Monday, 6 June 2016

Metadata Update #33 - Responses to Upate #32 and more reflections

It’s been 3 weeks since I posed Update #32.   I’ve had a surprising amount email and other feedback since then.   Update #32 came as close to going viral as anything I’ll likely ever write….  It got shared on a number of social media sites, including some that were previously unknown to me.   There were some interesting discussions to be had.  However, most of the comments weren’t posted on my blog but came to me via email, took the form of in-person discussions or were made on social media websites where the post was shared.  Of course, the email sent directly to me was by and large highly supportive and/or contained details of similar experiences reported by other librarians.  The social media discussions displayed greater variety of opinions.   I’ve found the latter to be particularly useful in sorting out the bigger picture of where my own experience fits on the spectrum of what is happening in libraries elsewhere. 

It’s hard to summarize all of what I read but I can talk about the major themes.  The strongest theme was that most respondents felt that managers/administrators and, to some extent, librarianship in general does not properly understand the cataloguing and metadata discipline.  Some felt that the problem, which one respondent called “low levels of appreciation”, exists more for those who are “cataloguers” than “metadata librarians” while others.    Some made the observation that there are librarians who have worked as cataloguers in the past and base their view of the discipline today on that past.  I was surprised at the number of respondents who referred to these “former cataloguers” in some way or another in their comments.   As a few pointed out, the “past experience” is often a very limited.  It was suggested in more than one email I received that these “former cataloguers” can be problematic when they believe strongly that they understand the work without making an effort to update their knowledge.   These librarians reported negative consequences when the “former cataloguers” make decisions and take action based on beliefs which are not only outdated but outright inaccurate.  One respondent said that her manager had a habit of consulting a “friend” who is a cataloguer at another institution to get her “ok” before making decisions rather than speaking directly to her supervisee!  Then there were a handful of stories from public libraries which were, I’m not sure what else to call them except, odd and shocking.  After reading one of the stories I said to myself sarcastically, “Why not let the patrons catalogue the books, what would be wrong with that?”!  I suppose that it would be one thing if the library had some sort of dedicated interface for doing that sort of thing but the librarian who told me his story said that his director felt that the patrons could work directly in the ILS.  Apparently the director didn’t think of the implications of giving untrained volunteers access to the entire bibliographic database.  Ok, so let’s say that I got a very strong message that there are many cataloguers and metadata specialists out there who have the very strong impression and opinion that their work isn’t understood or appreciated.

 If a sense of “feeling misunderstood” was the major theme, I would say that the next most significant theme was a sense of “overworked and underpaid”.   This theme came out both in the email and in social media.  The stories took the form of outright wage disparity relative to other library workers to systemic barriers which prevented cataloguers from progressing in their career.  There is a sense that there is a trend to eliminate cataloguing positions at a time when there is a lot of pressure on cataloguers to be more productive while learning the new models and skills.  More than one email referenced a “head in the sand” attitude with regard to preparing for the current and upcoming changes in cataloging and the movement towards BIBFRAME.  As I have heard at my own library, one commenter said that her colleagues disbelieve that any significant change would occur in the near future based on the large gap between RDA was first talked about in the library community and when it as eventually implemented.    

A third minor theme was a critique of academic libraries and certain collegial processes.  The two previous themes seem to support this one.  If librarians generally don’t understand what cataloguers do and why it is important, then they are not likely to see the efforts of cataloguers as meritorious.  If collegial decisions have a significant impact on what cataloguers are paid, it is reasonable to see that over the years the wages of cataloguers will eventually fall behind that of their peers. I’ve heard over the years that cataloguing librarians tend to be low-paid, I did not have an understanding of how this could be possible.  However, if one takes into account merit increases, there seems to be quite a bit of logic in trying to piece together the process through which cataloguers might fall behind their peers over the years.  I admit that I was surprised to encounter as much criticism of academic librarianship and collegial processes as I did.  Until 8 years ago I had worked primarily in public libraries and knew nothing about how academic libraries work.  After 5+ years of working in academic libraries, I’m not going to claim that I understand everything.  Being a collaborative and cooperative person, the concept of collegiality appeals to me and I’m not ready to turn on it yet.  That being said, I recognize that there are many librarians who have a very negative view about how “things get done in academic libraries”.   While every university is slightly different, I feel as if I became a little less na├»ve about a certain dark side of academic librarianship after reading a few of the stories of more experienced academic librarians.  While I haven’t become cynical about collegial processes, I think that my approach will likely be more cautious and critical than it was in the past. 

Finally, a number of commenters and email writers suggested that I look for another job and find a place where my efforts and attitude would be appreciated.  Two suggested that I should be happy that I have a job.  Of course, the latter comments were found in social media and were not statements made directly to me.  I didn’t find it surprising to find a diversity of opinion in this regard.  In fact, I found that in social media there were some good debates and commenters challenged each other on the issues.  For example, the string below came from Reddit is a great example of how the discussion can swing from one extreme to the other in terms of opinion.

