"MANY INTRICATE AND DIFFICULT PROBLEMS
THAT TORTURE THE MIND"
WORDS OF WISDOM FOR ART CATALOGERS
IN THE REAL WORLD

by
Kathy Corcoran
Abrahams Library, Joslyn Museum
(subject cataloging workshop, ARLIS/NA, L.A., 31 March 2001)

INTRODUCTION

Before I start, I'd like to give you a bit about my background, particularly in cataloging.

MY BACKGROUND

My very first library job was a work-study job in the cataloging department of my undergraduate college, Canisius College in Buffalo NY. It sounded nice compared to the cafeteria jobs that other students got, and it was. I processed books, and climbed my way through the student ranks to filing and bibliographic searching. When I completed my BA in English, I was offered a paraprofessional position in Cataloging. Having no better plans I accepted; at that time my options seemed rather limited and did not appeal to me: teach, or go to grad. school and get Masters degree in English-and then teach. After about 2 years it seemed like a good idea to get my MLS. Soon after I completed the MLS, the Head of Cataloging left, and I got promoted to that position. Eventually I left Canisius for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, where my primary responsibility was reference. There I also supervised our part-time cataloger. Later, a move took us to Hartford, where I worked in a large corporate library as Head of Technical Services, and 8 years ago, I became Head Librarian at Joslyn Art Museum. At Joslyn, because of various staffing changes and my own interests, I eventually ended up as cataloger.

Joslyn's library: c. 24,500 cataloged volumes; 1,200 books cataloged in 2000; Staff consists of 2 f-t positions: Head Librarian and Reference Librarian, a part-time clerical assistant, and 9 volunteers. We use OCLC for cataloging, DDC, LCSH. Our library automation software is Library.Solution by The Library Corporation; we use the cataloging, public access catalog, and circulation modules, and have been online since April 1999.

Conventions I will use:

So, why am I here today?

At the time that I was asked to participate in this workshop, I told Alexis that I going create a cataloging policies and procedures manual. It was to be a tool for training, daily cataloging practice, quality control, ensuring cataloging uniformity, and decision making. It was to be comprehensive, complete, and authoritative. My plan for this presentation was to share with you the process of writing a cataloging manual, and to dispense appropriate wisdom about cataloging workflow and management. I thought that writing a cataloging manual would be fairly straightforward: I would simply record and organize what we were already doing, while making minor corrections and improvements in workflow and procedure. My assumption was that we were already doing a good job at cataloging. Writing a manual would be relatively quick and simple.

My plan was to start with some refresher reading, just to make sure that my understanding of the rules and standards was up-to-date. I started by looking for a how-to guide to art cataloging, and soon I found that there isn't one. But this "quick and simple" project turned out to be far more difficult and complicated than I had originally thought. The more I read and the more I thought about it, the worse it got. I felt less and less confident in my own understanding and skills, and in our whole cataloging process.

While training our Reference Librarian, who was very interested in cataloging, to do copy cataloging, I began to see problems. I started checking and re-checking everything I told her, and I kept finding more inconsistencies and errors whenever I told her about what I did in cataloging our books. It soon became clear to me that I would not be telling you how to create a cataloging manual or how to manage your workflow. We all have to work with limitations: we have small staffs, lean budgets, too many worthwhile projects, and not enough time. We may not have the training, experience, or understanding of complex and arcane cataloging rules, although we are very fortunate to have this workshop to help. And we have to deal with cataloging material in unfamiliar languages or formats.

All this being said, what might be a reasonable approach for us to take? I suggest that the first step might be to build your own philosophy of cataloging, the principles that will guide your choices, policies, practices, and decisions. Before you start worrying about how you are going to use what you've learned today, you need a personal philosophy to guide you and help you stay sane.

My thoughts and actions in cataloging have been influenced by the words of wisdom of others, some of them not catalogers or even librarians, and it is their words that I want to share with you today. (included in your handout)

The title of my talk today is taken from these words by Sir Thoms Hyde, the principal librarian of the Bodleian Library, 1665-1701:
"In the colossal labor, which exhausts both body and soul, making into an alphabetical catalog a multitude of books gathered from every corner of the earth there are many intricate and difficult problems that torture the mind."

