Cataloging and Being Direct: A Response to McElfresh

So we’ve been hard at work cataloging the Audubon Center’s library collection for a few weeks now, and I wanted to briefly comment on the process. It helps to have a slightly theoretical basis for analysis and self-reflection, which has been, nicely enough, afforded to me by way of the article “Cataloging and Classification in a Small Library: The Good, the Bad, and the Challenging” by Laura Kane McElfresh (2009). Through the article McElfresh dives into Thomas Mann’s Library Research Models, and applies these buckets of research to the effectiveness of the small library catalog. The models include Type-of-Literature, Specific Subject or Discipline, Actual-Practice, Computer Workstation, and Traditional Library Science. While I argue that these models, which I won’t dive into here, offer quite a lot of grounds for establishing a particular type of catalog to meet patron needs, I would argue that the small library can be in a mode of flux that prohibits easily identifying a model to follow.

Before I explain myself, I should add that the idea of the “small library” (as a concept) is quite vague across the board, and many research-based libraries, public, university, and corporate libraries can all fall under the bracket of the library that Anna and I have been working under. They can all be small in nature and scope, from the collection size to the programming to the patron and membership bodies. I think that part of the definition of the small library should require a statement on uniqueness: small libraries are going to have their own acute differences that cannot be helped, and thus every library is its own special case.

With that said, let’s talk about the idea of research and the idea of cataloging and where the bridge exists (or doesn’t!). Research is a tricky concept to nail down as well. With the Audubon Center as a whole, you might have naturalists, independent scientists and bird enthusiasts, amateur ornithologists, students, children, or families conducting some form of research at any given moment. In fact, the programming that goes on within the walls of the Audubon Center encourage research to come from many different angles. I personally love this, but when you bring the library into the space of the research, things get a bit muddy! How can we bring the library into a supplementary position that will assist the many different kinds of researchers with the many different types of research being conducted within the Center and Seward Park, generally? How can we bring the library into the community beyond the park, the neighborhood and region, especially since it has such amazing resources within its collection that can serve to help nearby residents when the public library is not available? How can the library act as a conduit for programs already existing and being run by the staff at the Center?

All these questions turn what could be a holistic, every-library problem into a very particular problem concerning this particular library and this particular space. What’s more, research and education are two core components, which can be measured and tracked and reviewed by those authorities within the center, that we can look at even more intimately as goal buckets for the library to achieve.

As I’ve mentioned before, the library is not yet out in the open, so to speak. The library is not yet known to the general public as it hasn’t yet been advertised by way of its current online catalog and the updates Anna and I have been making. And so there’s still time to think about how the public will best use the library (rather than reflecting on how they have been using the library, which is, as Joey of the Audubon Center has described, quite minimally).

To craft a catalog capable of meeting the needs of research, casual reading, and programmatically-related support is something that I think about when I see all the lovely folks who move around within the Audubon Center’s walls. I like to look at the Audubon Center as a sort of maze, like the type you would go through in old-school video games, with the secret discoverable element lurking within. For me, that secret is the library. Folks will stumble upon the library after they make their way up to the heart of the Center on the second floor. What they do after they get there is, well, comment on how great it is to have a library there. But this blockage is, for me, unacceptable. I’ve never really understood the importance of a publically-available catalog, but after seeing so many fleeting images of Audubon Center visitors, I’m beginning to get a good sense of how I believe the library can be transformed to operate as a much more functional “secret heart” of the Center. Essentially I envision this: folks not only know about the library before entering the maze, but they go from amicable serendipitous discovery to a search for the library they already are aware of. I’ve talked about this goal before and I will talk about it again as a way to remind myself of the potential the library has. Let’s return to research, though.

So if we imagine that the library already has its foundation and exists within the minds (and hearts) of the community, we can take the next step and think about how the library can fulfill the needs of those folks who are aware of its existence. The researcher always has a question, and we want to make sure that the researcher knows they can find the answer. So in doing such, we want to make sure the researcher knows the catalog can be searched and that they can find out if we have or do not have the type of resource they need in the 21st century to accomplish those goals. When it comes to libraries, the argument against them in the contemporary age is due to ease of access to information via search engines. There are many good examples of what you can’t find (or easily find) on search engines, including: browseable bodies of classed bird information (a la guidebooks), historic documents such as the original Audubon magazine, Bird-lore, and local records on events and documentation of programs that went on in Seward Park. You’ll be able to find all of these resources and much more in the library at our Audubon Center. Additionally, we want to be able to make sure everyone gets easy access to what we consider authoritative online resources related to bird research, which we will make sure are available on the OPAC.

I’ve been going on much longer than I thought I would. Let me talk about one of the highlights of the McElfresh article. Early on in, she mentions Mann’s “Principle of Least Effort” which “holds that ‘most researchers (even ‘serious’ scholars) will tend to choose easily available information sources, even when they are objectively of low quality, and, further, will tend to be satisfied with whatever can be found easily in preference to pursuing higher-quality sources whose use would require a greater expenditure of effort.’ This is an established, recognized pattern of patron behavior, and one that libraries ignore at their own risk” (5). When I read this passage for the first time, and even upon revisiting it, I thought about how we want our data linked. Even though “linked data” is a very particular term in our current age of the semantic web and relational databases, we all know that MARC records are linked through the OPAC by common fields. This is what makes the catalog so powerful, and where Anna and I come in as those who make sure the principle described above doesn’t result in disaster for the library. I mention Anna and myself because we are the ones pulling records from the Library of Congress (when they exist) and, when they don’t, we are the ones in charge of creating accurate, descriptive cataloging records that can link up with the rest of the collection. Subject cataloging, while highly rigid (as I learned through my recent Cataloging course with Professor Lisa Fusco), is also potentially subjective. There is a lot of autonomy and thus responsibility on the end of the subject cataloger.

Anna and I are nearly finished with the initial collection and the cataloging duties therein. We have already gone through around 800 individual resources, including around 100 of those that are second (and more) copies of titles. We have probably 200 more to go, with the potential to continue to expand as people become aware of the current library resurgence and donate, donate, donate. Once we “finish” the books and other resources within the collection that we have found in the Library of Congress, we will have to complete the collection’s catalog by way of original cataloging performed on all the leftover resources. This is where we want to make sure we’re filling out all of the subject headings accurately and purposefully so as to create a description usable by all those who might suffer the least effort described above. We want a catalog that is as easy to navigate as a list of search results on a search engine, and I think we already are on our way. An OPALS website and OPAC already has like-item functionality (where, when you’re looking at a particular resource in the catalog, the screen displays you similar items based on subject), which I believe is standard with most ILSs (if not all). We obviously need to review the information when we are able to ensure accuracy.

McElfresh, partway through her article, defines what she calls the “Don’t Disappoint the Patron Principle” (7). This principle is directly related to subject cataloging and is defined by McElfresh as thus: “when considering whether or not to add ‘X’ as a subject heading, I ask myself how likely it is that the book would disappoint a reader who wants a book on ‘X’.” My final point of this super-long blog article, then, is that Anna and I have to be as aware as possible to the reality of the catalog and the subject fields in each MARC record, with our feet firmly planted in the catalog user’s shoes. But what’s even more important is that we need to admit we aren’t the experts. The Audubon Center, that maze I was telling you about, is filled with the subject experts that will make this catalog what it needs to be to excel. Furthermore, we will need to ensure that in large font on the homepage is a message saying “QUESTIONS, EMAIL THE LIBRARIANS.” (Or something like that.) We want to make sure we’re understood, and that any and all hiccups with our interface are smoothed over as fast as possible going forward.

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