Do Community College Libraries Need Catalogers?

By Mary Camille Thomas, Foothill College

Descriptive cataloging was the required class that almost made me drop out of library school my first quarter. With a degree in comparative literature, I had just spent four years reading great novels, poems, and plays; now I was immersed in the esoterica of AACR2, and frankly, for those first weeks I was as bored as I was mystified. What the heck was a bibliographic record anyway? No matter how many times I pored over the first chapter in my textbook, I couldn’t get a handle on it.

Two factors helped me decide to stay. First, I genuinely liked my classmates, all smart and interesting people. This is what librarians are like, I thought, the kind of folks I’ll be working with if I stick it out. (A long career has happily proven me right, by the way.) Second, I had a girl crush on my professor. Elaine Svenonius looked like the quintessential librarian with wisps of hair escaping from her bun, and she was passionate about sharing the mysteries of her arcane art. I signed up to take subject cataloging with her the next quarter and loved it. Library of Congress Subject Headings and the sheer elegance of the Dewey Decimal system appealed to my delight in organization. It may have helped that my classmates and I realized we could apply these same principles to creating a database of the bars in Westwood, bar hopping in the name of research.

Although I did not become a cataloger, I appreciate the wisdom of requiring cataloging in the first year; that knowledge made me more effective at reference, teaching, and collection development. In those roles I also developed a healthy respect for the catalogers themselves. My first library mentor was Vitalia Agüero, the technical services librarian at Glendale College, and she referred to her department as the liver of the library. In most libraries it’s tucked away in back, less visible and certainly less glamorous than the beating heart of public services where students are checking out books and talking to librarians about research assignments. It is nevertheless a vital organ. 

And the community colleges where I worked treated it as such. Each had three technical services library technicians (including one fulltime cataloger) plus a technical services librarian, so I considered this the norm – until recently. Due to declining enrollment, the administration at Foothill College has over the last two years taken advantage of retirements to eliminate our technical services librarian, the library technician responsible for periodicals and interlibrary loan, and now the library technician responsible for cataloging.

In response we shifted most of our periodicals from print to digital and ceased interlibrary lending, but can we function without a cataloger? To help answer this question, I queried the CCL mailing list, and being the consummate professionals you are, you replied promptly with details about your staffing as well as anecdotes and opinions. Thank you!

Of the 25 responding libraries, 21 have a cataloger; generally a technician performs copy cataloging, often overseen by a technical services librarian who is responsible for original cataloging. In most of these libraries, the technician is dedicated fulltime to cataloging with one or two other technicians handling acquisitions, periodicals, etc. In the remaining libraries a technician or librarian catalogs in addition to other duties; not surprisingly, one of these reported a cataloging backlog. At Moreno Valley College, where the library relied on shelf-ready materials from a book vendor, the catalog was “a mess,” but they recently hired a technical services librarian. “In one semester I can't tell you what a difference it's made to have an in-house cataloger,” librarian Debbi Renfrow commented. She predicts that “circulation will improve because of an improved catalog and access points.”

So what’s the current plan at Foothill College? All I know for certain is what our dean has told us so far: after discussions with the library’s classified staff and their union representatives, the administration recognizes that cataloging requires a specialized skill set. Indeed. Even basic cataloging requires knowledge of RDA, MARC 21, Library of Congress Classification, Library of Congress Subject Headings – and now the procedures of a new LSP. How exactly our library reorganization will take shape has not yet been disclosed, but I expect the administration is relying on the hope that Alma will streamline workflows enough that one technician will be able to accomplish the work that used to be done by two.

The days of the library as a book repository are gone. I know from reading messages on the CCL mailing list and chatting with you at the Deans & Directors meeting that no matter your FTES or staff size, California community college libraries are vibrant centers of teaching and learning. Yet even as we transition to digital information, the print book remains a desirable format. In 2016-2017, students at Foothill College borrowed 4200 books from the library stacks. This would not have been possible without the cataloger exercising her art to make those books findable. 

Our libraries function through technology, but they are ultimately powered by people, dedicated professionals with deep knowledge and specialized skills. Even as we migrate to a new LSP and technology changes the way we do business, I believe we still need our catalogers.

Mary Camille Thomas is the collection development librarian at Foothill College and blogs about sustainability at The Kingdom of Enough.