I first saw these words when I was starting to think about retrospective conversion several years ago. They seemed especially fitting at the time, and I still have them posted next to my desk.

Take consolation in knowing that the difficulties of cataloging have been recognized for a long time. There are no "good old days," when it was a simple matter to create and maintain a catalog.

And if Hyde was exhausted and tortured in the days before MARC and AACR2, before computers and nonbook formats, we can hardly be blamed for feeling a little like that ourselves.

On the other hand, he did not have cataloging workshops, the ARLIS Cataloging Section, or the network of resources and aids that we have today.

The first words of wisdom that I would like to offer you are about perfection and mistakes:
"The greatest mistake you can make is to be continually fearing that you will make one." Elbert Hubbard

"Better to do something imperfectly than to do nothing perfectly." Robert Schuller

I like the Schuller quote so well I have it up on the bulletin board in my office and at home. For procrastinators and closet perfectionists like me, these are liberating words.

There is not always one "right" way to catalog a book, so we must make choices and decisions that are consistent with the purposes of our catalogs and the needs of our users.

So when in doubt about the "right" way to catalog, I think it's better to risk making a mistake, than to leave library resources collecting dust on a "problems" shelf because I'm not sure which rule applies or how to construct a call number.

Take your best shot and move on; there will always be mistakes in your catalog: call numbers, subject headings, records that could be better. It's rather liberating to realize this and relax a little.

I've learned to stop worrying about the cataloging police showing up at my office door.

And maybe another cataloger will disagree with your interpretation, but that's okay too.

If this helps any:
A study of Library of Congress cataloging, published in 1986, found that as many as one-fifth of the records examined contain at least one error defined as "significant," meaning errors that affect any kind of access point.

Remember that AACR2, OCLC, and MARC allow you to create minimal level records; these records are perfectly legal and acceptable and will get the books out there for your users. I have been very happy to see these minimal records on OCLC for example, not only for cataloging but also for interlibrary loan and verification.

Don't let yourself agonize over your decisions. Just do something and let it go.

If you find out later that you've made a mistake, you can fix it.

Does anyone remember pulling sets of catalog cards, making changes or corrections with an electric eraser and a typewriter, and then refiling the sets?

Online catalogs let you make changes fairly easily and quickly; it's easier to make mistakes "go away," and if someone found the mistake, well, that means that maybe they found the book too.

While I am certainly not advocating sloppy or careless cataloging, or a flagrant disregard for standards and rules, let's not worry about perfection either.

And I would never advocate that "rules are made to be broken", at least not on the record, but I do suggest that they can be made to stretch a little, or even a lot, to fit your cataloging philosophy, instead of fitting yourself to the rules.

Regarding breaking rules, the Dalai Lama has said, "It's important to know the rules so that you can break them properly."

Your users don't really expect you to do perfect cataloging but they probably expect to find library books in the catalog and on the shelf, and not in your office.

You may be familiar with these words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:
"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."

And maybe catalogers, too?

I used to worry about myself.

Why wasn't my cataloging consistent; why did it look different from one day to the next, for very similar items, or even in the same batch of cataloging?

I developed a compulsion to go back and "fix" records so that they were consistent.

I found myself sometimes doing a lot of extra editing of copy cataloging to make records fit consistent patterns.

I began to fantasize about going over the entire shelf list with a red pen and "fixing" it; then I could start cataloging all over again, with a renewed dedication to consistency and uniformity.

But even Library of Congress cataloging varies widely; and if LC catalogers can't be consistent, how hope is there for the rest of us?

[OCLC examples}

An article published in Library Resources and Technical Services in 1963 claims that if one were to catalog today the same group of books that was cataloged a month ago, he or she would do no more than two thirds of them in the same way.

And, cataloging a group of books similar to, but not the same as, the group cataloged a month ago, the difference in treatment would be much greater.

Reading Jesse Shera's 2 Laws of Cataloging added to my relief. He said:

  1. No cataloger will accept the work of any other cataloger;
  2. No cataloger will accept his/her own work six months after the cataloging.
    [University of Illinois, Graduate School of Library Science. Occasional Paper, no. 131, December 1977)]
So I was not alone.

