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.

Technological Disruption in Technical Services

by Donna Frederick
Services to Libraries, University of Saskatchewan

In hearing discussions among technical services librarians at conferences, it is hard to deny that the majority are dealing with the impact of disruptive technical change within the field.

In his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, Christensen (1997) talks about how disruptive innovations typically “result in worse product performance, at least in the near term” and generally “underperform established products in mainstream markets” (p. xv) but eventually can come to dominate the market and surpass the established products because of a combination of characteristics. These characteristics include that the product appeals to a new significant audience and that the product is generally cheaper, simpler, smaller, and more convenient to use than previous products.

While it is easy to imagine an application of Christensen’s conceptualization of the disruptive innovation in the area of electronic gadgets including cell phones and other personal electronic devices, the connection with what has been happening in technical services in libraries in the past 5 years or so and the idea of disruptive innovation is less readily understood. The reality is that recently a number of technological developments in combination with the blooming of related theoretical frameworks has gradually moved both technical services theory and practice into a new realm where the old tried and true concepts and practices have been completely challenged and many have been overturned. Evidence that the innovations have had a disruptive impact are seen in the fact that many of the newer processes are judged by seasoned professionals to result in work of inferior quality relative to the past. However, the new practices offer library workers the ability to process large volumes of information and resources at a relatively low cost while offering new functionalities to users. As the demands on technical services staff increase and the rate at which libraries are expected to make the latest information available to users accelerates, so does the pressure increase on libraries to let go some of the older practices in favour of innovations which hold the potential for allowing rapid but informed and intelligent preparation and processing of information resources. A dilemma occurs when technical services librarians can see that to adopt the innovations some of the perfection and stability of the past is lost in favour of what, while functional, is hard to describe as anything less than a lower technical quality product. The question is why a library might even want to adopt a disruptive innovation if it is known in advance that the product will be of a lesser quality. My answer to that question is that the decision is made in the attempt to remain useful and relevant in the current information environment. A slightly reduced technical quality of product which is still highly functional and even offers some value added features is tremendously more valuable to users than creating a massive multi-year backlog of work which will eventually be completed to a hard-to-justify standard of perfection. In fact, when I have taken an objective look at what makes the outcomes of the newer processes lower-quality, the vast majority of what I have discovered to be “problematic” or “mistakes” consists of either cosmetic flaws, variations in style which don’t impact on function, and slight deviations from display conventions which are likely not even recognized as such by individuals besides library workers. The final conclusion in my mind is that if libraries can’t do it all, so to speak, the best approach is to try to remain useful and relevant to their patrons and, where the choice needs to be made, to prefer function over form.

So, what role might evidence-based practice take in helping libraries’ technical services functions successfully navigate from the past into a fast-paced, highly-demanding future? The reality is that a lot of choices will need to be made as libraries make the transition. In his book The Search for Survival: Lessons from Disruptive Technologies, Lucas (2012) has described eight signs that an organization is failing in the face of a disruption. The following lists those signs and explains how they might be observed in a library context:
1) Denial: This is a denial that a disruption has occurred or is important. It could take the form of denying the importance of the role of cloud computing information storage, discovery and access.
2) History: When libraries believe that they will always be the key provider of information to their patrons without having to adjust their approaches to changing realities, they have fallen into the trap of history.
3) Resistance to change
4) Mind-set: This is often displayed as “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” despite the growing evidence that the status quo is failing. It is denial that exists at the level of the individual.
5) Brand: When libraries assume that all of their patrons will automatically recognize the library as the superior source for reliable information and do nothing to continue to build the brand in the mind of their users, over-reliance on brand is evident.
6) Sunk costs: When libraries decide to not adopt changes because much has already been invested in older systems despite the fact that those systems are failing in critical ways, a problem with sunk costs is present.
7) Profitability: If libraries keep getting donations, grants, and other types of funding by maintaining the status quo and use this to justify their inertia, concerns for profitability may be overwhelming the bigger picture.
8) Lack of imagination

Reading through this list and reflecting on various other ways the signs might be present in libraries reinforced in my mind that the librarian who makes decisions based on evidence is significantly more likely to thrive in the face of disruptive change than the librarian who does not.

Christensen, C. 1997. The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Lucas, H. 2012. The Search for Survival: Lessons from Disruptive Technologies. Denver: Praeger.

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.