Cataloging is like a car: how to explain cataloging to non-catalogers

28 Feb

Nothing too exciting has crossed my virtual desk lately. Pretty standard stuff with subject headings that I’ve seen before, or just don’t call for any extended pause. One interesting item was title 50 jobs in 50 states in which the author traveled around the country in 50 weeks to work in every state, as a way of doing something productive with his life after not being able to land a full-time job after college. But the sub. heads weren’t earth-shattering.

I did notice an oddity with sub. heads–everything is plural. Delimiter x examinations. Delimiter v study guides, etc. Though there are exceptions such as web site development, yet it cousin is web sites. But that’s not nearly enough to write a whole post on!

How does one explain cataloging to a non-cataloger?

When I introduce myself to non-libraians, I say that I am a catalog librarian but continue on to explain that what I create is the information you see when you search a library catalog, the record with the title and author and description of the item. Sure, this is pretty basic and perhaps still not helpful enough for some people. Maybe after hearing “librarian”, they have already tuned out anyway, or just think of people checking books out and sitting at a reference desk staring at a computer screen.

But that doesn’t get at my question still about what is cataloging.

This weekend my reference librarian husband asked me what AACR2, MARC21, and subject headings were and how they work together. Being the Emerging Technologies Librarian, he’s tech-savvy and has looked at many catalog records while helping students and faculty but he didn’t take a cataloging course nor has worked with MARC records himself. Really, he was asking about their purpose. My first instinct, for some reason, was to compare them to cars.

Cataloging is like a car. AACR2 is the idea, the concept, the form (thanks, Plato!); a car has wheels, doors, a body, a steering wheel, and so on. In general, most cars look similar because the hood goes in front, the trunk in back, wheels on the sides, a roof on top. There are choices: engines can go in front or in back, doors can be two or four or lift vertically, side airbags are optional but becoming more prevalent. AACR2 assumes certain things in a record such as main entry, statement of responsibility, and publication information. Main entry varies depending on the item, as title or author. Authors can also be added entries instead of main. But all in all, the content that goes into a record is similar to parts that make up a car.

Next, MARC21 is the details, the execution, the item itself. Car types vary but each make and model is arranged a particular way. The exterior color, the interior material, the dashboard knobs and buttons, the hub caps all form an individual item. A car can be embellished with dealer extras and upgrades, or bumper sticker, a new paint job, or even damage from an accident that make the car more unique and distinctive. Though it has a multitude of details, each person sees different aspects of that particular car; someone might notice the scratch on the door, the customized flames on the hood, or size and shape of the headlights. MARC21 holds the details of an item, whether there is a cover title that differs from the title page, a series title, or if a disc is missing. These basic and distinctive aspects of an item truly describe it and its nature. However, I might catalog it differently from someone else, which is where variation arises; someone may add a 500 note to include added information, others might decide that the classification should be different for their collection and library. Though MARC21 contains the item’s description and details, each cataloger chooses what to represent and how.

Subject headings group related items through the ideas, concepts, people, and places they represent. Cars are described in many ways: by color, size, type, purpose, shape, brand, and on. Each description can change just what is being talked about: blue cars, SUVs, supercars, cars that look like cubes, Fords. A car will have numerous descriptors, some that are more distinctive that others. Subject headings are the same. I catalog a book about how to use the iPhone and choose to use a sub. head for iPhone and smartphones and mobile computing. But another book about iPhone app development requires tweaking those sub. heads and adding more such as application software delimiter x development, and bringing out the programming aspects of the other sub. heads with a delimiter x. Though they are related items, they get different terms, some similar and some not.

This version is extended from the version I gave Steve but the gist is the same. When I asked him if it helped, he said no.  :/  Maybe the life of a cataloger is only understood by other catalogers. What do you think? Does this example work? Is there a better one?

Addition (July 11, 2012): RDA will replace AACR2, though for not it will live along side. RDA is a different set of rules and guidelines for building the same general thing: a record for an item. From my understanding, FRBR could also fit under what AACR2 currently covers as well; it works in tandem with RDA to help shape a record for an item and the relations of information within it. Yet FRBR doesn’t provide much in the way of strict rules and decisions–it’s the big picture whereas RDA digs down a bit deeper. FRBR could be the car brochure while RDA is the car manual. And now with linked data in the picture as well, MARC records may be more versatile than ever, able to switch and swap out information as need for the users, and truly trick out records to become resources. See my ALA Annual post on the all-day workshop or the general overview session for more about linked data and cataloging.

P.S. We love Top Gear, hope you enjoy the clip! I’ll have to be more than a cataloger if I every really want to own a Zonda.

1 Comment

Posted by on February 28, 2012 in Uncategorized


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One response to “Cataloging is like a car: how to explain cataloging to non-catalogers

  1. Bob Strauss

    July 12, 2012 at 9:23 am

    As a cataloger, I merely tell people that we are the world’s greatest proofreaders. They seem able to understand that! Most everyone hates typos.

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