Besides this, look at your own catalogs: there you will see laid out before you a history of cataloging -- cataloging rule changes and classification system revisions and editions, as well as the differing practices, philosophies, and competencies of all the previous catalogers of your library.

If it's true that we can't be consistent with our own cataloging from day to day, then how will we be consistent with our catalogs and their histories?

But shouldn't we worry about consistency in our catalogs?

Certainly we should attempt to apply the rules consistently, or apply them consistent with the intent behind them. But we need to recognize that rules can be interpreted differently, by different catalogers and for different items, and that they are not designed to cover every possible item we may want to catalog.

In my reading on cataloging, I came across what turned out to be a rather interesting book. It's listed on the resources list that comes with the handout for this talk; I'm referring to Paul Dunkin's Cataloging U.S.A.

If anyone ever told me I'd use the words "cataloging history" and "interesting" in the same sentence I would not have believed it. Sounds like a sure cure for insomnia.

But it is worthwhile reading because he talks about not only the history of cataloging codes, classification systems, and subject entry in the United States, but also about the philosophies behind them.

In the 19th century Cutter and Jewett held differing views on the role of the cataloger.

Cutter recognized the art as well as the science of cataloging, while Jewett attempted to create a cataloging code that would leave nothing to the judgement of the individual cataloger.

Cutter understood the role of the cataloger in applying the rules to the real world. The real world for catalogers consists of the users of the catalog and the items cataloged, and how to get them together.

He referred to the "cataloger's subjective judgment tempered by his knowledge of the objectives of his particular catalog and the clientele it is to serve."

The rules are the tools we as catalogers use to help users find the items they want. Cutter created a cataloging principles as well as rules.

Today we can look at the rules we are using, and try to see what principles lie behind them, what are the reasons for using them, and what they are attempting to accomplish.

We can look at what alternatives there are, and above all, how the rules will aid our catalog users.

It seems to me that like computer programming and fencing, cataloging is an art as well as a science.

Besides knowledge and skill at interpreting and applying rules, we need to call on our judgement, experience, and intuition, and even occasionally our sense of aesthetics and of what "looks right" to us.

And there's room for creativity.

There may be one solution that works better than the others, or is more elegant or efficient.

But the final product should depend on how we intend to meet our users' needs.

I was thrilled to come across this quote from Cutter's Rules for a Printed Dictionary Catalog:
"The convenience of the public is always to be set before the ease of the cataloger."

So if you have to choose between consistency and "the convenience of your public" don't let that consistency hobgoblin haunt you.

The next words of wisdom will help us maintain our perspective when faced with cataloging difficulties:

"Two things I've discovered to be true, at least most of the time:

  1. The degree of difficulty in cataloguing an item is inversely proportional to its relative importance in your collection;
  2. The degree of difficulty in cataloging an item is inversely proportional to its size."
When I read this I reflected on my own experience and realized that this has been true for me, "at least most of the time."

No set of rules can ever cover every variation that publishers and creators of books will think up, apparently to vex catalogers.

There will always be items you want to include in your catalog but they are troublesome and time consuming because of format, language, or some other property.

You've struggled with them in copy cataloging and in original cataloging.

I'm convinced that there are books for which it is simply not possible to assign call numbers or subject headings that precisely and accurately describe the content.

And there will always be those "odd" items that don't fit neatly into the rules or classification schedules.

This is when we often experience frustration and come up against our limits of experience, knowledge, or time.

How long and how much should you struggle with these items?

You are the best judge of how long is "too long", or how difficult is "too difficult" when cataloging these items, and of how important they are to your collection.

Given our limitations we need to pause and ask ourselves if the costs, both direct and indirect, are justified given the nature of the item.

Is the cost in time and effort worth the benefits to be gained?

The next time you're "stuck" on a difficult cataloging problem, take a good look at the item; does it fit one of Bruner's criteria for importance or size?

If so, maybe it's time to just decide on something, anything, and move on.

Remember our guiding words of wisdom on mistakes too.

How long do you want to spend on a call number for a pamphlet going into closed stacks or the rare book collection, and not in a browsing collection?

