The fear, and lack of understanding, of standards acts as an oppressive force for cataloging librarians. I recently had a discussion with a friend who wanted to know what makes a good cataloger it went something like this-
Friend: “What makes a cataloger good? Have they memorized more of the Dewey Decimal system?”
Me: “Well, actually not all of us know the Dewey Decimal system, since our libraries don’t use it.”
F: “Wait, so what do you use then? Do you memorize that?”
M: “No, it’s not really about memorization, although a photographic memory would help. I suppose the longer you are around, the more stuff you know since you can see standards as they develop and know the past standards that they have been based on.”
F: “So wait, a cataloger is good by virtue of how many obsolete standards they know?”
M: “Hmmm, in fact I think there is a strong correlation.”
This line of reasoning left me wondering. Why is it that senior catalogers are the ones who know all the standards? Their seniority actually makes some sense because they can better work within library databases. While a skill in writing, or analyzing the text, can be valuable, ultimately the product of cataloging is data that is reused in a bewildering array of systems. Thus, better cataloging increases the number of systems the data can move through smoothly, and so better catalogers know how to do their work to maximize the number of systems that can read the data. Some of these systems, still use obsolete standards, and thus I think that the cataloger who knows the most standards well wins.
I don’t think this is obvious from the outside, or at the beginning, of the profession, and what looks like simply agism and cronyism actually corresponds to something deeper. (although, it is sometimes still just agism and cronyism) So, I decided that it would be good to encourage librarians to read the standards themselves. I channeled my inner George Fox and said to myself “FRBR is here to teach you in person, you don’t have to rely on the elite to translate.”
Thus, we decided to have the entire cataloging department read all of FRBR, play with strings, and work on developing a collective sense of what that document means. I’m VERY pleased with the results. I believe we might be the only substantial cataloging department where everyone (staff, faculty, everyone) has read FRBR and formed an opinion.
Of course, I still have my issues with FRBR, and would much rather see a bibliographically oriented version that incorporates edition, state, issue, impression, etc. (these sit uneasily within the hireachy, if they sit there at all) but that’s a future project.
You can see the report of the event here: http://cucataloging.blogspot.com/2010/05/brushing-up-on-frbr.html
The blog lives here: http://rarefrontier.org/ucbfrbrdiscussion/
We’re hoping to do the same thing for FRAD, so any thoughts would be welcome and appreciated.