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Thursday, October 14, 2010

What It's Like to Be a Cataloger

As part of our Archives Month 2010 celebration, archivists and librarians here at the Smithsonian are blogging about the work they do. I was asked to describe what it's like to be a cataloger. I filled up pages of notes with thoughts about the past, present, and future of cataloging archival and library materials, and, more specifically, about my job as Special Collections Cataloger for the Smithsonian Institution Libraries. It was a great exercise, but I generated way more information than I could pack into one entry. Therefore, I've suggested to my fellow SIRIS bloggers that we ought to do a continuing series on the glories and travails of cataloging (do you agree? Let us know in the comments section below!). 

I think being a cataloger is one of the best jobs ever, but, generally speaking, cataloging has traditionally enjoyed a mixed reputation, even among other librarians and archivists. Catalogers are sometimes stereotyped as rules-obsessed and not particularly social, hidden away at the back of the office, in contrast to the friendly, outgoing image associated with reference staff. A good way to make someone's eyes glaze over at a party is to tell them that you write and edit the information that appears in online catalog records --but you should tell people this with a twinkle in your eye, because you know that as an archival or special collections cataloger, you get to work directly with the coolest of the cool materials. You're often among the first at your archives or library to have the privilege of looking through the new acquisitions, and you're also the one who examines the old treasures when it comes time to upgrade their catalog records.

Being a cataloger is a very important job, because your concise, expertly-informed, and accurately-crafted record makes it possible for your institution's reference staff, researchers, and others to find the materials they are interested in that are tucked away out of sight in the closed stacks. While cataloging manuals like Describing Archives: A Content Standard and MARC 21 Concise Formats are full of details that are challenging to understand and remember, the work is all worth it when you can create well-organized and easily findable records in SIRIS for unique materials. Featured here is the Wheldon & Wesley Card Index, recently acquired by the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History, containing the accumulated inventory and provenance notes of a British antiquarian book dealer who specialized in the sale of publications on natural history for over 150 years (and the Smithsonian was one of the company's best customers).

The job of cataloger has changed a lot over time in the data-driven environment of archives and libraries. Long ago, a cataloger made handwritten entries in a log book or on paper cards (somewhat like the annotated card from book dealer Wheldon & Wesley, shown above). Then typed or printed cards became standard. Now, our archival and library records are nearly all digital. Today at the Smithsonian, archival and library catalogers work closely with the information technology staff of their own units and the Office of the Chief Information Officer's SIRIS Team to come up with ways to improve the discovery and display of collections data from across the Institution.

This is an exciting time and an exciting place to be a cataloger, because there are so many ways that our records can be shared and enhanced. Increasingly, you'll find links to images or websites in our SIRIS records. We are looking into providing geographic data reference points with our catalog records. And in the coming year, we will be exploring ways to integrate mobile applications with the Smithsonian's Collections Search Center. We are also working on increasing the number of finding aids available in Encoded Archival Description (EAD) and other standard data formats to enable the Smithsonian to share and re-purpose its data with other research institutions around the world. What else lies ahead? Perhaps adding a crowd-sourcing component to allow catalog users everywhere to add their own keywords and notes to our records, while still preserving the integrity of the original data. These changes and improvements might seem like a tall order for now, but we will find a way to work things out, with so many bright minds working together here and in the greater archival and library community beyond the Smithsonian.

(The illustrations show one of the cards created and annotated by Wheldon & Wesley staff members; the cover of the printed sales catalog for Wheldon & Wesley's 160th anniversary; and the cabinets containing Wheldon & Wesley's inventory cards, accumulated between the 1950s and 2000, now housed in the Cullman Library).

Diane Shaw, Special Collections Cataloger, Smithsonian Institution Libraries


  1. I just graduated from college with degrees in English and American history. I would love to be an archivist and especially a cataloger--more specifically, I would love to be an archivist/cataloger for the Smithsonian Institution. How does one become a cataloger? Are there very many cataloger jobs? How does one get the opportunity to work for the Smithsonian?

  2. Thanks for sharing information about your work! It is great that we are exploring all avenues of archival work this month.

  3. David, thanks for your question! I was going to add a paragraph about education, but I didn't want to make the entry too long, and you've given me a good opportunity to give some links here. See the education resource pages for the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RBMS) of the Assoc. of College & Research Libraries/American Library Association, and the Society of American Archivists (SAA). Since you have an American history background, you should look into the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Hidden Collections Processing Project. I think it gives one of the best accounts of a "cutting edge" cataloging project for special collections and archives. The internship website for the Smithsonian is a good place to find out about projects you can participate in here. And let me know if you'd like some more information. I want to encourage students to consider a future as a cataloger!