What about that book in a language that you're not even sure you can identify, let alone create a coherent catalog record for?

Think of what else you could be doing with this time and energy.

To get "unstuck" you could

So you get to make something up.

Well, not exactly, but you do get to take your best shot, and as long as you have a reason for your decision, you'll be right.

Remember these words of wisdom when your mind is tortured by a particularly difficult cataloging problem.

Cutter said: "No catalogue can exhibit all possible connections of thought those that claim perfection for any system show that they have no idea of the difficulties to be overcome."

And to paraphrase Paul Dunkin in Cataloging U.S.A.:
"The search for perfection lasts forever, our time and energy do not."

These next words of wisdom give us two ways of looking at details:

"God is in the details."

"The Devil is in the details."

Cataloging is, of course, all about details. Details are what make or break our catalogs and their usefulness.

On the one hand, an eye to detail could result in enhancements that benefit catalog users immensely.

For example

On the other hand, what about the "devil in the details?"

Besides mastering the details of cataloging rules and classification schedules, we also have to deal with the details of our PAC software and how it handles our records.

For example, look at how your PAC software handles punctuation.

The presence or absence of a period at the end of a subject or name heading may make a big difference in how a PAC search result list will sort and display.

MARC tags and indicators may affect how authority records are created; I just discovered that we have duplicate authority records for subject headings that are identical but have been tagged differently in the OCLC record.

Or, it may have happened during a recent software update. I'm not sure what's going on but I need to figure out what's happening and what to do about it.

One of my personal favorites of these words of wisdom is something I saw on the Internet, in one of those lists of humorous aphorisms or "bumper stickers" that we've all seen:

"Always remember you're unique, just like everyone else."

Well, this at first struck me as funny, but I began to see the wisdom in it.

Each of our libraries serves unique patrons, with its own unique collections, catalogs, rules, practices, and needs.

Each of us as catalogers is unique, in our experience, training, skills, personality, and judgement.

But we each have to devise methods for dealing with those qualities that make each of our libraries unique, using our unique cataloging selves.

Fortunately we can learn from our also "unique" colleagues:

Then use what you've discovered to develop your own practices. Express your cataloging creativity; it's "your" catalog, relax!

You will find your own ideas flow more easily and your confidence grows when you see what other catalogers are doing.

And return the favor by answering those queries you see on the lists, and share what you know and what you do with others.

Remember that each of us is unique, but we're all in this together.

That concludes the words of wisdom that I wanted to share with you today.

But what happened to the cataloging manual that I set out to write last year? The beginnings of it are included in your handouts.

When we went online we had to review and revise the old workflow left over from the card catalog years.

Basic procedures of course changed and so that was a good time to update the procedures to follow in preparing records in OCLC CatME, exporting them to Library.Solution, and adding them to our local file, step by step.

They may not mean much to you as they are specific to these programs, but it is an example of how to document procedures, and ties in with the workflow on the previous page.

I also decided that it was would be useful to add records to our PAC, on a very limited basis, for selected auction catalogs, for example catalogs on single artists. So we now have a policy and procedures statement on cataloging auction catalogs.

I've also included a draft of cataloging procedures for the archival collection of Joslyn catalogs and publications.

This is a collection of catalogs for every exhibition held at Joslyn, as well as collection catalogs. It is not part of the library collection but is housed in the Archives and is shelved in chronological order. We usually have cataloged copies in the library collection as well, but many of the early catalogs are not in the library. The next step is to plan a project for cataloging this collection.

By the way, the Reference Librarian who was learning copy cataloging left to be Children's Librarian in a local public library. I'm sure cataloging had nothing to do with her decision.

I haven't forgotten that complete, comprehensive manual I set out to create. Piece by piece it has started itself.

After the reading I did, and thinking about this presentation, and now being at this workshop, I feel much better equipped to complete that manual.

I started this talk on what could be considered "discouraging words" on "the many intricate and difficult problems that torture the mind" during cataloging.

I hope that what you take with you from this workshop will ease your mind and help you to simplify and solve those problems.

And I want to end on a more uplifting note.

