Monday, 11 July 2016

Metadata Update #34 - Remembering Mac Elrod and a Life-Long Love of Cataloguing

For the last few months my blog has taken some different twists and turns.  In reality, I have felt quite overwhelmed by my workload and other aspects of my personal life that it has been a challenge for me to focus on the types of things I would typically write about in this blog.  In fact, some days it’s hard to concentrate on anything at all.  The recent passing of well-known cataloguer Mac Elrod has lead me to do more reflection on how what we write online can be read by more people than we could ever imagine and can impact individuals and the profession in ways that we will never know.  I have also spent some time wondering about why it is that some people carry such a deep interest and love for their work which even advanced age and failing eyesight have difficulty diminishing.

For those who follow any of the many cataloguing and metadata listservs, the name Mac Elrod will likely be at least familiar.  Years ago I followed the famous/infamous “autocat” listserv and this is where I first read the thoughts and ideas of Mac.  I have long since had to discontinue following autocat in favour of other more specialized lists.  However, I never lost track of Mac’s musings on cataloging theory and practice seeing as he followed and was active on the more specialized lists as well.  There is no question that Mac’s posts generated thought and discussion.  I can’t say that I always understood or agreed with what he wrote but often I was struck ideas that likely would never have occurred to me and/or benefitted from learning about different experiences and perspectives.  It was not until about 3 years ago that I discovered that Mac was an elderly, retired cataloguer.  In fact he was just a few years younger than my own father.  The idea that someone in their 80’s would be pouring over RDA instructions and the new cataloguing models and then making the effort to follow and post his thoughts in multiple listservs impressed me significantly.  Although my father was a retired scientist and liked to spend time on his computer, I don’t ever recall him reading scientific journals or him mentioning that he had been discussing the latest research with his coffee group of retirees from the research institute where he had worked for over 35 years.  In the years directly after retirement, I recall hearing a bit of “lab gossip” about who was working on what projects but it seems to me that the more that time passed, the more his reports from the “coffee group” focused on details about spouses, children, grandchildren, vacations, downsizing, aches and pains and other sorts of topics one would expect from a group of retirees rather than the scientific work they once undertook.  It’s not that my dad never talked about his scientific work but those discussions were firmly planted in the past.  He spoke of past projects and papers, former colleagues and mentors who have since passed on, and amusing anecdotes of experiments gone wrong. 

In thinking about stereotypes, one might expect that a retired chemist and researcher would be reading the latest literature and discussing and debating the latest finding and theories with his retired colleagues until well into his or her eighties.  On the other hand, one might expect a retired to cataloguer to putter around tending potted plants and spend hours in an overstuffed chair reading literary works with the aid of an oversized magnifying glass.  However, Mac and my dad proved these stereotypes to be quite wrong.  For my dad, when his days of working were finished, he was ready to move his focus onto other things as were many of his retired scientist friends.  Mac, on the other hand, retired from being the head of cataloguing at the University of British Columbia to start his own cataloging service for special libraries and then, as he gradually passed the lion’s share of the business to family, to focus on reading and writing about the current changes in cataloguing.  Why was there a difference?  I don’t know for sure and I’m not sure that anyone can really know more than what can be observed on the surface.  Before my dad retired, he was active and engaged in his field and it’s not like he dropped that interest suddenly.  I guess that his life changed and other things gradually became more important and interesting to him.  Based on the many posts that Mac wrote about cataloguing, I suspect that despite all of the other interests which were mentioned in his obituary, cataloguing continued to stimulate his quest for making sense of things and passion for helping others.  He had a lot of other interests but cataloging was just such a big one for him that it wasn’t going to easily become overshadowed.      

Accepting that we likely will never understand the complexities of what keeps a person passionately engaged in their field as Mac Elrod was, I can say that I feel grateful for all of thoughts, ideas and experiences which Mac wrote about over the years and I also feel inspired by his persistent passion for his life’s work.  I have seen firsthand that the work which may capture our hearts and imagination in middle age may not automatically transfer into old age but, for some like Mac, the spark remains and in our age of electronic communication that spark can have those unknown impacts I mentioned earlier in this post.   As far as I am aware, Mac did not publish large volumes of papers on cataloguing and while Mac did teach cataloguing in his lifetime, he was not a fixture in an LIS faculty.  From what I can tell he was an active cataloguer and supervisor of active cataloguers for the majority of his working life.  He was in the trenches of the day to day work of cataloguing and he was outgoing enough to talk about it…. To share his ideas, opinions and experiences.  This is something that I feel needs to be recognized and appreciated.  When I think about essentially how Mac kept his interest in cataloguing and remained interested even as the models were changing, it helps me to keep perspective as I struggle with issues in my own working life and reminds me that the work is both interesting and intellectually challenging, despite stereotypes and myths to the contrary.  It also reminds me that academic librarians often focus on papers and conference presentations despite the fact that other forums for communication such as listservs and social media are also important modes of communication and discussion for cataloguers.  In fact, these “alternative venues” may actually be more influential and further reaching than LIS literature.

So, as the cataloguing community mourns the loss of a long-time active and outspoken colleague, we also recognize and appreciate his contributions over the years.


If you haven’t done so already, I suggest that you read Mac’s obituary which is found in the link to the community newspaper from the area of his home.  While Mac had an active career in cataloguing, he also was a social activist and had a very full and interesting life which is worth reading about:    


Also, in honour of my father who passed away a few months previous to Mac’s passing, I have also included his obituary which you may also wish to read.  Certainly there is a contrast between the two with my father being a more introverted type who, while busy none-the-less, had interests which were more likely to focus on his home, garden and other small hobbies.  That being said, his construction projects were a little more than what one would typically consider to be a hobby.