Category Archives: Mashcat

Mashcat at ALA Annual 2017 + shared notes

I’m leaving for Chicago tomorrow to attend ALA Annual 2017 (and to eat some real pizza), and while going over the schedule I found some programs that may be of interest to Mashcat folk:

As a little experiment, I’ve started a Google Doc for shared notes about events and other goings-on at the conference. There will of course be a lot of coverage on social media about the conference, but the shared notes doc might be a way for Mashcatters to identify common themes.

Cataloging and coding as applied empathy: a Mashcat discussion prompt

Consider the phrase “Cataloging and coding as applied empathy”.  Here are some implications of those six words:

  • Catalogers and coders share something: what we build is mainly for use by other people, not ourselves. (Yes, programmers often try to eat our own dogfood, and catalogers tend to be library users, but that’s mostly not what we’re paid for.)
  • Consideration of the needs of our users is needed to do our jobs well, and to do right by our users.
  • However: we cannot rely on our users to always tell us what to do:
    • sometimes they don’t know what it is possible to want;
    • sometimes they can’t articulate what they want in a way that lends itself to direct translation to code or taxonomy;
    • it is rarely their paid job to tell us what they want, and how to build it.
  • Waiting for users to tell exactly us what to do can be a decision… to do nothing. Sometimes doing nothing is the best thing to do; often it’s not.
  • Therefore, catalogers and coders need to develop empathy.
  • Applied empathy: our catalogs and our software in some sense embody our empathy (or lack thereof).
  • Applied empathy: empathy can be a learned skill.

Is “applied empathy” a useful framework for discussing how to serve our users? I don’t know, so I’d like to chat about it.  I will be moderating a Mashcat Twitter chat on Thursday, 12 May 2016, at 20:30 UTC (time converter). Do you have questions to suggest? Please add them to the Google doc for this week’s chat.

Three tales regarding a decrease in the number of catalogers

Discussions on Twitter today – see the timelines of @cm_harlow and @erinaleach for entry points – got me thinking.

In 1991, the Library of Congress had 745 staff in its Cataloging Directorate. By the end of FY 2004, the LC Bibliographic Access Divisions had between 5061 and 5612 staff.

What about now? As of 2014, the Acquisitions and Bibliographic Access unit has 238 staff3.

While I’m sure one could quibble about the details (counting FTE vs. counting humans, accounting for the reorganizations, and so forth), the trend is clear: there has been a precipitous drop in the number of cataloging staff employed by the Library of Congress.

I’ll blithely ignore factors such as shifts in the political climate in the U.S. and how they affect civil service. Instead, I’ll focus on library technology, and spin three tales.

The tale of the library technologists

The decrease in the number of cataloging staff are one consequence of a triumph of library automation. The tools that we library technologists have written allow catalogers to work more efficiently. Sure, there are fewer of them, but that’s mostly been due to retirements. Not only that, the ones who are left are now free to work on more intellectually interesting tasks.

If we, the library technologists, can but slip the bonds of legacy cruft like the MARC record, we can make further gains in the expressiveness of our tools and the efficiencies they can achieve. We will be able to take advantage of metadata produced by other institutions and people for their own ends, enabling library metadata specialists to concern themselves with larger-scale issues.

Moreover, once our data is out there – who knows what others, including our patrons, can achieve with it?

This will of course be pretty disruptive, but as traditional library catalogers retire, we’ll reach buy-in. The library administrators have been pushing us to make more efficient systems, though we wish that they would invest more money in the systems departments.

We find that the catalogers are quite nice to work with one-on-one, but we don’t understand why they seem so attached to an ancient format that was only meant for record interchange.

The tale of the catalogers

The decrease in the number of cataloging staff reflects a success of library administration in their efforts to save money – but why is it always at our expense? We firmly believe that our work with the library catalog/metadata services counts as a public service, and we wish more of our public services colleagues knew how to use the catalog better.  We know for a fact that what doesn’t get catalogued may as well not exist in the library.

We also know that what gets catalogued badly or inconsistently can cause real problems for patrons trying to use the library’s collection.  We’ve seen what vendor cataloging can be like – and while sometimes it’s very good, often it’s terrible.

We are not just a cost center. We desperately want better tools, but we also don’t think that it’s possible to completely remove humans from the process of building and improving our metadata. 

We find that the library technologists are quite nice to work with one-on-one – but it is quite rare that we get to actually speak with a programmer.  We wish that the ILS vendors would listen to us more.

The tale of the library directors

The decrease in the number of cataloging staff at the Library of Congress is only partially relevant to the libraries we run, but hopefully somebody has figured out how to do cataloging more cheaply. We’re trying to make do with the money we’re allocated. Sometimes we’re fortunate enough to get a library funding initiative passed, but more often we’re trying to make do with less: sometimes to the point where flu season makes us super-nervous about our ability to keep all of the branches open.

We’re concerned not only with how much of our budgets are going into electronic resources, but with how nigh-impossible it is to predict increases in fees for ejournal subscriptions/ fees for ebook services.

We find that the catalogers and the library technologists are pleasant enough to talk to, but we’re not sure how well they see the big picture – and we dearly wish they could clearly articulate how yet another cataloging standard / yet another systems migration will make our budgets any more manageable.

Each of these tales is true. Each of these tales is a lie. Many other tales could be told. Fuzziness abounds.

However, there is one thing that seems clear: conversations about the future of library data and library systems involve people with radically different points of view. These differences do not mean that any of the people engaged in the conversations are villains, or do not care about library users, or are unwilling to learn new things.

The differences do mean that it can be all too easy for conversations to fall apart or get derailed.

We need to practice listening.

1. From testmony by the president of the Library of Congress Professional Guild to Congress on 6 March 2015.
2. From the BA FY 2004 report. This including 32 staff from the Cataloging Distribution Service, which had been merged into BA and had not been part of the Cataloging Directorate.
3. From testmony by the president of the Library of Congress Professional Guild to Congress on 6 March 2015.