as a 110), although one uses the questionably inverted form ‘Women, Gay’wu Group of’. Some records list all eight women’s names in a 245 $c statement of responsibility field, while another lists them in a 500 general note field. Only one record gives each contributor a 700 added entry field, with the surnames painstakingly inverted; we can safely assume none of the contributors had name authority records created.

MARC makes this more complicated than it needs to be. Systems often can’t index names that aren’t in 1XX or 7XX fields. Perhaps name authority records could be automatically created, or close name matches proactively suggested? Could systems embed named-entity recognition, a form of AI, to extract and index names wherever they appear in a record? (One record spells Burarrwaŋa two different ways, neither with the letter ŋ. These kinds of simple errors don’t help.)

Five records misspell the collective authors’ name as ‘GayWu Group of Women’, without the glottal stop and with a capital W, which seemed a curious mistake. I refused to believe that every single cataloguer who touched these records had blithely gotten this wrong, so I wondered if a system had forced this error. Two other records included the glottal stop, confirming LA systems could handle these characters, while a peek in the LA Cataloguing Client showed that this was a data error and not a display error in the LA search interface. While poking around the backend I noticed that all five misspelt records had at some point been through the WorldCat system, evidenced by various OCLC codes in the 040 field. Could this be an OCLC system problem? I don’t know for sure, but it warrants a closer look.

Several cataloguers went to the effort of including AUSTLANG codes in their records for Songspirals. Three records include a code for Yolŋu Matha in the 041 #7 language field, but only one record has a correctly-formed code, N230. The others have ‘NT230’, which is likely an overcorrection from people thinking the ‘N’ stands for ‘Northern Territory’, and is not a valid AUSTLANG code. While this mistake is simple and easily avoidable, it has also now propagated into hundreds of library catalogues. I wonder if more attentive systems could validate such language (041) or geographic (043) codes against controlled lists, including the MARC defaults and AUSTLANG.

It’s worth noting that the library at AIATSIS, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, whose research arm maintains the AUSTLANG database, assigned the additional code N141 for the Gumatj language, a dialect of Yolŋu Matha1. I habitually defer to AIATSIS on matters of First Nations resource description: if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.

Describing books using the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) is often an exercise in frustration and futility, searching for concepts that don’t exist in the American psyche, but doing justice to the songlines with this vocabulary is flat out impossible. We are reduced to phrases like ‘Folk music, Aboriginal Australian’ and ‘Yolngu (Australian people) — Social life and customs’, flattening the spiral into the linear thinking of the coloniser’s language. From my whitefella cataloguer perspective, the closest LCSH probably gets is the notorious ‘Dreamtime (Aboriginal Australian mythology)’ heading, which as I’ve written before is not appropriate in a contemporary catalogue, and which no LA record appears to have used. But I don’t think this omission is necessarily due to individual cataloguers’ ethics. Songspirals does not name the Dreaming, or discuss it as an academic pursuit. Rather, this book is the Dreaming. It feels a bit daft to say ‘it’s not a subject, it’s a genre’ but even this artificial distinction between what a book ‘is’ and what a book is ‘about’ feels deeply irrelevant to this work.

The English language fails me here. But it’s how I interpret the world. It shapes what I know. And it shapes how I catalogue.


Cataloguers are expected to judge books by their covers, quickly ascertaining the salient facts about a work and categorising it within the boundaries of their library’s chosen schemata. Without having read the book in its entirety, I could tell these records were wonky just by looking at them. But they are structurally wonky. Indigenous knowledge will always sit uncomfortably within Western descriptive practices. It’s more than deciding if something is ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’. It’s not about yelling at individual cataloguers, although some of these errors were clearly unforced. It’s hard to transcribe names accurately if our systems can’t cope with ‘special characters’ or to represent a work’s collaborative authorship if our data structures insist on privileging one author above all others. It’s difficult to represent the interdisciplinarity of a work if our policies dictate it can only be classified in one spot on a linear shelf. Systems caused these problems. But perhaps systems could help fix them, too.

