Research and navigating the changing cataloging environment

by Donna Frederick
Services to Libraries, University of Saskatchewan

The nature of a technological disruption is that it interrupts the continuity between past and present. Traditions and tried and true methods may lose their effectiveness or even begin to fail outright. In disrupted environments, practitioners may find themselves lacking both the theory and experience to feel confident in making decisions and taking action. As I meet with the Copy Cataloging Group at the University Library each week, I am reminded of this reality as cataloguers bring the cataloging conundrums they encounter to the meeting.

In the environment of traditional cataloguing, the mental model of a catalogue record is that of a flat and linear container for descriptive information. The cataloging process was well-supported by a set of relatively concrete cataloging rules. However, in today’s environment where the mental model is multidimensional and characterized by the expression of various relationships among resources and resource characteristics, the old “rules” simply aren’t relevant anymore. Conundrums soon begin to arise as it becomes apparent that we are attempting to create complex multidimensional metadata in the MARC metadata container which only accommodates flat, linear records. Further difficulty is added to the situation when it is realized that not only do the new “guidelines” for creating metadata fail to address many day-to-day challenges, but searches of listserv archives and the posting questions to these lists reveals that neither the “experts” nor librarianship in general have viable solutions for many of these problems either. So then, how does the practice of metadata creation avoid being mired by unanswered questions and seemingly unresolvable challenges?

Ultimately, those involved with what is sometimes called the “reinvention of cataloguing” need a solid base of theory upon which to make decisions. Up until recently, cataloguers have been struggling with the FRBR model (Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records), including the new RDA descriptive standard, and the concept of linked data. The gap between the conceptual models and the day to day practice of cataloguing is often experienced as being impossibly wide for many who have been trained in traditional cataloguing. Fortunately, IFLA (2015) has recently released their latest draft of the “Statement of International Cataloguing Principles” which will help bridge the existing gap by providing specific principles upon which decisions can be made. While the principles help to alleviate some of the abstraction created by the theoretical models, cataloguers face the day to day challenges of working in an “in-between land” where the theory and practice has begun to take root but the actual systems in which we create and use metadata is still largely based on concepts from the late 1960s. In addition to shifting our mental models, cataloguers are also charged with informing and sometimes re-educating other library workers about the morphing reality of the metadata. This metadata is central to many library processes ranging from discovery of and access to resources and information to functions such as acquisitions and interlibrary loan. Finding a way to effectively inform non-cataloguers about the new reality in a relevant and meaningful way remains one more challenge which has yet to be effectively addressed.

As I concluded a recent research project on the very topic of how to effectively communicate information about the new cataloging models and standards, I was reminded of the importance of research and evidence in professional practice. One measure of the effectiveness of training I was using in my study was to track changes in the volume and frequency of cataloguing questions asked over time. My hypothesis was that the introduction of training would lead to a reduction in questions but the reality was that a steady increase was observed. Puzzled by the results, I did an examination of the actual content of the questions to reveal an increasing complexity and thoughtfulness of questions over time. While in the past there were “cataloguing rules” which could be learned and mastered, in this new environment training didn’t actually lead to mastery. Instead training lead to a new and deeper level of understanding. The evidence suggests an ongoing learning process where the issue of mastery many not be relevant. Without purposely undertaking research and learning from the evidence, the nature of the impact of the disruption on the process of learning the new cataloguing models would likely not have been discovered. In fact, the lack of mastery and the ever-increasing number of questions would likely have been a source of frustration. This is a highly valuable finding both for the training of cataloguers and library staff in general and will inform the creation of positive and effective future learning experiences.

IFLA (2015). Statement of International Cataloguing Principles ICP Haag: International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions. Retrieved from:

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.