Cataloguing: Old School?

A commenter on Andy Woodworth’s blog brought up a subject I’ve long been curious of. Should library schools require a cataloguing course? This has been a subject of some question since I was in library school. My school did and still does require LIS 703 among its few requisite courses. Yet I’ve never looked into the question to any great extent.

Branch librarians in large metropolitan systems do little or no cataloguing at all. Yet academic libraries, school libraries, and small public libraries usually do some in-house cataloguing, along with regular copy-cataloguing. I suspect the topic would best be served by a discourse among cataloguers and librarians who work in facilities that perform regular cataloguing of materials. I’d particularly like to hear from those who catalogue materials in the latest formats, as opposed to books alone.

So, I put it to you. Should library schools continue to make students haul around AACR2 in a 3-ring binder for 12-18 weeks? Does every emergent librarian need to have a cursory knowledge of cataloguing procedures? Should library schools still require at least one course in material organization? Why or why not?


About Steven V. Kaszynski
librarian, editor, contributor

22 Responses to Cataloguing: Old School?

  1. robin says:

    I’d like to see all MLIS/LIS programs have mandatory classes in:
    *reference/public services
    *cataloging/bibliographic/information organization

    The backend of most library catalogs (at this point) is AACR2 + MARC. I really think understanding the basics of cataloging makes a more rounded librarian and a better searcher, a better BI teacher and a much more valuable asset to patrons. I also know from experience even if you think you will NEVER do a particular job, you may end up doing just that at a smaller library.

    As the world moves toward the semantic web, metadata is going to become increasingly important. As librarians, we need to ready for that. Cataloging classes are already starting to talk about FRBR, RDA, and how that fits into the semantic web. Very exciting times.

  2. librariankate7578 says:

    I had to take a cataloging course and even though I may never do original cataloging, I found it helpful to know the foundations – history, theory, and the rules. It will help me spot and quickly correct errors in MARC records. And who knows – I may have to write my own record someday (I am working on one for my ALA Emerging Leaders project).

  3. FSkornia says:

    I was surprised when I read that the University of Alabama MLS program does not require even a basic course in cataloging. I do think that calling it “Cataloging” is part of the problem though, though I’m sure that is just the shorthand used by people “in the know”. I know at Southern Connecticut State University where I’m working on my MLS, they call it Information Analysis & Organization, and yes we did have to lug around the massive binder containing the AACR2 (although I scanned mine to a pdf document that was much easier to manage). I’d be interested in seeing what other library schools call this course.

    That doesn’t answer the question of the post though. Part 3 of the ALA Core Competencies for general librarianship ( is focused on the “Organization of Recorded Knowledge and Information”. These are part of the skills that it is expected for a new librarian entering the profession to know or work to attain early in their careers. As Robin points out above, even if you do not intentionally plan on becoming a cataloger – having the knowledge to understand MARC (and its successors) is important and leads to better understanding of how the library system works. Also, in this age of difficult librarian employment, I would think that not having basic cataloging knowledge would hinder your competitive chances to get a job.

    I do not know when the next time the University of Alabama will come under the accreditation scrutiny of the ALA, but I’m wondering how well this policy of no required cataloging would be appreciated.

    • That’s a good point, Frank. I hope to get some more input on this topic, as I believe the question of cataloguing’s necessity is not only a big subject in itself, but one part of a much greater issue regarding what LIS programs should consider requisite and elective knowledge.

      I would agree with Robin that modern colleges should emphasize management and would suggest a tiered, structured management instruction, probably involving two or three required courses. The various elements of community connectivity (web presence, programming, hyperlocality, etc.) should also be considered requisite and explored in depth. What, if anything, should be done about reference instruction?

      Does cataloguing *as we know it* still merit core curriculum status? Many say no. Others say yes, often with the caveat that the course be restructured to focus on practical elemental procedures and newer concepts such as FRBRization and RDA.

  4. Celine says:

    Actually in the UK very few library courses have compulsory cataloguing modules (I think there may only be one left that treats it as core requirement). Where I went a decade ago we did vague Info Retrieval & Organisation but that wasn’t cat&class at all. Only option to even look at AACR2 was in optional 3-session lunchtime thing which was unsurprisingly poorly attended.

    However, do I think library schools *should* teach cataloguing in se form? Absolutely. For many of the reasons already stated

  5. Deb says:

    Just once, I would like to see an article/blog posting called “Should library schools still require a reference course?”, with commentary about how the Web has clearly made reference librarians obsolete.