Our sector chooses the data structures, encoding standards, controlled vocabularies and classification styles that we work within. These choices have consequences. We could make different choices if we wanted to. These things did not fall out of the sky; many people built these structures over many years. But our potential choices are each a product of their time, culture, context and ways of knowing. This doesn’t make them ‘bad’ options, but it does mean they may struggle to describe forms of knowledge so different from their own. Perhaps we could choose a different way.

At home, I keep meaning to organise my books properly but never seem to get round to it. I have a shelf of library books (mostly overdue), a shelf of recent acquisitions and a shelf of ‘books that vibe with my thinking of late, and which I ought to read soon’. At various points Songspirals has sat on all three. Perhaps the very notion of fixed metadata is inherently at odds with the cyclical and adaptive nature of songspirals, of oral histories passed down through the generations, layers of wisdom accumulating like layers of the Earth’s crust. Knowledge is always changing and adapting to the world around it. So, too, should our ways of describing that knowledge.


  1. My initial training in assigning AUSTLANG codes recommended against using codes for languages where their entry in AUSTLANG was capitalised, as in ‘YOLNGU MATHA’. This indicates a language family, rather than a specific language, and further investigation may be needed. Songspirals itself refers to the language in the book as ‘Yolŋu matha’, so understandably cataloguers outside AIATSIS would have followed the book’s lead. 

A farewell to cataloguing

A tree in a clearing

Tomorrow is a big day. I’ll be starting a new role at work. I’ll become what other libraries might call a systems librarian, in a new team, on a new floor, doing new and exciting work. Critically, I will stop being a cataloguer. Turns out I have some feelings about that.

My last day on Friday was ordinary enough. In honour of the occasion I wore my second-favourite library-themed outfit to work, a dress with LC call numbers on it, though I don’t think anyone noticed. I catalogued some books and did some advanced photocopier magic as a favour for my boss, for which I was paid in chocolate. I neglected to attend the morning tea for those of us leaving the section, partly because I was busy but mostly because I wasn’t in a great space for small talk. I’ve never felt like I belonged, here.

The restructure predated the pandemic and was meant to be over by July. It has instead lasted all year and will run into the next. You can imagine how stressful it’s been. Like everyone else in the placement pool, I was asked for my top three role preferences. Unlike most people, by all accounts, I got my first choice.

My new role joins an established team that used to be in the collections division but now sits in IT. The team maintains the catalogue and discovery layer, but also seems to get asked for reports and statistics a lot, which in turn involves a lot of funky database queries and data massaging. My new boss specialises in beautifully colour-coded spreadsheets. One of my new colleagues is a MarcEdit wizard. Everyone is a keen cyclist. I think I’ll like it here.

While I am a bit sad about no longer being a cataloguer, truth be told my professional interests have always lain in this kind of zoomed-out, macro-level work: analysing data at scale, maintaining and theorising the platforms and systems that house, shape and contextualise metadata. I’m a systems thinker with attention to detail, an unusual disposition for a cataloguer. Where others in this line of work have traditionally struggled to see the forest for the trees, I have spent aeons trying to make sense of the forest, from the canopy to the undergrowth, losing sight of how I was meant to be precisely recording only certain attributes of a given tree. Besides, those attributes wouldn’t even help someone find this particular tree. The directions were all wrong and the scientific name was meaningless to those who called the forest their home. Why can’t we describe this tree better?

…Sorry, you wanted this catalogued today? Yep sure I can do that.

And I can do that, but I can’t keep doing it in isolation, and I definitely can’t do it forever. Cataloguing is highly structured and solitary work, and in some ways it suits me down to the ground. But that structure is also the most frustrating aspect, that solitude the most soul-crushing. It might have been what I wanted, but it’s not necessarily what’s best for me.

The second-last book I catalogued on Friday was a biography of a nineteenth-century Queensland ship captain, written by his great-grandson. The author related in some detail how his ancestor was, among other things, a blackbirder for 14 years, ‘recruiting South Sea Islanders’ as if this were a fine and normal occupation and not at all kidnapping or indentured servitude no sir. The two catalogue records for this book on Libraries Australia reflected its deep whiteness and the banality of its horror. Neither featured the LCSH ‘Blackbirding’. Only one gave Australian South Sea Islanders their own heading.

