Q: Any advice for breaking into cataloging?

Q: Any advice for breaking into cataloging?

Q: I have a MS in Library and Information Studies, and two years of professional experience, mostly in reference and public services. Two years ago I decided to return to school for a second masters degree in linguistics. During this time I have held a job in the English department as a writing tutor, which I have enjoyed, but my joy in life does not come from teaching. I have been rather successful in my studies, and considered a PhD, but it is not for me. As I near completion of this degree, I need to consider my professional options. I would like to return to libraries and I am interested in working in technical services, specifically cataloging. I have had limited experience in the past with cataloging and indexing, but I like this kind of work. I think my strengths in this area are my analytic skills and knowledge of semantics/taxonomies. Of course, being interested is a plus, and I have obtained great people skills and an understanding of how patrons view library catalogs from my public services experience. Any advice for breaking into cataloging?

SM: The first thing that comes to mind – and you’ve heard it all before – is: get some experience, any experience. You think you know what you want, which is the first step in getting there, but how can you be sure without first getting a taste of what the job entails?

Cataloging can be a tedious, sometimes monotonous, and potentially lonely job. It typically requires long hours of inputting, uploading and editing data. It calls for precision, organization, and knowledge of many separate, but inter-related things like classification systems, subject headings, MARC, Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules (AACR2), authority control, catalog environments, databases, and metadata. It can also be very rewarding and challenging, especially for analytically-minded people. It is more tangible and more structured than its somewhat amorphous counterpart, public services, and it involves a close (and hopefully comfortable) relationship with technology. It can be exciting and fast-paced as well, because there are always new technologies, new systems, new rules, and new ways of access that all relate to the cataloger’s role.

Like you mentioned, your interest in cataloging is a good start, and your previous library experience along with your second masters, in the “study of language” no less, should help you out in your job search. The only piece you are lacking is the relevant cataloging experience, so don’t despair just yet. Cataloging, although a learned skill that involves knowledge of many distinct systems and technologies, is done differently everywhere. You can know the basics, but each library will have its own way of cataloging specific items, its own integrated library system, and perhaps its own classification system. Even the most experienced cataloger needs time to adjust and learn in a new environment, and training is expected for any new position.

To get started, immerse yourself in all things cataloging: talk to catalogers, join e-mail lists and associations, read books and articles, and search for useful web sites. If you have no experience, practice a little by cataloging your own books, CDs, or DVDs, using whatever resources you can get your hands on. Also, keep in mind that cataloging comes in many flavors, and in larger institutions catalogers typically work with only one or two material types, which could be monographs, serials, photographs, rare books, manuscripts, audiovisuals, or online resources (to name a few). If you are interested in a particular kind of cataloging, then you may want to use “material type” to narrow your search.

There are entry-level cataloging positions that require little to no experience. However, since cataloging is so structured and based on sets of rules, previous experience may be an even more important requirement than for public service positions. Some job ads say “advanced coursework in cataloging required” (or preferred) in lieu of experience. This is where some extracurricular classes may help. See if there are any opportunities in your area, or look for online classes to help develop your skills and your resume.

Finally, rework your resume to emphasize your analytical skills and experience, including cataloging classes and any related job experience. Show potential employers that you are truly interested in cataloging!

These web sites may be useful:

TA: Transitioning from one type of position to another, or even from one type of library to another, is sometimes a difficult proposition. You can, however, take steps to make this transition as smooth as possible.

Susanne’s advice about immersing yourself in all things cataloging is especially pertinent. Join lists, talk to catalogers, maybe do an informational interview or two. (For a quick article on informational interviews, see Carole Martin’s “Informational Interviewing: The Neglected Job Search Tool.”) If possible, try to get some experience; even volunteering in a cataloging department would give you some experience and perhaps a glance into what life would be like as a cataloger.

Secondly, without knowing your personal situation, I am not sure how viable an option this would be, but you may want to consider taking a class or two in cataloging. Basic cataloging and advanced cataloging, offered in most library schools, would certainly cover both the basic principles of cataloging, as well as some of the higher level details (and specialties) in cataloging. You would have the opportunity to work with Dewey and Library of Congress classification systems, MARC format, and different types of materials (monographs, serials, CD-ROMs, video, electronic resources, just to name a few…). Current coursework would not only indicate a strong interest to future employers, but would also give you the fundamental skill set and vocabulary used in the day-to-day work.

Finally, I strongly believe that power is all in the spin. If you can express enthusiasm for the profession and a strong interest in cataloging, as well as highlight your transferable skills and abilities when applying for a position (knowledge of how patrons view the catalog, formal education in linguistics, analytical skills, and knowledge of semantics/taxonomies), you will be a viable applicant for any cataloging position. You may want to refer to the March 1, 2004 issue of ICT. In the career column of that issue, Susanne and I discussed moving from a special library to an academic library; you’ll find some helpful information there about transitioning from one specialty to another, and some tips on assessing skill sets, job searching, and applying and interviewing for positions. Best of luck!

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