Learning to catalogue in 2010-11

The following post is my contribution to issue 163 of Catalogue & Index, a publication for members of CILIP’s Cataloguing and Indexing group. It’s a particularly timely issue about RDA and I’m honoured to be included. My piece provides the student perspective to accompany Anne Welsh’s article about teaching RDA. Do check it out if you can!


Elaine Sanchez recently released the comments from her survey, “Your feelings about your cataloging (metadata) profession”(2011). Questions about training were included and responses revealed the variety of ways in which cataloguers learned to excel at their jobs. Many mention the importance of mentoring, but the response that best summed up my thoughts on learning to catalogue was that which refers to learning cataloguing as an “apprenticeship process.” I love the phrase‟s association with craftsmanship, and how it also emphasizes the different steps in learning to catalogue. There is independent theoretical study, on-the-job practical training, and independent work. Though the last stage is theoretically independent, in reality it still involves a great deal of discussion and working with others in person or via listservs. Though I am still mastering cataloguing as a craft, I hope my experiences of learning to catalogue are illustrative of the steps and teaching methods encountered by many.
Some of my colleagues came across cataloguing while doing traineeships, but my first encounter with cataloguing was deliberate. I had missed the deadline for library school applications, but I was still able to take individual classes at the University of Missouri, near where I lived at the time. Being naturally drawn to detail and knowing cataloguing was a valuable skill, I opted for a cataloguing class. The class had both theoretical and practical content. While I now appreciate the thoroughness of this approach, it was overwhelming at the time. I kept getting caught up in jargon and, though I was creating dummy records each week, it was hard for me to see how theory related to the records I was creating, apart from punctuation. The sense of achievement that came when I got an A is what made me decide to continue my cataloguing education when I finally began my MA.
UCL, with a required cataloguing module as well as an optional advanced module, was the obvious choice for me. I started in September and was thrown into cataloguing right away. The best part of the cataloguing modules was the theoretical knowledge they provided. Even the basic cataloguing module had sessions on RDA, and the final assignment was to create my own cataloguing policy for a subject field of my choice. It was a daunting task, but class discussions of AACR2 and RDA provided the background knowledge I needed to identify strengths and weaknesses of AACR2. It is easy to see how this encouragement to think critically about the principles of cataloguing will benefit my career, whether I am working as a cataloguer or just talking to practicing cataloguers about their work. I also opted to take historical bibliography, which introduced me to the basics of DCRMB.
However, practical cataloguing and on-the-job training have been equally significant for me. As part of my course, I did a brief placement at Kew Gardens. I gained a lot of confidence from just that one fortnight of cataloguing books, pamphlets and serials with a small team of experienced cataloguers. I also felt comfortable in the knowledge that I would soon be getting more experience cataloguing; I had already spoken to my lecturer about volunteering. The libraries I had previously worked at in the United States seldom accepted volunteers, and I was unsure of how to go about finding a volunteer cataloguing position. I was delighted to hear that the Paul Hamlyn Library was actively seeking volunteers, so I contacted the British Museum and spent several months cataloguing there. Paul Hamlyn has a wonderful collection and the experience showed me some of the challenges I might face as a professional cataloguer. For example, running into realia in a museum setting felt quite different from cataloguing examples in class. Luckily I was quite familiar with AACR2 and able to find answers to my many questions using it and the museum‟s local guides. Perhaps what I learned most at Paul Hamlyn was how to trust my instincts. This is something that really cannot be taught in library school; it only comes with a lot of practice and encouragement from other professionals.

I noticed early in my cataloguing education that it was very awkward to create records for electronic resources using AACR2 and MARC21. My professor did mention a new standard, RDA, was being tested to address this, but I didn‟t really learn much about it until I started at UCL. Its use of FRBR terms was quite intimidating until I realized that it represented a completely different approach to cataloguing. RDA emphasizes users‟ needs. The changes in standards (the dismissal of both AACR2 and MARC21) will transform catalogues. It is an exciting time to become a cataloguer, but I am glad I was taught theory and encouraged to think critically. Even though standards will change radically during my cataloguing career, I will still be expected to find solutions to cataloguing problems; I would never feel confident doing that without understanding what lies behind standards.
What has struck me most about the process of learning to catalogue is that, like all crafts, it is hard work. As a young librarian cataloguing education was something I had to actively seek. I have now taken three cataloguing classes and have some cataloguing experience in the real world under my belt, I still find that cataloguing requires a lot of dedication. It is a changing field and there is always more to learn. I always seem to think of more questions about cataloguing when I am actually doing it. Nonetheless, my various learning experiences have made me a confident cataloguer who is comfortable consulting cataloguing resources and making decisions… even at my current stage in the apprenticeship process!

Sanchez, E. (2011) Your comments about your cataloging (metadata) profession. AUTOCAT, 19 May, http://comments.gmane.org/gmane.education.libraries.autocat/39146



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2 responses to “Learning to catalogue in 2010-11

  1. Sian

    Hi Jennifer,
    Thank you for sharing your article. I like the way you articulate the combination of craft and critical thinking involved in cataloguing and it’s interesting to read about your training process. My first encounter was during my traineeship; it’s only after the MA cataloguing course, and further practical experience, that the penny has started to drop! Whether we start with the theory or the practice, it’s the iteration that makes all the difference.

  2. Pingback: Cataloguing – a view from a new professional «

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