I’ve catalogued more than my share of self-published biographies, histories and genealogies over the years. It is striking what this country chooses to forget. But I expect better from cataloguers whose job it is to contextualise this stuff. A primary tenet of cataloguing is to record what you see. But what if we’re as blind as the author? It’s this kind of thing that prompts me to think, well, maybe I wasn’t wasted in this job after all. Maybe I came here to notice these things, and to do better, and to demand better.

I’m looking forward to this new role. It’s no higher up the payscale, but it holds a lot of promise, and I hope to be happy there. At last I can climb one of these trees, and marvel at the forest.

How to catalogue a jigsaw puzzle

Two puzzle boxes stacked on top of each other: Rachael Sarra's Diverse Women and Wim Delvoye's Cloaca jigsaw puzzle

It’s been a while since I catalogued much of anything, so it’s quite nice to be (intermittently) back in the office doing this work. I would have been happy enough dealing with the usual print monographs, but recently two jigsaw puzzles wound up on my desk: one featuring a beautiful contemporary Aboriginal artwork, Diverse Women, and the other featuring the infamous mechanical stomach at the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona), Cloaca Professional. My boss knows I love cataloguing weird stuff and also nobody else wanted to deal with these for some reason, so I volunteered to take one for the team.

The majority of our jigsaw puzzle collection, if it can really be called that, is either cartographic (map-based) or an added extra that came with a book. These two puzzles were neither of those things, so there wasn’t a whole lot of precedent in the collection for how best to process them. I had a peek at the OLAC guidelines but was hoping for something a bit more accessible, so I thought I might as well write it myself. Besides, when the next jigsaw inevitably winds up on my (or your) desk this way perhaps we’ll be a little bit consistent. (I also figured I could shoehorn this into this month’s GLAM Blog Club theme, ‘Discovery’.)

As always, these observations are all mine and not those of my employer. I swear I’m not writing blog posts on company time, honest.

Fixed fields

Fortunately someone scrounged up for me a cataloguing template for jigsaw puzzles. Unfortunately this template was really intended for map-based jigsaws, and as such was coded as a cartographic resource (‘m’ in LDR/08). In my mind regular jigsaws are realia, so I coded these records as such (‘r’ in LDR/08), taking out the map-specific fields as I went.

I learned that the 008 for cartographic resources has a specific byte for jigsaws (‘l’ in 008/73). The 008 for realia1, however, is less specific; I settled on coding these as ‘games’ (‘g’ in 008/23), which apparently includes puzzles. This seems an unfortunate gap, but I was unwilling to add a cartographic 006 field just for this one byte, as it has a negligible impact on discovery. Also neither of these things are maps.

Title and access points

Both puzzle boxes featured easily identifiable titles, recorded in a 245 as usual: $a Diverse women and $a Cloaca jigsaw puzzle.

Access points, however, were trickier. A quick Google for ‘Rachel Sarra diverse women’ only returned results that related to the puzzle, which implied that Diverse Women was primarily intended for release as a puzzle, and existed publicly only in this form. I contrasted this with Cloaca Professional, which was already well-known as a public artwork, and of which a photograph was used for the Cloaca jigsaw. Diverse Women artist Rachael Sarra was credited on the puzzle box (garnering a 245 $c); so was Cloaca Professional creator Wim Delvoye, but as that artwork’s creator, not of the puzzle itself.

This suggested to me that the Diverse Women jigsaw is a standalone work, while the Cloaca jigsaw is a derivative work of a different, pre-existing (art)work. I gave Rachael Sarra the 100 field (with the $e artist reationship designator) and was going to only give Wim Delvoye the 700 field (as part of a name/title authorised access point; that is, $a Delvoye, Wim, 1965- $t Cloaca professional), but after thinking about it for way too long I decided to give him the 100 field as well in his own right, to aid discovery of his works. For some reason I kept thinking I could only give him either the 100 or the 700, but not both? I don’t know why I thought that. Perhaps I was taught it at some point.

