LIScareer.com
Career Strategies for Librarians
From Library School to Museum Library: Cataloging as an Unlikely Career
by Heather Harrington

Cataloging. That “dreaded chore” of librarians is something most library school students resist tackling
as much as possible. Who can blame them? Cataloging is in itself always imperfect, and the rules
constantly change. Yet as I have learned from personal experience, it can be a valuable job tool. It can
also be very satisfying. In the interest of encouraging current and future students of library science to
pursue cataloging opportunities, I wish to share my experience.

Archives and Library Science

My story begins during my internship in library science. As my concentration was archives and records
management, I was placed at the library of a local museum. Part of my job was to catalog new books
that came into the library. This involved filling in a worksheet of MARC fields. I had the directions for the
sheet and my own brief knowledge of MARC gained from an archival methods class. I thought it would
be easy, and I would learn as I went. After filling out several sheets, it became clear that I did not know
what I was doing, and that I would not learn the necessary skills this way. By the end of the internship I
had decided that I would take the cataloging course my next semester, which happened to be my last.

The cataloging course was not a requirement for my concentration. Until my internship, my feeling was
that since the class dealt with cataloging books in libraries, it would not help me in archives. After all, I
thought, archives do not catalog mass-produced books and periodicals as public and academic
libraries do. However, I now know that belief is entirely false. In fact, I now believe that cataloging is a
skill that everyone in library science should have.

Cataloging Class

At first, the class seemed like it would be easy. We spent a few weeks going over different classification
schemes, like Dewey and Library of Congress. I found this part interesting, but not terribly exciting. I had
already learned much of it just from using and working in libraries. Then we got into the hard stuff. We
began cataloging. We learned the different MARC tags and subfields. Our first assignment was to
catalog some books using five MARC tags. This seemingly simple assignment ended up taking me
several hours and days beyond what I expected. I refused to believe the instructor when she said it
would get easier. How could it? The MARC tags were only getting harder, and the workload was
increasing.

By the middle of the semester, my time per catalog entry was decreasing, but I still continued to make
mistakes. It was hard to keep the different indicators and rules straight. By this point, I had developed a
healthy respect for catalogers and accepted the fact that I was not meant to be one. However, I did
acknowledge that I was grateful for the experience because it would help me catalog archival materials
in the future.

It was about this time, mid-semester, that I began applying for post-graduation jobs. One of the jobs I
applied for was at a museum where I had previously held a summer job. They were looking for a
collections assistant to continue their inventory project. They were looking for someone with a
background primarily in museum studies, but I applied anyway, thinking that I would have a shot
because they already knew me and my work. Little did I know that it was my degree that gave me the
edge.

Getting the Job

When the curator called for an interview, he mentioned that the scope of the job had changed. They had
widened it to include the library. They wanted the person they hired to begin cataloging the research
library’s collection, which had never been cataloged. This idea had come to them when they received my
resume, which included a library science degree. They had assumed that since I had this degree, of
course I knew how to catalog books. They did not realize the degrees of specialization in the library field,
or that archivists such as myself were not required to take cataloging classes. When he mentioned this
requirement, I silently said a grateful prayer that I was currently enrolled in that cataloging class. I could
only imagine what would have happened if I had to admit I knew as much about cataloging a library
collection as they did.

Inventorying and Cataloging

About a month after completing my degree, I began working at the museum. My job had two parts. For
the majority of the time, I would inventory items and enter them into the museum’s database. This was
similar to cataloging in that items were assigned to a category, given specific designated numbers, and
information about them was entered into a system in a certain way. The second part of my job was to
begin cataloging the library’s collection. First I would search for existing records on OCLC and then
download them into the museum’s database. If I could not find an exact match, then I would create my
own catalog record in the database. In some ways, this original cataloging was easier than the practice
books I had cataloged in class. It was certainly faster.

A New Attitude

Though I had never planned to pursue cataloging as a career, I am grateful that I had found this job so
soon after graduating. I have a healthy fear of my student loans. I am determined to make the cataloging
project a success. Perhaps it is because of my attitude, but I find myself enjoying the work. It is
challenging to try and find similar records and to compare classification schemes with those in other
libraries. It is uniquely satisfying to find mistakes in existing catalog records. It makes the time slip by
and it fully engages my brain in a way that doing inventory does not. Often while inventorying my mind will
wander, but not so in cataloging. I find I like the challenges. I had always previously hated anything that
wasn’t finite. In math, two and two always equals four. In history, the Civil War always begins in 1861. In
cataloging, a rule is only correct until the next edition of AACR2 comes out. In classification, a book can
go in a number of places depending on the subject, the location of the library, the preexisting collections,
and the whims of the catalogers and other librarians. A book about state capitol buildings could be
classified under architecture, United States history, political science, or some other aspect touched on in
the work, depending on the patrons, size, and scope of the library. There is never just one right answer.
Yet I am enjoying this aspect of cataloging.

The Future

As I write this, I am halfway through my job. It is a temporary position based on grant funding. If my
funding does not come through for an extended stay, then I am considering pursuing my next job in
cataloging. My teacher had always emphasized that cataloging jobs are always available because few
people want to catalog. Until this experience, I was one of those people.

When I entered graduate school, my focus was clear: archives. I would get a degree and then get a job in
archives or records management. The other library skills I had would be additional skills on my resume
or a backup option. I never planned to pursue the library options. Now, here I am, considering leaving
behind my archival training to work in cataloging, where the work seems more challenging and plentiful.

The moral of my story is that you never know the skills you will need in your career. No matter what plan
you set for yourself, you cannot predict your future. Acquire as many diverse skills as you can in library
school, especially cataloging. These skills have a funny way of proving useful in the future. Cataloging,
once a chore I detested, became my entry into a job, and then a challenge that I now like. Without it, who
knows where I would be?

About the Author:

Heather Harrington received her Master of Information Science degree in archives and records
management from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany in 2004. She currently works at the
Bennington Museum in Bennington, Vermont.  

Article published November 2004

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.