Career Strategies for Librarians
The Whimsy of Cataloging
by Richard A. Murray
“I want to be a cataloger.” For a lot of library school students – and many librarians – that seems to be
as appealing a statement of career purpose as “I want to be a crash test dummy” or “I want to clean up
after the elephants at the circus.” Many students dread their required cataloging class as if it were a root
canal. So why would anyone possibly choose to spend their life as a cataloger?
The stereotype of the cataloger is, for many, the hermit hiding in the bowels of the library shackled to an
OCLC terminal all day, counting pages of plates and measuring the heights of books. On the rare
occasion he or she is let out of the dungeon, it’s to be the one at meetings who speaks in unintelligible
MARC-ese about “non-filing characters” and “second indicator blank” and “space colon space.” The
cataloger’s role in the library is to enforce rules that nobody understands and to make things as difficult
as possible for everyone involved. Right?
Well, no. Those who love cataloging – and there are more of us than you think – find it fascinating,
challenging, and even (dare I say it?) fun. So what’s it really like to be a cataloger?
Unlike what you may think about cataloging, it’s not a tedious, never-ending life of rote application of
rules and punctuation. Catalogers get to see the library’s most interesting materials and have to figure
out a) what this thing is, b) who might find it useful, and c) how to make sure they find it. Yes, you need
to know the rules, but the trick is in knowing which rule to use when and how to apply them to the
thoroughly bizarre item that’s sitting on your desk. There’s a lot more thought involved than deciding
whether to use a colon or a semicolon, and being a good cataloger actually involves a lot of creativity.
Though most catalogers don’t have the luxury of reading everything that comes across their desks, it’s
amazing how much you learn through osmosis while figuring out what a book’s about and how to treat
it. I often feel like I get paid to learn every day. There’s a lot of detective work involved, too, especially
when you’re trying to decide whether the John Smith who wrote your piece is one of the hundred John
Smiths who have written other things or a totally different one. One of my favorite parts of my job is
running across these sorts of problems and then using the library’s resources to find the solutions. In
some ways it’s like being a reference librarian, only you’re finding answers to questions you yourself
have created rather than ones from a patron who’s just wandered up to the desk.
The image of the cataloger never seeing natural light or interacting with other human beings needs to
go, too. At a research library, a cataloger has to work intensively with bibliographers to learn what topics
their faculty and students are working on and then design work flows that will make these materials
available as quickly as possible. He or she has to work with acquisitions staff to answer questions
about what they’re ordering or receiving and what to do with it, with preservation staff to figure out how to
handle it, and with circulation staff to work out what to do with it for the long run. There’s a lot of
teamwork within the department, too, as catalogers are constantly conferring with each other about
particularly tricky situations or, perhaps even more often, laughing about the weird things they’ve run
across in the course of their work. Oddities we’ve found at my library recently include an OCLC record
for a box of Band-Aids, photos of some sort of German festival in which participants dress as haystacks,
and a squirrel sewing machine (don’t ask). Not too long ago a friend two cubicles down got to catalog
something that appeared to be an inflatable swimming pool (it turned out to be a globe). Another found
an OCLC record for a book that, according a note, was “impregnated with cheesy smell.” My coworkers
and I like to talk about “the whimsy of cataloging.”
Besides everyone else at the library, the cataloger frequently gets to interact with people in far-flung
places around the world. Yesterday a colleague was emailing an author in East Timor to ask him the
preferred form of his unusual name. Recently I had a lengthy email discussion with a magician in
Venezuela named “Abracadabra” in which I tried to determine whether he was the same “Abracadabra”
who wrote the book I was cataloging. (He wasn’t, but he was a great conversationalist).
All this said, I’ll be the first to admit that cataloging isn’t for everyone. A good cataloger needs to have
attention to detail and patience for minutiae. Great curiosity helps, as does the ability to work
independently. The ability to think things through logically is a must.
And while most catalogers tend to fall on the “Introvert” side of the Myers-Briggs scale, they also tend to
be tons of fun. It goes back to that “whimsy of cataloging” thing. The department I work in is famous in
the library for our Halloween costumes (among our recent themes have been the Von Trapp Family
Catalogers and the solar system). Last year when another department was decorating in a beach
theme for a party, they knew to come to us to find a hammock, an inflatable parrot, and various
sombreros. We vent our frustrations by invading each other’s cubicles in commando-style ping-pong
So if you’ve never thought of cataloging as something you might want to do, give it some consideration.
If you’re in library school, you might want to try to get a job in your library’s cataloging department to see if
it’s right for you. Libraries frequently have a hundred or more applicants for reference positions but find it
difficult to find catalogers because many library school grads – most of whom have no idea what it’s
really like to be a cataloger – have already decided it’s something they don’t want to do. And even though
the things we catalog and the methods we use are changing in the digital age, the basic concepts of
organizing and providing access to information will always be in demand. So before you dismiss the
thought of cataloging as a career, give it some thought. You might find you have an appreciation for
About the Author:
Richard A. Murray is Catalog Librarian for Spanish & Portuguese Languages at Duke University. At the
time he wrote this article, he was a catalog librarian at Vanderbilt University. His favorite Library of
Congress subject heading is "Papaya in art."
Article published Feb 2002
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