It’s important to remember that this kind of nuanced distinction is practically meaningless for modern-day search and retrieval, but cataloguers care quite deeply about this stuff because the MARC standard forces us to. I wish it weren’t necessary.

I also gave Mona a 710 added entry, as they were intellectually responsible for the puzzle’s production. I’ve never really understood why publishers don’t get 710 fields, or why the 260/264 $b isn’t routinely indexed. I feel like that would be a useful feature. Probably too useful, I suppose.

Descriptive cataloguing

A description of the box and its contents was added in a 300 contents field. Interestingly the Diverse Women puzzle has an ISBN (a use for which this persistent identifier was probably not designed), so it went in the 020 field as usual. I did wonder if there was a controlled vocabulary for the 020 $q but the Library of Congress MARC documentation said there wasn’t, so I just made something up. Nice to be able to do that in catalogue records occasionally.

Neither puzzle gave an age range, so I didn’t include a 521 Target Audience Note (though the difficulty of Cloaca in particular suggests these are aimed at adults). However, both puzzles included specific copyright statements, which I felt it important to reproduce in a grandly-named 542 Information Relating to Copyright Status Note.

Diverse Women came with a summary on the back of the box; the Cloaca jigsaw featured one on the Mona online shop, in their trademark irreverent style. Both were duly copied into the 520 summary field.

Subject cataloguing

I admit I was initially at a loss as to how to index these puzzles, especially the Cloaca puzzle. Just how does one represent ‘jigsaw puzzle of a photograph of a mechanical digestive system’ in LCSH? For better or worse I am paid to figure out these things, eventually settling on the delightful (and new to our catalogue) ‘Scatology in art’ for Cloaca, and ‘Jigsaw puzzle art’ for Diverse Women.

The Diverse Women puzzle was additionally indexed using an AIATSIS subject heading, in line with MPOW’s cataloguing policy for First Nations materials (it’s a great policy and your library should do this too). I tossed up whether to include a heading for the Goreng Goreng people, as the box notes that Rachel is a Goreng Goreng woman but the resource isn’t strictly about the Goreng Goreng. As a white woman I’m not the best person to be making that decision, but I also didn’t want to bother my Indigenous colleagues about every single little thing related to cataloguing Indigenous resources. I ultimately decided not to include the heading, choosing instead to fully transcribe the artist credits on the box in the 245 $c. if a future cataloguer disagrees, they can always add the heading in later.

The Library of Congress Genre/Form Terms vocabulary features the term ‘Jigsaw puzzles’, so that was included in a 655 field in each record. MPOW doesn’t routinely use the 380 Form of Work field and it’s not indexed in our system, but you could use this field instead if you prefer.

Sample records

These may or may not precisely match what’s on the ANBD, but should give you a pretty good idea of what goes where. (I reserve the right to edit these later and fix my inevitable errors, haha.)2

Puzzle 1: Diverse women / Rachael Sarra

=LDR  01351crm a2200277 i 4500
=001  8536424
=005  20200924170121.0
=008  200924s2020\\\\vrannn\\\\\\\\\\\\rneng\\
=020  \\$a9781741177480$qpuzzle box
=040  \\$aANL$beng$erda
=042  \\$aanuc
=043  \\$au-at---
=100  1\$aSarra, Rachael,$eartist.
=245  10$aDiverse women /$cartist: Rachael Sarra (Goreng Goreng).
=264  \1$a[Richmond, Victoria] :$bHardie Grant Travel,$c2020.
=264  \4$c©2020
=300  \\$a1 jigsaw puzzle (1000 pieces) :$bcardboard, colour ;$c69 x 49 cm, 
          in box 33 x 23 x 5 cm
=336  \\$athree-dimensional form$2rdacontent
=337  \\$aunmediated$2rdamedia
=338  \\$aobject$2rdacarrier
=500  \\$aTitle from box.
=520  \\$aThis artwork, titled Diverse Women, celebrates the energy flowing 
          through Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women of the past, 
          through to the present, and bubbling towards future generations 
          of tiddas (sisters). In Rachael's words, it 'celebrates the strength, 
          complexity and diversity of our women, while the harmonious contours 
          acknowledge the caring and nurturing nature of our women'.
=542  \\$fCopyright artwork © Rachael Sarra 2020 ; copyright concept and box design 
          © Hardie Grant Publishing 2020.
=650  \0$aJigsaw puzzle art$zAustralia.
=650  \0$aArt, Aboriginal Australian.
=650  \7$aArt - Mixed media.$2aiatsiss
=653  \\$aAustralian
=655  \7$aJigsaw puzzles.$2lcgft