In an article that appeared in The New York Times last October, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington referred to Library of Congress book catalogers as one of the Library's virtues. He said of them,

"They're my hidden heroes."

Don't let cataloging "torture" your mind any more.

Remember Billington's words and all that you have learned today, to inspire you and help you move forward when you feel lost, confused, or overwhelmed by rules, interpretations, schedules, standards, and backlogs.

Keep in mind that as catalogers your true mission is one of public service, to create and maintain the catalogs that in my opinion are the most important research tools in your libraries.

Be a hidden - or not so hidden --- hero in your institution. Go home and catalog!

BOOKS AND ARTICLES
Recommended reading for art catalogers.

Chan, Lois Mai. Cataloging and Classification: An Introduction. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994.

Clarke, Sherman, "Cataloging Works of Art With the Web in Mind" in Still Codeless After All These Years: The History and Possible Future of Subject Cataloging in the Field of Art" (ARLIS/NA Conference), 2000. http://www.geocities.com/WestHollywood/9783/arlisna/clarke.html

Comaromi, John P. Book Numbers: A Historical Study and Practical Guide to Their Use. Littleton, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, 1981.

Dunkin, Paul. Cataloging U.S.A. Chicago: American Library Association, 1969.

Guidarelli, Ngoc-My and Karen Cary, "Untapped Resource: Art Students Cataloging Art Exhibition Catalogs as Virginia Commonwealth University." Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 26 (1998): 63-75.

Intner, Sheila S. Special Libraries: A Cataloging Guide. Englewood, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, 1998.

Miller, Joseph, "An Overview of Subject Cataloging and the Absence of a Code" in Still Codeless After All These Years: The History and Possible Future of Subject Cataloging in the Field of Art" (ARLIS/NA Conference), 2000. http://www.geocities.com/WestHollywood/9783/arlisna/miller.html

O'Keefe, Elizabeth. "The Invisible Backlog: Improving Access to Inaccessible Parts of Your Collection." Art Documentation 14, no. 4 (Winter 1995): 3-5.

Olivetti, Trudi. "Subject Cataloging for the Fine Arts" in Still Codeless After All These Years: The History and Possible Future of Subject Cataloging in the Field of Art" (ARLIS/NA Conference), 2000. http://www.geocities.com/WestHollywood/9783/arlisna/olivetti.html

Saye, Jerry D. Manheimer's Cataloging and Classification. 4th ed. New York: Marcel Dekker, 2000.

Schultz, Lois Massengale. A Beginner's Guide to Copy Cataloging on OCLC/Prism. Englewood, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, 1995.

Scott, Mona. Conversion Tables, 2nd ed. Englewood, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, 1999. Tables for converting call numbers (LC to DDC, DDC to LC), and LCSH with corresponding LC and DDC call numbers)

Silverman, Judy. "Tackling the Invisible Backlog in the CCA Library." Art Documentation 14, no. 4 (Winter 1995): 11-19.

Stanley, Janet. "Reference Librarian as Cataloger: Analytical Indexing as Front-End Reference." Art Documentation 14, no. 4 (Winter 1995): 7-9.

Starr, Daniel. "Some Comments on the Cataloging of Exhibition Catalogues, or, Who Was the Author of that Exhibition?" Art Documentation 15, no. 1 (1996): 11-16.

Taylor, Arlene G. Cataloging with Copy: A Decision-Maker's Handbook. 2nd ed. Englewood, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, 1988.

Taylor, Arlene G. "Accuracy of LC Copy: A Comparison Between Copy That Began as CIP and Other LC Cataloging." Library Resources & Technical Services 30 (Oct./Dec. 1986): 375-387.

Taylor, Arlene G. Wynar's Introduction to Cataloging and Classification. 9th ed. Englewood, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, 2000.

Wisniewski, Julia, "Every Good Path: Proposing Subject Headings via Cowpath or Interstate" in Still Codeless After All These Years: The History and Possible Future of Subject Cataloging in the Field of Art" (ARLIS/NA Conference), 2000. http://www.geocities.com/WestHollywood/9783/arlisna/wisniew.html

Kathy Corcoran
kcorcoran@joslyn.org