  4. Diane, Thank you so much for the information! I'm actually the one who is the American history major and is interested in becoming a cataloger. I just realized I posted the comment while my husband David was signed into his Google account.. so it put his name as the commenter. Sorry for the confusion!

    I will definitely take the time to check out those sites that you recommended. I would love more information! Since I graduated in 2009, I've been intending to get a Master's in Library Sciences. But I wasn't sure which emphasis I wanted. After reading your post, I'm thinking that archiving/cataloging is the direction I want to take.

    Any additional information you can share would be much appreciated! Thank you so much for your time!

  5. Kristina Marie, I'm glad you wrote back for more information. I got my MS in Library Science at UNC-Chapel Hill, and there are a number of good library schools across the country. In the DC area, Catholic University and the University of Maryland offer programs. I'd say, don't narrow your focus too much at the start and explore various areas of library and archival work. Usually, library schools (or information studies schools, or whatever the fashionable name is lately) will require students to take an overview course that covers the basics for areas like cataloging, reference, and administration. Cataloging-related courses sometimes go by a number of different names, too, e.g. "organization of materials"; "access to materials", "archival description", etc. Some schools have museum librarianship courses, or you can do internships in museums or archives. If you're interested in rare books, look at the website for Rare Book School", which offers week-long courses on all sorts of relevant topics, including cataloging and EAD. And for a perspective on the training and tasks of catalogers, see the RBMS report on core competencies for special collections catalogers. I would also say that if you've got technical skills or interests in things like programming, you might want to take some classes in user interface design, digitization projects, information retrieval strategies, and other more "information-science" areas, since that will round out your cataloging background well. One of our recent volunteers here worked on a project to provide access to the digital files of audio recordings (including some converted from analog tapes) featuring the oral histories of artists, and she liked the work so much she has taken a job working with archival recordings.

  6. I think it's irresponsible to encourage people to go for their MLIS, considering that there aren't enough jobs to go around as is.

  7. Indeed, there already are a lot of people who have library degrees, people who want to be archivists or rare book librarians, and not enough jobs for all the aspiring applicants. But is that really a reason to say don’t go to library school? Someone could have said the same thing to me in the early 1980s when I applied to library school, and the economy was in the doldrums. Times haven’t looked bright since the 1960s for academic jobs. What is someone with a background in American history supposed to do? Libraries & archives offer more promising careers than print publishing, tenure-track teaching, etc. A master’s in library / information science is still considered a basic requirement for professional positions, and it offers flexibility for people who are looking to be consultants, contractors, records managers, digital project managers, etc. I think if someone’s really interested in that kind of career, a year or two of library school isn’t a bad way to spend their time, if they can afford the tuition or get a scholarship or assistantship. While the job market’s tight, people will still be getting hired, and who can say that someone definitely won’t be finding work in this field? There are a lot of directions that a person with excellent information management skills can go in, and find their own niche or specialization.

  8. This does sound like a very cool job - though the traditional image ("hidden away at the back of the office") actually appeals to me as much as your more current description. :) Continued success in your endeavors; this is an important job!

  9. Check out my recent post for more helpful resources on finding a job:

  10. The job you described sounds great, but those in the public library world don't always catalog with the item in hand. Cataloging is being done by title lists and a lot of outsourcing is going on. Welcome to the digital world!

  11. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  12. This comment has been edited for language that may be offensive to some. From Anonymous:

    I work in a public library and always catalog with the item in hand. Cataloging by title lists and websites/online information [is not the best]. Nine times out of 10, contents are incorrect on records from online databases such as OCLC; physical description is also either incorrect or lacking altogether. Doin archive work, one would almost always have the item in hand, I would think. Honestly, I wouldn't mind working for a company and creating catalog records for them--the so-called outsourcing mentioned in the previous post. That's always a valid career option too.

  13. I think it's irresponsible for other people to be upset at folks who encourage others to chase their dreams. What's the alternative?
    "Be realistic. Stay at the job you hate for the rest of your life because it's hard out there." That's plain silly.
    Many thanks for giving us a look into (what I would consider) one of the best jobs around...of course, I'm biased since I'm also a cataloger (but not for the Smithsonian). Thanks for writing this article!

  14. I really appreciate your post and it was superb .Thanks for sharing information.