Puzzle 2: Cloaca jigsaw puzzle

=LDR  01142crm a2200265 i 4500
=001  8536430
=005  20200925173602.0
=008  200924s2020\\\\tmannn\\\\\\\\\\\\rneng\\
=040  \\$aANL$beng$erda
=042  \\$aanuc
=043  \\$au-at-tm
=100  1\$aDelvoye, Wim, $d1965-$eartist.
=245  10$aCloaca jigsaw puzzle.
=264  \1$a[Berriedale, Tasmania] :$bMuseum of Old and New Art,$c2020.
=264  \4$c©2020
=300  \\$a1 jigsaw puzzle (1000 pieces) :$bcardboard, colour ;$c74 x 59 cm, 
          in box 35 x 22 x 5 cm
=336  \\$athree-dimensional form$2rdacontent
=337  \\$aunmediated$2rdamedia
=338  \\$aobject$2rdacarrier
=500  \\$aTitle from box.
=520  \\$aThe joy of puzzles is universal. So is the joy of poo. So we've brought them 
          together in joyful, crappy unison: Wim Delvoye's Cloaca Professional, aka 
          Mona's shit machine, rendered at long last in jigsaw form. 1000 pieces, 
          mostly black, takes weeks to complete-gird your posterior and settle in for 
          the long haul.
=542  \\$f© Wim Delvoye.
=650  \0$aScatology in art.
=653  \\$aAustralian
=655  \7$aJigsaw puzzles.$2lcgft
=700  1\$ibased on (work):$aDelvoye, Wim, 1965-$tCloaca professional.
=710  2\$aMuseum of Old and New Art (Tas.)

  1. Strictly speaking this is the Visual Materials 008, but it covers realia too. 
  2. You may notice, as I belatedly did, that Libraries Tasmania also have a copy of the Cloaca jigsaw puzzle. They did things slightly differently to me (and may have convinced me to give Wim Delvoye the 100 field) but life would be boring if we all catalogued the same way :) 

Recognising critical librarianship

This article first appeared in inCite, the magazine of the Australian Library and Information Association, January/February 2020, volume 41, issue 1/2, page 24.

Are you a critical librarian? You might already be, but maybe didn’t know your actions and philosophies fit within the name. Perhaps you’re the type to advocate for changes to subject headings, or your workplace is actively making library spaces more welcoming for disadvantaged people. Perhaps these are really the same thing.

For some, critical librarianship, or ‘critlib’, means bringing social justice principles to library work, such as a commitment to equality, diversity and solidarity with marginalised people. For others, it means aligning their library practice with critical theory, a ‘framework that is epistemological, self-reflective, and activist in nature’. These are related but distinct approaches to how libraries interact with their communities. It’s one thing to advocate for social justice in the library, but it’s quite another to use the tools of critical theory to explore why and where there is social injustice in the library in the first place.

Critical librarianship involves deep, considered analysis about the structure and theory of library work. It doesn’t mean criticising in a rude or disparaging way. Nor does it mean believing that libraries are necessarily bad. Critical librarianship aims to make the profession better by recognising harmful and oppressive structures, dismantling those structures and building better ones in their stead. We critique because we care.

All areas of library work can incorporate critical perspectives, including reference, information literacy, outreach, IT systems, collection development and cataloguing. Each area strives to recognise who is harmed by prevailing library practices, what message they send, and how they might be reformed.