    Additionally, RDA will likely be replacing AACR2 very soon; if you’re going to potentially criticize cataloging/metadata, please have the courtesy to keep up with developments in the field.

    Yes, library schools should require a basic cataloging course. “Cataloging” does not necessarily imply AACR2/MARC; cataloging existed before either of those and will continue to exist after both are obsolete. Metadata *is* cataloging; it is just more often applied to non-MARC schema and sounds cooler.

    It is true that many smaller libraries are outsourcing their cataloging and/or mostly doing copy cataloging. You *do* realize that someone has to create the original records used by said libraries?

    I am pleasantly surprised to see that the comments realize the need for even a basic knowledge of cataloging. Frankly, it’s articles like this that contribute to the common perception that catalogers are just data-entry clerks.

    • Deb, you’ve nearly read my mind. I’ve actually got a few questions planned regarding reference in library programs and will post them as I have time. However, I don’t mind telling you that I would not agree that the Internet has altogether obviated the need of reference librarians.

      I would agree that anyone who may “potentially criticize cataloging/metadata” should keep up to snuff regarding the latest applications and practices, not to mention what is currently the greatest trend in cataloguing instruction.

      I am sorry you’ve misjudged the fundamental premise behind the discussion I’ve created here. I see nothing that serves to undermine or underestimate the work of cataloguing librarians. On the contrary, most of us in here are information professionals and we all understand that someone, somewhere is responsible for record creation. You really need not be so surprised that the contributors here have some appreciation for relevant LIS topics.

  6. Kristen says:

    My program had a mandatory theory course on organization of information, which covered a wide range of systems and schema. The hands-on MARC and AACR2 course was optional. I think that worked well. There was too much whining in the practical class even then.

  7. From some librarians on Twitter:

    “Yup, but it needs to cover more than just traditional AACR2 (or RDA, as the case may be)”

    “I think cataloging class has made me bettter at using the catalog, but could have done w/out in-depth AACR2”

    “No. Never been relevant for me. Esp not MARC/AACR2!”

    “Subject Cataloging & Metadata: Yes!”

    • interested says:

      …from some *anonymous* librarians on twitter? Why not link to their profiles?

      • Perhaps I’ll do that next time. I really didn’t see the necessity, as these are tweets from librarians in my Twitter network. I really can’t take anyone seriously who won’t engage in professional discussion without disguising themselves. Know what I mean, Interested?

  8. Niamh says:

    Aberystwyth has Information Organisation and Retrieval as a compulsory module, which includes AACR2, MARC21, Dublin Core and other metadata standards and other areas of information retrieval. This provided a really useful theoretical background but doesn’t train you as a cataloguer. I think this approach is actually more useful, because most librarians/info pros don’t actually spend much time cataloguing but do need a foundation, and if we are cataloguing we can then be trained in the specific approaches used in our workplaces. I’ve catalogued in two different types of libraries and used completely different systems for each!

    • Thanks for the perspective, Niamh. Another scenario in which librarians may better learn procedural skills on the job. By the way, I looked up Aberystwyth and it totally looks like a place we should visit next time we happen to be in the English West.

  9. diane kauppi says:

    I just shared in a discussion posting my thoughts on cataloging in general. Here is an excerpt of what I said:
    I woke up early this morning [2/12/11] and it dawned on me why I think I’m having this problem [with cataloguing]. I am a bean-counter type person so I do like details & rules and my undergrad degrees are in computer programming and computer science/information systems. But what I see us doing in this process we’re learning is actually “programming” or “writing code”. In this day & age we should not be doing this. I can understand that this was needed years back when the changeover from typed cards to computers happened but in 2011 it shouldn’t be this way. I view this process as being probably 20+ years outdated. In today’s world the programmers should be handling all the background “programming/writing code” part of this. The catalogers should only have to be concerned with entering the information from the item.

  10. Nicole Fonsh says:

    My program also had a course entitled “Organization of Information” but most students do call it “Cataloging” as shorthand. However, I agree with others here that no matter what sort of librarianship you want to go into, it is vital to understand the basics of how we organize information and especially how our users/patrons/etc search for information and how our organization of it impacts them- positively or negatively. I sometimes wish we had focused more in the class on searching and searching habits. I think once you spend time thinking about how people often look for information it can help so much in your design of how to organize it- and this seems vital to wherever you work in a library or information center.

