New access to culture

Some interesting points by Mark Sands, director of media and audiences, Tate London, on new users of cultural institutions and new questions that can be asked and answered with broader access to digitized cultural material (starting at min. 37 of the video recording of a recent panel discussion on “new access to culture”):

– the control that cultural institutions used to exercise over their assets is fundamentally challenged

– it is challenged by experts who sit outside of the institution and by members of the public

– there are communities of interest

– a single curator can simply not know everything about a subject, and there are audiences out there who know a great deal whose knowledge can enhance the knowledge of the curator

Democratizing cataloging

In the age of vendor-supplied metadata and subscription databases (the electronic content is basically the same for each library because it is licensed and retrieved from the vendor’s server), making special collections available is where libraries can still make a real difference. The things people can’t get from GoogleBooks, JSTOR or LexisNexis but only from your institution are worth focusing on. At the recent THATCamp Performing Arts at CUNY Graduate Center several sessions discussed the role of librarians, archivists and catalogers in making findable and providing access to underrepresented special material.

The session “Digital Documentation of the Creative Process” (notes) suggested a collaboration between performers and librarians for creating metadata together. This approach is also reflected in the name of a talk Vickie O’Riordan gave at this year’s ARLIS/NA annual conference, “The Creator as Cataloger: Shared Shelf and Faculty Collections”. Both users and the creators of the material themselves are more and more encouraged to contribute data to the cataloging process, thus harnessing their familiarity with the subject matter.

Amy Ballner and Siân Evans did research on art resources that don’t appear in mainstream databases or indexes (see their article “Alternative Access Models: Enhancing the Discoverability of Small Press and Avant-Garde Art Journals” published in Art Documentation v.3 2 no 1 Spring 2013, p. 20 – 32). They also stress the political dimension of cataloging: “Although often invisible to the average library user, metadata dictates the ways in which one searches for, finds, and accesses resource materials.” Notes on the session “Collaborative Cataloging in the Performing Arts” with links to relevant projects are here.

Partnerships between librarians and users as well as scholars, artists and performers whose works they manage and preserve have to be fostered in order to highlight the expertise of librarians and enhance the visibility of unique collections. Cataloging may be at the crossroads between merely managing licenses and really being involved in scholarship. By going beyond traditional resource description and discovery, the canon is challenged and the history of theatre, dance or art can be told from a more inclusive point of view that draws on more information than that represented in the usual indices or publications.

From union catalog to fusion catalog

The conference “Academic Librarian 3: The Yin-Yang of Future Consortial Collaboration and Competition” was held in Hong Kong at the end of last month. Presentations are now available, and I would like to draw your attention to one presentation about cataloging: “From union catalogue to fusion catalogue: how collaborative cataloguing might be initiated and implemented in the Hong Kong context” (PDF). Due to electronic resources and the accompanying vendor records, the union catalog, with its relatively uniform application of rules and standards, gets transformed into a “fusion catalog” with different cataloging rules and various levels of detail. This observation definitely resonates with what I’m dealing with at work right now, namely the integration of thousands of e-book records for an evidence-based selection model set up by one of the big university libraries we serve. The data comes from OCLC, in MARC (and created with a different set of cataloging rules), is subsequently converted into the German / Austrian format MAB and into the Aleph Sequential Format in order to be loaded into our catalog. They are not the “prettiest” records but this is an efficient method of offering the users a large amount of content in a fast way. One more project that brought the Austrian union catalog closer to a “fusion catalog” is the big digitization undertaking by the Austrian National Library, “Austrian Books Online”, where not only books are scanned but also catalog cards which are then OCRed, automatically transformed into bibliographic records and batch-loaded into the catalog database.

So does this new “fusion catalog” with a blended mix of standards, formats, rules and detail affect the user at all? Or is it all hidden under the discovery layer anyway? Do we still really need and can we maintain the high level of consistency of the union catalog? The conference presentation gives some aspects of the lessons learned during the transition from union to fusion catalog, that is sometimes imperceptible to everyone but catalogers:


  • Following uniform cataloguing practices
  • Preferring a high level of consistency in bibliographic records


  • Bring in vendor records applying different cataloguing rules and various level of completeness
  • Accepting that ‘a minimal record [is more] beneficial to library users than no record at all’

Variations are inevitable

  • The ideal: Conform fully to one single cataloguing standard and to local conventions
  • In reality: different cataloguing data sets are blended together
  • Direct and immediate access to the needed library materials is more important to users than standard cataloguing records


  • When variations are accepted and catalogers are open to accepting differences in cataloguing practices”

With RDA on the horizon and with the perspective of having legacy data and new data sitting side by side, as well as data created following different RDA policy decisions for alternatives/options and cataloger’s judgments, if consortial and/or global shared cataloging is to continue we will finally have to say goodbye to our rather closed world-view and come to terms with a non-uniform, blended mixture of bibliographic information.

Cataloging as a function and its atomization

Talking about the consequences of self-publishing (by individuals and increasingly by entities like Provincetown Public Library) on the traditional publishing industry, Mike Shatzkin says : “Publishing will become a function of many entities, not a capability reserved to a few insiders who can call themselves an industry.” I wonder if this doesn’t apply to cataloging as well. Libraries used to have a monopoly on cataloging, but increasingly lose this status and find themselves relying on third-party records. Cataloging and metadata have become ubiquitous and are not reserved anymore to those with the arcane knowledge (on LibraryThing anyone can catalog with a simple web interface), but the library world still has a tendency to think we own and can prescribe the “perfect” bibliographic description (which after all is part of our identity and how we define ourselves as an “industry”). Another quote from Shatzkin’s article with parallels to cataloging and the library field: “This is the atomization of publishing, the dispersal of publishing decisions and the origination of published material from far and wide. In a pretty short time, we will see an industry with a completely different profile than it has had for the past couple of hundred years.”