For example, advocating for changes to subject headings, such as the notorious Library of Congress Subject Heading (LCSH) ‘Illegal aliens’, involves recognising how terms like these reflect social and political mores of the United States Congress, the institution served by the Library of Congress and its subject headings. Australian libraries use these headings mostly out of convenience, but many terms are clearly inappropriate, such as ‘Dreamtime (Australian Aboriginal mythology)’. The equivalent term in the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) subject headings is ‘Religion – Dreaming’, which repositions the Dreaming as contemporary spiritual practice and not ancient mythology.

Neither term is neutral, because nothing about librarianship is neutral, but choosing to replace an LCSH term with an AIATSIS one demonstrates a recognition of the rights of Indigenous people to describe their culture their way, and the obligations of libraries to uphold those rights. It sends a message that these are the terms the library prefers, and in so doing makes the library catalogue a more welcoming and inclusive place. It’s about taking social justice principles of diversity and inclusion, applying critical theory to our controlled vocabularies, and ultimately making better choices in the service of our users. This is critical librarianship. It’s also the least we can do.

Bringing social justice to the library is deeply admirable. But critical librarianship should also involve bringing the library to social justice, listening to our communities, and incorporating critical theory into library practice. Perhaps you’re already doing these things. Turns out these practices have a name.

Putting the ‘tech’ back into technical services

This month’s GLAM Blog Club theme is the delightfully adaptable ‘question’. Next month’s #auslibchat theme is the equally interesting ‘Library Roles’. These have both wound up being quite timely, for reasons I probably shouldn’t discuss on the open internet, but I do have some questions about my role as a librarian with a technical bent.

I’m trying to get out of my perfectionist shell, so these are more free-flowing thoughts than I would normally commit to pixels. I should also mention I had a coconut margarita for dinner this evening, and I’m in a bit of a mood.

Back in the olden days, back-of-house library functions like cataloguing, acquisitions, et cetera were broadly known as ‘technical services’. When I started in libraries just over four years ago this term baffled me. I supposedly worked in this kind of area, but it felt like a hangover phrase from The Time Before Computers. Nothing ‘technical’ about serials check-in, I thought. Technical people worked in the systems department. Or in web publishing. Or in IT, which sat outside the library itself.

Four roles and three workplaces later, I still don’t work in any of those areas, but I also still don’t know how I feel about the phrase ‘technical services’. For context, I currently work as a web archivist, which is easily one of the best and coolest jobs I will ever have. I have the rare pleasure of a role that combines curatorial, technical and metadata aspects, in a team full of good people who know their stuff. I love (almost) every second. I haven’t been this happy at work since I spent 5 1/2 years running an ice-cream shop on weekends. I’ve been meaning to blog for ages about how awesome my current job is. I should get on that.

It’s not part of what would be traditionally considered ‘technical services’, though to my knowledge MPOW have never used this phrase, but it involves a lot of highly technical work, dealing with the endless ways people create and structure websites, and how our crawling software copes (or not) with the variety of the Web. If nothing else, this role has been quite the crash course in HTML, CSS and Javascript. My previous role as a cataloguer was technical in a very different sense—learning an arcane encoding standard so that I might apply a set of equally arcane descriptive policies.

Notably, I am the only woman in a team of five people, and it’s taken some getting used to. Anecdotally, cataloguing and other ‘technical services’ are female-dominated, with a greater proportion of people from non-Anglo backgrounds (mostly due to the need for vernacular language skills). Yet library IT, like IT everywhere, is male-dominated. It’s not good enough for organisations like ALIA to blithely state that the LIS sector needs to hire more men. We need to look at the distribution of genders within the sector. IT pays good money. Cataloguing doesn’t. Librarianship has historically been a feminised profession, an ‘acceptable’ career path for women. It’s hard not to wonder whether tech services would be taken more seriously if more men were doing it.

But I also wonder whether I got into librarianship because it seemed like a safe and acceptable way for me, a white woman, to be technical. Being a systems thinker, I’ve always looked at how things work together, taking a broad view of the forest and its ecosystem while also occasionally delighting in a particular tree. Libraries are just one big system, right? But that system has to be meaningful to people, too, and it’s what I find most interesting about being a cataloguer.

