Let me Librarian that for you: Cataloging (an overview)

“You need a master’s to organize books?” Complete with mouth agape..

I encounter this interaction a lot. Many MLIS students do. MLIS stand for Master’s in Library and Information Science or Studies if you’re in Europe.

Let’s unpack this common misconception about library studies.

The short answer is “YES” you do need a master’s in library and information science and part of that reason is to organize materials and information (not just books, but back to that later). This “organizing” people refer to in a vague disinterested way is properly called “cataloging.” Cataloging is what enables people to FIND materials they need. Buckland (2017) offers a pithy history lesson:

“Around the end of the seventeenth century many monasteries in Europe were closed and their libraries confiscated. In Bavaria 200 monastic libraries were sent to Munich to be added to the royal library. The librarians were unable to cope with this floor of material until librarian Martin Schrettinger (1772-1851) understood that technical systems were needed to enable readers (as well as librarians) to find what they needed by themselves quickly and easily. It was for the technical guidelines that he developed and coined the phrase Bibliothek-Wissenchaft (library science)” and with this term “his particular solution was to provide shelf arrangement in subject clusters complemented by an author catalog, a shelf-list, and later, a subject catalog” (p.5,6).

I must emphasize that cataloging is only one aspect of library science. Some librarians never catalog. But, in some ways, cataloging is the easiest for people outside the field to latch onto because of the card catalog imagery prevalent in the romanticization of libraries.

We are going to begin with this image because it is so familiar; miniature teak colored drawers filled with ivory colored cards, aged just enough to add a little gravitas to the authority of the system. Bibliographic information of the highest standard. Every book or journal or reference material is represented on a card.  All in alphabetical order, of course. This system requires librarians to have total ownership over the collection because it’s not easily searchable (i.e. the romantic tiny drawers). There are of course, rules to how the cards are labeled and worded because the cards are small. The title, author, publisher, and year published all need to fit.

Enter the computer.  The catalog drawers may be redundant. Perhaps, the records can be condensed on the machine…

But, now the records need to be machine readable which means the information on the card catalog needs to be coded for the machine. The first set of rules  for this system that became popular  are  Anglo-American Cataloging Rules (AACR2). My cataloging course in school began with this set of rules.

“Title” is field 245, so is “Statement of Responsibility.” Oh, you don’t know what that is? Not all works have authors. Some have editors. Some have compilers. Some have multiple writers… and on and on. “Statement of Responsibility” is a more generous term than “author” or “creator.” Oh, and if there are three names or less on the title page (AKA the authority), you listed them all. If there are more than three, you only use the first name and consider putting the other names in a 700 field (that’s for added entries).

Which edition is it? Field 250. How many pages and illustrations? Field 300. Part of a series? Field 800. Every field has MANY rules are designed to mimic the card catalog tradition of brevity. PEOPLE are coding this information for the millions of materials in libraries. Cataloguers are patient, meticulous, and flexible; there is always an exception to any rule.

Also, if you are a librarian reading this, go easy on the examples I have included of my own PRACTICE. The records are not perfect, just examples to highlight the type of work cataloging is.

AACR2 example

Here’s an example of the rules regarding punctuation within AACR2:

“Precede each area, other than the first area, or each occurrence of a note or standard number, etc., area, by a full stop, space, dash, space (. — ) unless the area begins a new paragraph.

Precede or enclose each occurrence of an element of an area with standard punctuation prescribed at the head of each section of this chapter.

Precede each mark of prescribed punctuation by a space and follow it by a space, except for the comma, full stop, hyphen (see 12.3A2), and opening and closing parentheses and square brackets. The comma, full stop, hyphen, and closing parenthesis and square bracket are not preceded by a space; the hyphen and the opening parenthesis and square bracket are not followed by a space.” (RDA Toolkit)

Don’t lie. Did your eyes glaze over? Did you think, “Yes, I understand now this is very boring.” The truth is, it’s not boring at all because at the time these rules were created machine readability demanded this sort of attention to detail.  If someone made a mistake the material would not show up in search results. Even now, the implications of the entered information being correct means the difference between a material popping up when you search or not existing to users at all.

Now, I hope you are beginning to understand why organizing information is crucial and detail heavy. But, I’m not done yet, because PLOT TWIST computers are way way smarter than 1978 when the AACR2 rules were revised.

Computers don’t necessarily NEED the information for each work to be so brutally precise. Yes, you guessed it, new rules. Not that AACR2 is completely gone, but there is an attempt at phasing it out.

The second part of my cataloging course was devoted to Resource Description & Access (RDA) Rules. There’s an important change here in the attitude about materials. We’re moving away from the card catalog metaphor and towards the idea of connections.  Let’s say you have a DVD copy of Pride and Prejudice starring Kiera Knightly. In AACR2 this would be one entry. In RDA this is a more serious undertaking because this object is a manifestation (or item) of an expression of intellectual work. Meaning this DVD copy of Pride and Prejudice is just one of many manifestations of Jane Austen’s Intellectual CREATION Pride and Prejudice. RDA want’s to connect these things to provide a fuller bibliographic record. Ambitious.

RDA Example

I haven’t even touched on name authority control. Or dirty data. Or Marc. Or how records in AACR2 will be changed to RDA, if they ever will be. Or if RDA is better or not than AACR2.

Trust me, you need a master’s.



Buckland, M. (2017). Library technology in the next 20 years. Library Hi Tech, 35(1), 5-10. doi:10.1108/LHT-11-2016-0131

Chan, L. M., & Hodges, T. (2007). Cataloging and classification: An introduction (3rd ed.). Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press.


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