Career Strategies for Librarians
The Renaissance Librarian:
Catalogers Working in Public Services
by Douglas King
About five years ago, just as I was entering library school, I was given a simple but sage piece of advice
from a trusted colleague: "Become a cataloger." Taking this advice has led me down a rewarding and
exciting career path. I am one of those crazy folks who enjoy filling my brain with concepts such as MARC
records, Library of Congress subject headings, Dublin Core element sets, and yes, even the dreaded
SuDoc classification system. However, a cataloger's life can be an insular one, with nothing but a
computer and incoming library items to keep you company, so a few years into my professional career, I
decided to "cross the line" and step boldly into the world of public services by working a few regularly
scheduled hours at a public access point, and offering to help at the desk whenever needed. I love my
cataloging duties and have absolutely no regrets, but there’s more to life than MARC, right? I understand
that cross-training is rare in many academic libraries (and possibly public and special libraries as well),
especially when it comes to catalogers branching out into other departments. Technical services
librarians working “desk hours” is a hot topic in librarianship, but frankly I have never understood what is
so controversial about trying to be as well-rounded a librarian as possible. Basically, I consider myself a
librarian first and a cataloger second, and I have discovered just how rare that is.
A cataloger can receive many professional and personal benefits from working at any public access
point in their library, including the Reference desk or, in my case, the Archives help desk. These benefits
You gain the patron's perspective of the catalog. This is immensely valuable to a cataloger. By helping
patrons search the catalog and interpret records, you get a feel for what they find is important and helpful
in a record, and what is extraneous or confusing. Also, to be honest, by helping patrons I have noticed a
number of typos and other inaccuracies in records, which I later fix once I return to my desk.
You learn about the library's collection and policies. This has been especially fun in Archives, which
holds my library's most interesting collections, including many historic photographs of the campus and
artifacts such as old football uniforms and memorabilia from the '96 Summer Olympics. As a cataloger, I
work almost exclusively with brand new incoming items such as books, DVDs, and maps; so I was
pretty much oblivious to the treasure trove of interesting items in Archives. Furthermore, you really get a
grasp of the library's rules and policies when you share and interpret them to patrons. I am constantly
learning all sorts of facts about the institution for which I have worked for over three years.
You observe firsthand what other departments do, and how they operate. While I am very happy as a full-
time cataloger, I may one day want to work in another department permanently. Working in Archives and
Reference has given me a feel for what it’s like to be a Reference Librarian or an Archivist -- almost like a
You demonstrate initiative. In addition to showing initiative to colleagues and management, you
demonstrate a strong interest in the library field. Even if you plan on being a cataloger for the remainder
of your career, a variety of skill sets and experiences demonstrate a well-rounded library professional.
Diverse experience is impressive on a resume. If you ever find yourself job searching, you will want
demonstrable skills in a variety of areas. Working with the public gives you hands-on experience in both
the technical and interpersonal aspects of reference. This leads me to my sixth point…
You avoid being pigeonholed. You won’t want to become known as someone who can only catalog
books, or only check-in serials, or whatever the case may be. Personally, I take pride in my ability to
communicate with patrons and help them find the information they are seeking. I believe we all know the
unfortunate stereotype that follows catalogers around. If not, here’s how fellow LIScareer.com contributor
Richard A. Murray put it: “… the hermit hiding in the bowels of the library shackled to an OCLC terminal
all day, counting pages and measuring the heights of books.” He adds that people often think that “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.” Not very flattering, is it?
You get a break from your routine. Let’s face it—cataloging can be difficult, redundant, and yes, even
tiresome, work. Sitting alone in front of a computer terminal with nothing to keep you company except
books, DVD’s, maps, etc. can wear a person out, even the hardiest and most dedicated cataloger.
Working with the public for an hour a day or a few hours a week gives you a breather, and allows you the
opportunity to actually miss your usual work. When you return to your stack of items to be processed and
cataloged, you’ll feel reinvigorated and actually excited. You don’t want to get burned out early in your
career, do you?