As a technically-minded librarian I often feel like I inhabit a kind of liminal space. I don’t feel technical enough for IT—largely because I’m not much of a coder—yet I feel almost too technical for a lot of library work. Most library jobs these days are not conceived as being ‘technical’ roles. Library schools push a front-of-house mindset almost from day one. My study visit cohort were firmly told what attributes we needed in order to succeed in libraries, and I didn’t feel like I had any of them. I was a natural introvert, not very good at people, quite fond of books and reading thanks, drawn to computers and systems. I vividly remember walking the streets of suburban Perth on the brink of tears because I felt like I didn’t fit the mould the lecturer had set for us. I spent the rest of the visit wondering whether I had made the biggest mistake of my life by enrolling in library school. I seriously considered giving it all away.

I know now, of course, that the lecturer was rude, crude and totally wrong. I do have what it takes to be a librarian. Just not the kind of librarian she was thinking of. But the idea persists that librarians are not technical people, or that the heart of librarianship is not—or should not—be a technical one. We’ve been technical for decades. We were one of the first professions to embrace the possibilities of automation. (We’re still dealing with some of those possibilities now. Ask any cataloguer about whether MARC has died yet.) What happened to that? Where did that power go? Where has that technical skill and ability ended up? And why has the section known as ‘technical services’ not been at the centre of this change?

Too library for the tech staff, too techy for the library. It’s hard not to feel as if I will one day be made to choose between them.

And I will refuse to choose.

Our profession needs all the techy librarians it can get. People who speak library AND speak IT. People with the ethical grounding of librarianship, who may or may not work back-of-house, but who can also critically assess and use technology, ensuring it functions in accordance with the values of this profession. No siloing. No separating. No boundaries. And I say all this not just because I’m on the committee of VALA, a library technology organisation that was literally founded to bring librarians and technologists together, nor because I’m trying to shore up my own career prospects in an uncertain world. I say this because I want library automation to happen BY us, not TO us. I want librarians to be able to take control of their own technological destinies. I want equitable cataloguing to be supported by equitable systems. I want us to be able to speak tech, so we can either tell tech what to do, or feel suitably empowered to do it ourselves.

It’s not technical services as we’ve traditionally known it. But a lot of library traditions are changing.

It’s time to question them all.

Cataloguing as a (customer) service

A librarian’s innate desire to help is often redirected into a desire to provide great customer service. That is, until what constitutes ‘customer service’ changes, and suddenly what some kinds of librarians do isn’t considered ‘helpful’ enough. I’m sure I had something else in mind when I suggested the theme ‘help’ for GLAM Blog Club. But one of Danielle’s tweets today set a different set of cogs in motion:

After a short back-and-forth, Hugh responded:

To which I added:

A public library director once told me to my face that he wasn’t interested in hiring cataloguers. I don’t recall exactly how he phrased his justification (though I do recall my response being ‘I’m sorry to hear that’) but he clearly conceptualised his library as a ‘customer service’ organisation, where that phrase meant ‘an exclusive focus on front-of-house activities and services’. Collection development, systems administration and cataloguing, collectively ‘technical services’ in library parlance, are not commonly viewed as opportunities for great customer service. Instead they’re seen as something that can (and should) be outsourced in the interests of ‘efficiency’.

Brisbane City Council Library Service abolished their in-house tech services department twenty years ago and, oddly, chose to present about it at the 13th National Cataloguing Conference. The library moved entirely to shelf-ready stock and turfed all their cataloguers.1 The writeup in Cataloguing Australia notes (emphasis mine):

This driver of customer service is paramount at Brisbane City Council and Library Services. All our restructuring and re-engineering has been predicated on the assumption that it will provide better customer service and responsiveness. The wider implication of no longer having a Technical Services Section is that Library Services is now solely a customer service branch. There is no longer a back room mentality, and the expectation is that staff spend 80% of their working day in direct customer service.2

To be fair, a typical late-nineties tech services department probably wasn’t all that user-focused. But I reckon it could have been, if management had chosen to imbue that customer service ethos into all areas of library administration, not just the face-to-face parts. I can see I’ll be shouting ‘CATALOGUING IS POWER’ until the day I die. I’ll never understand why so many libraries, especially public libraries, willingly throw this power away. What do we lose from ‘efficiency’? What do we lose, when we lose the people who are paid to care?

