Friday I was in Hyde Park, NY, at the site of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, attending the NYLINK Annual Meeting. I’d been asked to come and talk about change in cataloging. NYLINK, formerly the SUNY/OCLC Network, is one of the struggling regional service providers that used to be the primary brokers for OCLC services for smaller libraries, and did most of the training for OCLC in the process. These organizations are now providing other kinds of services and training for a wide variety of libraries, and are still one of the best places for figuring out what working librarians are thinking.

I was particularly impressed with how this day-long meeting was organized. After the welcome and logistics, two speakers—Liz Chabot from Ithaca College and Susan Currie from Binghamton University—got things off with a bang by proposing seven “what ifs”:

… we stopped cataloging?
… librarians individually and as a profession promoted, used and helped develop Wikipedia?
… we accepted open source software as a way of being in control of the customer experience?
… we required all library staff to have expertise using technology?
… mistakes were expected and embraced—and librarians became the mistake masters?
… we didn’t make our customers work so hard?
… we let customers determine their loan periods?

Meeting participants spent some time talking about these questions, in the meantime getting to know one another at their tables, and getting fired up about the topics. The morning speaker, Joe Lucia from Villanova University, then started off with this energized group, and did a great job putting the important issues in a more general perspective. He spoke compellingly about our plight in libraries and the parallels with newspapers, described changes in how people deal with linear text vs. Hypertext, and pointed out the work of R. David Lankes (a colleague of mine at Syracuse University), who talks about the “library as conversation.” Joe’s primary point in bringing together these threads is his contention that libraries are not in the “information” business so much as we are in the “knowledge and conversation” business. He talked very passionately about the library as a “commons” where knowledge and conversation happen with the active engagement of the library as organization, bringing students, faculty and others out into the open for exchanges of ideas, not just providing places for their solitary study.

But of course it will be no surprise that I was most engaged with the question “What if we stopped cataloging?” I’m not sure that question is the right one, or perhaps just not specific enough. I might recast it as “What if we stopped cataloging the same old stuff?” By “same old stuff” I mean the secondary products of academic pursuits: books, journals, government documents, etc., the stuff that we have always cataloged. What if we began to catalog different stuff, the stuff we’re publishing ourselves, the podcasts we create of the talks given by our own faculty and those who visit us to discuss their research, the exhibitions we create out of our collections and materials borrowed from others, the primary materials our former faculty members have donated into our care—the things that we’ve always consigned to others (archivists, perhaps?) or not cataloged at all. What we have called cataloging, when it is not done for the first time, is these days for the most part consigned to staff who may not be catalogers, bought from vendors, or automatically claimed from larger databases to populate ours. Insofar as we have used these more efficient, more automated strategies, we have indeed “stopped cataloging.” What we haven’t done is modified our missions and our budgets to take more responsibility for these other often unique things that we have neglected, and as such we have been the instruments of our own demise.

So as we hear the bemoaning of the profession of cataloging, and ourselves sometimes obsess about the “how” of the changes in our lives brought on by technology, financial distress, and various other pressures, we would do well to remember that behind all this, the mission of the institutions we call home is changing significantly, and we can’t answer those “how” questions without looking anew at those shifting missions.

My presentation and Corey Harper’s came after lunch, and the group was exceptionally ready to hear what we had to say, thanks to the fabulous preparation provided by NYLINK, Joe Lucia, Liz Chabot and Susan Currie. I had some great conversations there, and on the ride home thought quite a bit about how proud I am to be a librarian, and the wonderful opportunities I continue to have to get to know some of the best people in the business.

By Diane Hillmann, May 11, 2009, 9:06 am (UTC-5)

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Currently 4 comments

  1. Comment by Jill

    What if we used NPR’ s book recommendations, must reads, and lists as a major ordering tool?

    The “what if” exercise is provocative. It stimulates the creative process. I really rather like it. It’s brilliant to help us transition, because transition/transform is what we must do.

    jill coe

  2. Comment by Diane Hillmann

    I have to say that as I talk about these issues in various venues, I’m finding librarians in general much more willing, and indeed enthusiastic, about bringing change into their libraries. This is really heartening, and I appreciate both your comments!

  3. Comment by William Perrenod (CONCORDIA COLLEGE)

    It was really nice sharing the day with you. Your blog entry re-captured for me the essence of the NYLINK meeting. … radical transformation is on the way! Look forward to seeing you AGAIN!

  4. Comment by heather

    WOW! i loved this post, was tweeted here by ALAconnect…and bo-oy! am i happy. I have a particular interest in ephemera, and through that interest I started pondering this very issue (cataloging and buying descriptions and people who end up working on cataloging when they hate it etc).

    it would be transformative for collection policies and a whole range of “mission and budget” issues, as you suggest.

    I think I am falling for cataloging all over again…with this in mind as a new frame of reference!

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