My Cataloging/Metadata Credo

I think our current metadata environment is seriously and fundamentally broken in several ways.

I do NOT think the solution lies in getting rid of everything we’ve got, or in nothing but machine-analysis of full text. I think the solution requires continual engagement by metadata professionals, which will be continually needed. We will always need catalogers—that is, metadata professionals involved in the generation and maintenance of metadata. Because that’s what catalogers are and have always been.

For some reason, in much of the professional discussion of ‘cataloging modernization’ certain ‘traditionalists’ seem unwilling to recognize the possibility of such an honest position. They seem to believe that anyone who thinks things are seriously broken must really be motivated by those who think computers can do everything, those who, in recent words spoken on one listserv, “don’t want to spend money on doing cataloguing properly and neophiliacs obsessed with Google, Amazon, etc. without considering what the implications of abandoning controlled vocabularies, complicated frameworks standards (MARC), and international standards (ISBD, etc.) might be in the real world.”

That group of people may exist. But that’s not me, and that’s not everyone who thinks our current environment is fundamentally broken. I think abandoning control in a mis-guided effort to save money would be disastrous. And I’m not alone, I see many people in many professional forums sharing my perspective. Our current environment is fundamentally broken, and the solution lies only in professional attention to metadata, to apply better, smarter control of metadata. Not to give up controlled metadata.

Now, this defensiveness, this insistence that anyone who thinks things right now are fundamentally broken must not be seriously concered with meeting the needs of users for information access–or must be seriously deluded about how that can be done–is, someone remarked to me, recently, perhaps evidence of a “certain bunker metality due to the serious trend of deprofessionalizing cataloging and reducing cataloging staff.”

This is a good point, and this is a tragedy. The deprofessionalization of cataloging and decimation of cataloging staff is exactly the wrong direction, when we are facing serious problems that can only be solved by a collective effort from a community of metadata professionals. We need to strengthen that community within the library world, not decimate it. This is a tragedy because our current environment is so broken.

But continuing to insist that everything is Just Fine and not really broken (and that anyone who disagrees must be malign, idiotic, or probably both) does not help, I think it’s the surest path to the continued decimation of cataloging. Because if THIS, what we have now, is the best we can do for the money being spent on it–then indeed it is not an efficient use of resources, and may not be justifiable. But it’s not the best we can do. Solutions to the serious problems we are facing will take serious change, which can in fact only come with the strengthening of a professional cataloging and metadata community within libraries.

When people read my comments as exhibiting “little value given to new
entrants [to the field of cataloging] or to cataloging itself”, or “the idea that computers and full texts will solve all the problems” I am saddened, because it couldn’t be further from the truth.

11 thoughts on “My Cataloging/Metadata Credo

  1. Jonathan, you say “our current metadata environment is seriously and fundamentally broken in several ways”. What are the ways in which it is broken? I would say the cataloguing community have just been overtaken by a tsunami of change in the last ten years (mainly the shift to digital information) and is still working out how best to respond and adapt.

  2. If you haven’t seen it yet, you might be interested in Lorcan’s Four sources of metadata about things. His first paragraph says:

    I think it is useful to think of four sources of descriptive metadata in libraries. These are not mutually exclusive, and one of the interesting questions we have to address is how they will be mobilized effectively together.

  3. Jonathan, I’m a little behind on my blog reading and just had a chance to read this post. Coincidentally, the post I wrote today, “Upgrading Catalogers’ Skill Set” ( is in line with what you’ve written here–a call for change and renewed professionalism. I really appreciate these two posts from May 24-25. I hope we do see a strengthening of the cataloging and metadata community. This modernists vs. traditonalists stuff has to stop if we are going to solve the serious problems you delineate in “Broken”, huh?.

  4. Jonathan–bravo. I think this is something that needs to be said and repeated–certainly straw-man arguments abound in both the cataloging “traditionalist” and “progressive” camps, while the more reasonable middle ground that you’ve been championing (which I think is actually closer to what the “progressives” are really saying) is easy to overlook.

