it takes a special soul to be a cataloger

I’ve been spending more time cataloging recently. When I was in graduate school, I was a 20-hour-a-week copy cataloger for a state agency in Wisconsin, and spent those 20 hours up to my eyelids in other people’s catalogs, looking for downloadable and free catalog copy for Wisconsin state documents, article reprints, and locally-published research reports on the health of the deer population in Green Bay, and the like.

I loved every minute of the work.

When I got my first ‘real’ library job (an idea I take umbrage with; I learned just as much in my paraprofessional jobs as I have in my pedigreed ones), I was doing more — serials, acquisitions, selection, budgeting, staff management — but still cataloging. My extremely capable technical services assistant and I were it, the only two in the building responsible for buying and cataloging $85,000 in books. That’s a lot of work, and we worked hard and got it done. For my part, it was mostly copycat work with a little bit of original tossed in when we ordered some odd critter, but I found and managed and completed a few original cataloging projects as well.

And then I came to my current place of work, where I have a room full of capable, efficient, smart, and effective staff who do all of our cataloging. Mostly, I just see the oddballs, the problems, or original copy that needs proofing before it’s sent to OCLC. And to start, that was fine with me — I had a bunch of new and interesting challenges to take up, learning how to manage a much larger budget and staff, and addressing the issues unique to my new workplace. Bigger place, bigger issues, bigger job, great fun — let someone else do the day-to-day, and I’ll be Big Picture Lass, I thought, and happily didn’t catalog anymore.

But this summer, four years in, I had a chance finally to get back to where I started. I was training a contract librarian on how to catalog on our ILS (ExLibris’ ALEPH), and was back into the nitty-gritty of linking items to holding records, and talking about how to use OCLC to find the exact record to match your item in hand.  I was also working with a graduate student intern on government documents serial cataloging for continuations of print publications that had moved online, which mean a lot of the same conversation about identifying records, reading MARC tags, and working with ALEPH.  And, on top of that, I’m working, finally, on getting our ebook collections into our catalog, instead of in their online silos.  I’m back to cataloging.

I spent a portion of my weekend working with the contract librarian as he speeds toward the end of the retrospective cataloging project he’s doing.  And I remembered something.  Cataloging doesn’t make me tired.

I’ve learned that, with my current work, I get up in the morning, energized, and need to use the first half-hour of my day doing some basic household tasks, because when I get home after 8 to 10 hours of library management, I’m exhausted. Bone-deep weariness.  Four hours of sustained work on budgets, book selection, project management, and communication leaves me feeling like I’ve been wrung out and hung up to dry.  But four hours of cataloging?  Is nothing.  Headphones, some good music, and an organized workstation and I’m good to go for days on end.  Cataloging is fun.  And easy.  And makes sense to me.

Which isn’t to say I don’t love other aspects of my job just as much.  They’re simply harder work for me.  Today thus far I’ve caught up on morning email and voice mail, read a document in preparation for a meeting, facilitated the meeting, reported to an colleague on the meeting, proofread the first draft of a project proposal about coordinating tech services and public services workflows, checked in with several other colleagues, filled out the intern’s evaluation form, ate my lunch, and came down to the reference desk, where I’ve answered 2 lengthy reference questions, 2 mid-level questions, 6 short questions, and done four printer troubleshoots.  After this shift is over, I’ll go back to my office and sort out the email in my inbox, send a few management-y emails to the Collection Development Committee, follow up with some faculty after our Library Liaisons’ luncheon on Friday, sort the SUNYLA treasurer’s stuff in my inbox, make decisions on the cart of Problem Stuff from technical services, and then read a few of the articles piling up on my desk (because Monday is professional reading day on my calendar).  And then I’ll go home, and be hard pressed to want to deal with the laundry, because I’ll be tired.

If I were cataloging all day… not so much.   I wouldn’t be the same kind of tired, at all.  Because something about cataloging just clicks in my head and works for me.

Knowing that, I’m working hard at making sure there’s time in my workweek for things like cataloging (and also selecting books, which works much the same for me) that give me energy, rather than require that I give it to them.   I think that’s the key to some sort of balance in my worklife, and I’m going to give it a try.


  1. I suspect…that if you did 8 hours every day, day in/day out…you’d be tired!! 😉

    However, having said that, your ‘real job’ sounds like hell on earth to this cataloger! So thank you for doing it so I don’t have to do it, and can do the ‘headphones, workstation, cataloging’ stuff that I love like a pig loves mud.


  2. good insight, and good idea

    sometimes I go shelve, just so I feel like I’ve accomplished something tangible

    and sometimes designing collateral pieces (signs, flyers, bookmarks, etc.) is how I get a little quiet focus time


  3. Cataloging can make me tired, especially after trying to come up with subject headings for a branch of knowledge completely foreign to me.

    Still, it warms the heart of this cataloger to know that a manager somewhere is down in the trenches, wading through MARC with the rest of us. 😉


  4. Well–there are the days when I catalog certain items, and then look at my work the next day and say, “What was I thinking??” Overall, though, I agree with you–I love being a cataloger, and every time I’ve been promoted to management in my career, I find myself looking for a hands-on cataloging job again. I didn’t mind working at Baker & Taylor Books as a cataloger for 2 years because I could do just what you described–put on some good music, get a cup of coffee, and just catalog the day away, and not be tired at the end. People think I’m nuts to want to do this all the time, but I always say that I went for an MLS, not an MBA, and if I wanted to be a manager I would have gone to school for that. Thanks for making me feel like I’m not totally nuts!


  5. Minerva, both of the college libraries I’ve worked at in the professional side of my career have had former catalogers as directors. There are more managers who “get it” than we might think, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with and learn from several.

    Brigid, I think from time to time about getting a Masters in Public Administration, since that seems to be what I do most of the time — assist in the management of a public institution. And I like it! But the days when I get to really use my MLIS are the ones I love most.


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