[–]bibliotudinous 2 points3 points4 points 13 days ago
She's lucky she even has a full-time position as a cataloger. Some libraries have a half-time person, or even "data entry clerks". Another example of the people who control the purse strings not understanding what librarians do.
[–]mindmountain 1 point2 points3 points 11 days ago
Well employers certainly do. Catalogers are normally quite handsomely rewarded for their time so maybe she should worry less about what her colleagues think and pay attention to her bank manager.
[–]Banjohobo[S] 1 point2 points3 points 11 days ago
Are you a cataloger? 
[–]mindmountain 1 point2 points3 points 11 days ago
For a time yes. I was.
[–]Banjohobo[S] 2 points3 points4 points 11 days ago
Well, that isn't how it is anymore. I don't know many catalogers being paid handsomely for work that a lot of libraries have declared non-essential. Please re-read /u/bibliotudinous's all-too-true reply above.
[–]mindmountain 1 point2 points3 points 11 days ago
Public libraries don't pay well but academic libraries and rare book institutions do. My pay was slashed almost in half when I had to go back to being a library assistant after contract work. I feel sorry for her because the place she works for sounds awful, all that pompous self promoting to further a silly meritocratic system. Her colleagues sound rude. I hope she has luck finding a job elsewhere before they chip away further at her sanity.

By the way, I really would like to know which libraries “handsomely reward” their cataloguers.  Maybe I could get a job at one of them.  While some librarians related stories of much more concerning circumstances, many more felt that my library has a “harsher” than average environment. I’m not sure what I will do with that information but it definitely is reassuring to know that not every cataloguing or metadata librarian is having the same or worse experience than mine.  
At any rate, what I found the most interesting is that I didn’t find a single reference as to how to help our colleagues understand better what we do and why it is important.  I’ve spent a bit of time this morning scanning through my email to double check to make sure that this observation is accurate and I found nothing that would change my conclusion.  I admit that supportive email helped to make me feel less alone in my struggle.  However, now that I’ve begun to work on thinking about how to take this information and move forward with it, I’m still not sure what I will do.  While I have made a number of attempts to inform my colleagues about the changing nature of my work and the significance of the changes, I have to admit that my efforts have been largely ineffective.  I was hoping that perhaps I would hear stories of librarians who were able to “get the message through”. 
When I shared the post on FaceBook one response included an article about the engineers who deal with rusting structures and how their work is critical but often misunderstood and seen by planners and top administration as an annoyance or a nuisance.  I particularly liked the last line of the article “People often cut the budget and then wonder why they have an issue five years later.”  How many cataloguers can make a similar statement?  Maybe the fact of the matter is that within most professions there are those specialists whose work is largely invisible and not understood by the profession or the public but critical to the work and purpose of the profession all the same.  The rust engineer article suggested that planners find the information that rust engineers provide to be an annoyance because resources need to be poured into keeping old structures from rusting-out and falling down.  It is work that is largely not seen and not impressive.  This is money which planners and administrators see as taking away from resources which would otherwise be used to “move forward” and build new things. Yet, as the article points out, the State of Liberty would cease to exist if work is not done to prevent rust from eating away at it.  Maybe cataloguers are in a similar situation.  Maybe administrators perceive that large amounts of money is poured into cataloguing and is seen as a black hole.   Spending on cataloguing prevents libraries from providing more resources, services and spaces, etc.  Perhaps the Reddit comments about cataloguers being paid “handsomely” reflects the idea that some within the library leadership may have that cataloguers get paid a lot for doing work which has little value with regard to progressing the goals of the library – or at least that’s the way that it appears to them on the surface.  For the most part, outstanding cataloguing doesn’t put a feather in the cap of the library or university.  However, bad cataloguing can make black marks on a reputation.  What I find highly interesting is that when those black marks show up, library managers don’t always make the connection back to the quality of the cataloguing.  Very recently I have heard leaders within libraries make statements which seem to imply that these black marks can be fixed by computer programmers – not understanding that the programs are working as they have been designed to work and the problem exists within the metadata or cataloging itself.  After successfully making the case that the problem exists with the metadata, I’ve also seen more than one case where a librarian will suggest that a programmer can somehow remedy the situation. 
In conclusion, perhaps the cataloging and metadata specialization does have a bit of an “image problem” but this is not anything that is knew or unique to librarianship.  There may be some limitations on how much cataloguers can expect the rest of the profession to take an interest in and understand their work.  However, many librarians and other library workers can and do understand and appreciate the work of cataloguers.  According to what I have heard in the last 3 weeks, it appears that the majority of cataloguers and metadata specialists feel that the source of the “overworked and underappreciated” problem lies with library managers and other decision-makers.  While I didn’t find any specific advice or approaches for dealing with this problem in all of the email and social media discussions I read, other than suggesting that I get another job, I think that a reasonable way to move forward can be inferred.  Cataloguing librarians and metadata specialists need to begin making a stronger connection between the work that we do and the objectives and values of those who manage their libraries and make major budgetary decisions when we talk about our work and the purpose for the current and upcoming changes.  I just read a document this morning that leads me to think that this will not be an easy task but, as I said in my previous post, I’m not one to sit around feeling sorry for myself.  Maybe I am feeling a little overwhelmed, though.
As for some of the advice offered to me from my colleagues around the world, rest assured that your comments remain in the back of my mind.  Most of all, I’d like to thank everyone for their interest and taking their time to share their stories and ideas with me.