    • That seems to be the consensus, Nicole, and I tend to agree. Fundamental record construction and conceptual/practical studies in metadata seem to have an integral place for most info pros. Some have claimed they’ve had little or no use for the course, whether it was required or not. I suspect many of them work in institutions where they aren’t required to perform original cataloguing. I’d like to hear more from the naysayers, particularly those who do have regular cataloguing duties but still find that cataloguing courses should be elective rather than requisite.

  11. Murray says:

    So, I’m taking cataloging not because it’s required, but for many of the reasons listed above. I know there is the possibility I’ll be responsible for original cataloging someday, I know having a conceptual foundation regarding the system I’m using will make me a better searcher, and I know that if an employer asks me if I have any experience cataloging I would rather say “Well, I did take the course” than “No.”

    But do I think it should be required? On that I have no solid opinion. Sure, there are reasons to take it, but there are also reasons to take the metadata design course I dropped to fit cataloging into my schedule. With the jobs I’m finding that interest me, I sort of regret that choice. Two of the most exciting postings I’ve seen recently are more interested in non-MARC metadata schema that I’m not learning in cataloging. In contrast, none of the postings I’ve found that interest me require cataloging (though one does mention it in passing). In light of this, why should I pay for a class that isn’t necessarily going to get me a job? Money is a very real issue here, one that you really ignore at your peril when dealing with grad students.

    Finally, I have to say I’m not getting much out of this class. The practice creating MARC records is fine, but repetitive. The theory is not explained well in our lectures or the readings, of which there are too many for me to realistically consume and absorb in any meaningful way. This course is too big to fit into a ten week quarter. It is too rushed and too much. I have two other classes, both with significant work loads, and something had to give. It was cataloging because, at least the way it’s taught here, I’m getting the least out of it.

  12. We (MLIS students at the University of Washington) have a required Organization of Knowledge and Information course and we also have elective courses, Cataloging and Advanced Cataloging. I took Cataloging last winter, and I kept thinking (and asking), “If RDA is the next thing, why are we still sifting through AACR2? Shouldn’t we be proactive and focus on using, teaching and learning the newest techniques and strategies?”

    I was also frustrated with that class because I do some copy cataloging and LOTS of searching for ‘decent’ OCLC records for us to use in my part-time job at the UW library. I was frustrated because I felt like I could have done my job (deciding whether a record was good or bad) a lot better had I known more about cataloging before beginning, but on the other hand, I do not think poring over the rules and functions of cataloging was worth my time unless I plan on doing original cataloging. And, I know some institutions are still doing original cataloging, but the workflow in the dept I work at is a LOT different than it was a couple of years ago.

  13. I took both Beginning and Advanced Cataloging & Classification at the University of Iowa. Neither was required.

    I agree with most of the comments above; some sort of basic cataloging or information organization course should be required. Knowledge of cataloging history and practices definitely helped me understand various metadata schema and improved my ability to effectively in library catalogs and databases.

    A quick story: a fellow LIS student, known for declaring that “cataloging is dead,” and for researching the effectiveness of library websites once told an undergraduate student seeking help at the reference desk: “If it’s in the library, it will be in the catalog.” I had to explain how and why this was not true (for one thing, the library has a large special collections and an archive or two, and the finding aids for these were in no way connected to the catalog), and why the federated search that was currently all the rage would not find everything there was to find. It is important for all librarians to understand how information is organized so that we may better find it.

    I look forward to discussions of reference work on your blog.

  14. Silvernfire says:

    I admit I’m biased, as I like cataloging and am getting an Information Organization concentration as part of my MLIS. That said, yes, I think that an organization of information class should be required and it should cover the basics of cataloging. While there are still catalogs, the future reference librarians of the world will need to work with them, and I figure they should understand what the catalog does and doesn’t cover, that the subject headings come from a controlled vocabulary and are not necessarily the words you would use to describe the book, and so on. I don’t think that this basic class needs to go into great detail on cataloging, especially if the school is large enough to offer specialized cataloging classes for those who are interested. But it should cover it enough to be a good introduction to the topic, especially for those students who come into an MLIS program not knowing much about librarianship. (Similarly, while it was probably good for me to be required to take a basic reference class, I think I might’ve learned more from an information access and retrieval class that covered the basics of reference instead.)

  15. Kathy Pope says:

    I am currently taking an online cataloging class. Learning how to enter informaion and field tags using MARC format helps me understand how the process of retrieving information works when searching an online card catalog. I think it is important that cataloging is a required course. I admit that I have to rely on examples in completing my assignments and do not fill comfortable with creating a MARC record from scratch, but I am now familiar with the process. By taking this class I am familiar wih online resources such as WebDewey.

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