I have worked for, patronised, and otherwise dealt with far too many libraries that are not resourced to care about the integrity and usefulness of their metadata, collections or systems. These things are clearly not prioritised by decision-makers, and so they are outsourced, often with little oversight. This is not good customer service. This does not help. Having a crappy website or an unusuable catalogue sends a strong message that the only patrons the library cares about are those accessing the library in person. Has the internet taught us nothing? Have twenty-plus years of ‘everything is online now’ not compelled us to create the best online presences possible for our libraries? To curate the best online and electronic collections? To boost our SEO (search engine optimisation) using well-structured, highly detailed metadata? To develop and deploy systems that don’t make people jump through endless hoops, divulge their personal data, or give up entirely in frustration and turn to a paid competitor? Why do I know so many librarians who use Audible instead of Overdrive? Who are we really competing against?

I abhor the practice of referring to library users as ‘customers’. Customers, by definition, purchase. The library has nothing to sell. The library invites the community it serves to make use of its facilities, collections and knowledge. These services are not without cost, but they are, proudly, free to the user. In lieu of ‘customer’, I prefer the term ‘library user’ or sometimes ‘patron’. The library I work for uses ‘reader’, supposing the majority of our visitors are, in fact, here to read.

Save for the two hours a week I choose to spend on a reference desk, my job is not directly user-facing. But it is user-focused. Everything I do as a librarian, I do for my library’s users (and, through the power of co-operative cataloguing, the users of hundreds of other libraries). I don’t catalogue for the catalogue’s sake. I catalogue so people can find things. Most people will never know how my cataloguing has helped them. I’m okay with that. I don’t need to be sitting in front of a library user for my work, and my help, to be valuable.

The above-mentioned issue of Cataloguing Australia, the journal’s last, also featured a paper from the then-Customer Services Manager at CAVAL. To my surprise and absolute delight, she took a similar view to me of customer service and cataloguing:

Let me begin, as we should all begin, by looking at our customers. Even if we never see them, we should never forget who they are. […] When you are making a map of the heavens, you need to be aware of whether you are doing this for a child, an astrologer, a serious astronomer or a Star Trek fan. Each one of those maps is useless to any of the other groups. So, too, with our catalogue records. For our customers are infinitely more varied than those for star maps.3

The entire article is a joy.4 It’s full of sensible, user-focused thinking (seemingly a rarity in 1999) and it’s easily my new favourite piece of professional literature. But I’m intrigued by the fact it came from a vendor. By outsourcing so much of our technical services work, has our sector also outsourced the capacity to think of this work as inherently ‘customer’-focused? A vendor’s ‘customers’ are libraries themselves—does this change a catalogue record’s intended audience?

A tech services worker might ask ‘How can I help?’, as I so often greet people on the desk, but libraries need to be structurally capable of accepting that help, and cultivating it in-house. By reframing our conception of cataloguing as an inherently user-focused (or customer-focused) activity, libraries can ensure we’re providing the right metadata to create the right map, in order to help the right people find the right materials. After all, we’re here to help.


  1. The author mentions ‘we now have no cataloguers on our staff’ so I guess they were either made redundant or reassigned to other, non-cataloguing duties, though two staff were put in charge of quality checking vendor records. 
  2. Mackenzie, Christine. (1999). ‘The end of the world as we know it? Outsourcing at Brisbane City Council Library Service’. Cataloguing Australia 25(1/4), pp. 184-187. 
  3. Dearman, Rosemary. (1999). ‘Whose information universe? Customer services and cataloguing’. Cataloguing Australia 25(1/4), pp. 222-231. 
  4. Sadly it’s not online :(