    I’d like to make a couple of points:

    Librarians tend to think of their catalog records (or their metadata) as something inherently special–even sacred. We need to recognize that it’s all “just” data. It’s not set in stone, never to be modified. It’s actually very malleable and flexible, so long as it’s machine readable. Authority control, unique identifiers, consistency in data entry rules, documented data schemas–these are all principles of good data management that are not unique to the library community. Mind you, I’m NOT saying that our data isn’t valuable–but it’s still “just” data.

    So, as you’ve said before, this dichotomy between cataloging, metadata, and “data” (from a more IT perspective) is entirely false. Systems and the data that they use (whether you call it metadata, a “catalog record,” or something else entirely) are inseparable. A fundamental understanding of computer systems and modern technology should be a prerequisite to being a metadata librarian–just as it is with somebody that wants to be a database administrator or some other type of data specialist. Our data must support the functionality that our systems require, and not vice versa–and creating data that effectively does that requires some familiarity with the system’s “guts.”

    As far as actually creating the metadata goes, I think there’s also something of a false dichotomy between the “rah rah structured metadata” and the “full-text is good enough” camps. In my mind (and maybe this is just me)–it’s all [meta]data, just different ways of deriving it. Peter’s comment above alluding to Lorcan Dempsey’s post I think aligns with this. IMO–and I’m saying this as a metadata librarian–metadata librarians should be good enough with systems and imaginative enough that they can look at a group of objects, see what data already exists for those objects, and employ the necessary automatic and/or manual processes to derive the appropriate metadata and convert it to the appropriate format. For a given group of objects, generating some key words by performing some natural language processing on the full text and then performing some post facto grouping, categorizing, etc. might be good enough. Another group of objects might require full-fledged manual subject heading assignment. One or both groups of objects might have additional data from which useful metadata can be extracted. Seeing how and where that can be done requires imagination and familiarity with data processing methods and data syntaxes.

    But–I certainly agree with you and with what Chris said: “This modernists vs. traditionalists stuff has to stop if we are going to solve the serious problems…”

  5. I think those are some good points, Jason.

    I was arguing the other day that “full text” is actually “metadata” too—at least when used for query-matching and relevancy ranking! When you give someone the PDF of a book or article to print or read, maybe that’s just “data” not “metadata”. But the ascii stream you’re using for query matching? Metadata, I say! Of course, Kevin Clarke who I was arguing with, didn’t agree.

    But either way, yes, I think we will also need structured derived metadata, and always need human involvement in generating that (helped by machines as much as possible). At the same time, we need to figure out how to use the full text and other machine-calculated metadata when we’ve got it, in concert!
    And it’s up to catalogers to figure it out. How long until there’s no difference between a “metadata librarian” and a “cataloger”? Why is there such a difference now, hasn’t this time already come and gone? What catalogers produce IS metadata!

    At least that’s what I think. But I do consider myself part of the “modernizer” camp. With a healthy respect for the traditions of cataloging, that I don’t think is as unheard of within the “modernizer” camp as some people seem to think. I’m also not even a professional cataloger, I work on the Systems end instead, but I am personally and professionally interested in “cataloging” because I think engagement with that tradition and with current practices and debates is just as vital to what I do as Jason says engagement with tech systems is to metadata librarians. I think we’re all part of the same project here. Or ought to be.

  6. Jonathan, I’m really enjoying this conversation. One of the problems with the slow transition from “cataloger” to “metadata librarian” is opportunity. This is anecdotal, but many catalogers do not have the opportunity yet (in their respective libraries) to branch out from AACR2/MARC cataloging. In a lot of libraries the cataclysmic change to heterogeneous metadata has not happened yet. I think that’s where some of the defensiveness and bunker mentality comes from–lack of opportunity to try new things and the need to stay focused on the current task at hand–i.e., traditional cataloging.

  7. Jason and Jonathan —

    Both of your comments are remind me of something I heard David Weinberger say in his Google Talk on “Everything is Miscellaneous” — which was something to the effect of “Data is metadata and metadata is data. The only difference is ‘metadata’ is something you know and ‘data’ is something you want to find. One leverages metadata to find data.”

  8. Pingback: Cataloging Futures

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s