It can lead to other valuable opportunities. Networking with library colleagues, being in the public
services spotlight, and demonstrating how competent, personable, eloquent, and trustworthy you are
can lead to committee appointments and opportunities to work on special projects.
Finally, you’ll do your part to end the age-old cataloging vs. reference discord. Can someone please
explain to me why cataloging and reference staff members often do not get along? That concept is more
confusing to me than XML tagging.
Before you take the plunge and start working at public access points (and I hope you do), please
consider the following pieces of advice:
Openly communicate with your supervisor about your interest in working in other departments and get
his or her approval. You want to make sure that your supervisor fully supports your desire to cross train
and work in public services. Also, you may want to add the new responsibilities to your official job
Speak with the public service department head as much as possible before you begin working at the
desk. Of course you’ll need that person’s approval, but it is also a good idea to learn the history of so-
called “outsiders” helping out. If you are the first non-reference-department employee to work at the
Reference desk in a while, you will want to know why.
Arrange a reasonable schedule—one that you, your supervisor, and the public service department head
can abide by. You won’t want to schedule a block of time in which you’re likely to have committee
meetings or other responsibilities. Also, be honest with yourself and consider your workload and your
interest in reference work. It’s possible that taking a few hours a week away from your current duties
might not fit into your schedule. Work with both supervisors to come up with a desk schedule with which
all are happy.
If possible, schedule more than one hour per week at a public access point. From personal experience I
can attest that to really get into a reference state of mind you need to work at least three hours per week,
preferably in chunks of time larger than one hour. If this isn’t possible, one hour is certainly better than
none. If you only work one hour per week (my original arrangement, which didn’t suit me), it may be
difficult to retain what you’ve been taught. Also, if you work in a slow area or during a slow time of day,
you may only assist one or two patrons in that one hour. That just isn’t enough.
Get fully trained. Just as you wouldn’t want to be asked to catalog incoming materials without first being
taught how to catalog them, you won’t want to face patrons without first getting trained. Many libraries will
have a well-established training program for Reference staff. Take full advantage of this. On a related
note, find a respected, experienced mentor in the department. Ask questions of colleagues and/or refer
questions when you are unsure of the answer.
Be sure to dress appropriately on days when you are interacting with the public. The dress code, officially
or unofficially, might be different for catalogers and reference staff at your library. You always want to
“look the part,” especially when dealing with the public.
Do it only because you want to (or, needless to say, because you have to). Don’t feel pressured to work
desk hours just to avoid the common cataloger stereotype. If you want to branch out but not work at a
public access point, ask your supervisor what opportunities for diversifying exist at your library, and
speak with other department heads.
Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t like it after you’ve tried it. Reference work isn’t for everybody. Many
wonderful librarians NEVER work directly with patrons. Therefore, if you do not enjoy the experience,
discuss the situation with your supervisor and the public service department head. However, don’t quit
working with the public after just one or two bad experiences. There will be times when you’ll feel
embarrassed or out of your element. No one said working with the public is easy. You’ll want to stick with
it until you become a seasoned pro.
To conclude, interacting with patrons face-to-face reminds me of why I became a librarian in the first
place. Spending seemingly countless hours constructing and editing catalog records in near-isolation
can make one feel disconnected from library users. Helping patrons by providing accurate and thorough-
but-concise catalog records is rewarding and fun, but nothing that happens in my library’s “grotto” (as I
lovingly refer to it) can top the experience of a face-to-face, or even phone, interaction with a living,
breathing library patron. So, if you are a cataloger and you get a hankering for working with people and
seeing smiling faces rather than lifeless cover pages and DVD cases, realize that opportunities do exist.
Yes, fellow catalogers, it IS possible to do both reference and cataloging work, and to do them both well.
Murray, Richard A. “The Whimsy of Cataloging.” LIScareer.com, Feb 2002. http://liscareer.
About the Author:
At the time of writing, Doug was Catalog Librarian at Georgia Institute of Technology's Library and
Information Center. Since November 2004 he has worked as Special Materials Cataloger at the
University of South Carolina's Thomas Cooper Library. He received his MLS in 2000 from the University
of South Florida.
Article published Dec 2003
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.