Career Strategies for Librarians
What’s So Special About Cataloging Special Materials?
by Douglas King
The variety of positions available to library school students who are considering a career in cataloging is
continuously growing. Interestingly, it is not just because of the exponential growth of born-digital and
digitized resources needing specialized and often-times complex metadata. Electronic resources, such
as CD-ROMs and e-books, and audiovisual materials, such as films and music CDs, are becoming an
increasingly large and important part of libraries’ holdings. Their use in classrooms is expanding,
greatly impacting school and university libraries’ collections. Public libraries as well are adding an
increasing number of films, sound recordings, audiobooks, and other electronic and non-print (so-called
“special”) formats for their communities’ use. It is important that these items are cataloged well,
because high-quality cataloging facilitates easy access to materials and information that patrons seek.
Whether the job title is Special Materials Cataloger, Non-Books Cataloger, Electronic Resources
Cataloger, or some other designation, the responsibilities are somewhat similar. This type of cataloger
works with a variety of non-book and/or non-print formats, which may include videos, CD-ROMs, maps, e-
books, online databases, sound recordings, electronic theses, microfiche, manuscripts, and much
more. As stated earlier, these non-traditional electronic paper formats are becoming increasingly
popular at both public and academic libraries. Special rules and standards are used to catalog these
materials, special policies and procedures are used to integrate them into a department’s workflow, and
special skills are needed to effectively catalog and process them.
I currently hold the position of Special Materials Cataloger at a large university. If I were ever asked what
a typical workday for me is like, I would reply something along the lines of, “There is no such thing as a
typical workday.” On any given day I may catalog DVDs, VHS tapes, music CDs, audiobooks, CD-ROMs,
e-books, online databases, and/or maps. But that is not all. On most days I spend merely a part of my
time with all these various materials, using the MARC format to add records to the library’s local catalog
and physically process them so that they may be added to the collection and accessed by patrons. The
other part of most days is spent with the Digital Activities Librarian, discussing metadata creation for
digitized resources such as photographs, maps, and manuscripts, using the Dublin Core element set to
describe these materials. I deal with such disparate concepts as copyright issues, lending policies,
proxy servers, and image scanning quality. No cataloging course prepared me for all this. My cataloging
classes were indispensable to my early development as a professional cataloger, but I was forced to
learn quickly on the job how to juggle various formats and cataloging schemes. One of my favorite
aspects of my position is its inherent variety. The challenges I face on a daily basis are another aspect
of my job that keeps my career interesting, enjoyable, and rewarding.
Some traits that will help one become a successful cataloger of special materials include:
Versatility – In many cases the cataloger will work with more than one cataloging scheme. For instance,
I catalog audiovisual materials, maps, e-books, CD-ROMs, sound recordings, and online databases
using the MARC format. However, I catalog digital resources using the Dublin Core metadata standard.
At your institution you may use more than “just” two schemes. It is important that you become
comfortable with, and knowledgeable about, a variety of schemes. Know the differences and similarities
between them, and don’t ever get them mixed up. Do your research and keep up with developments in
the world of digital librarianship.
Knowledge of Appropriate Technology – This doesn’t mean you must become a computer expert
because you catalog CD-ROMs or e-books, but it is advisable that you become comfortable using
computers and know what they can and cannot do. You’ll also want to acquire an understanding of
basic computer terminology. Plus, learn the nuances of media players such as stereos, VCRs, and
Intellectual Curiosity – All librarians should already be entering the profession with a healthy dose of
intellectual curiosity, but this is an especially important trait when working with emerging and unfamiliar
Ability to Work Well With Others – Again, this is a trait any librarian or librarian-in-training should
possess, but as a special materials cataloger you will frequently find yourself working with personnel
from other departments within the library (for instance, acquisitions staff or archives/special collections
staff) and outside the library (such as film department professors). Be sure to remember that not
everyone will have the same level of library expertise you have, but they will possess knowledge and
abilities that will help you in your position as a cataloger.
Leadership – You will become the library’s resident “expert” on a multitude of formats and cataloging
schemes, so know your stuff and be confident that you are adding an important element to the library.
Play a leadership role in whatever way your library’s culture will allow. This may include impacting
purchasing and lending policies, two important aspects of special materials cataloging.
OK, so you have, or are committing to developing, the traits outlined above. You are halfway to becoming
a successful special materials cataloger. The following words of advice may help you on your path to
Further Your Education – This means attending continuing education workshops. These can be a
wonderful way to learn how to catalog unfamiliar formats, as they are often taught by practitioners who
know what happens in the real world of cataloging. On a personal note, attending workshops is how I
learned the skills needed to effectively catalog audiovisual materials and sound recordings, and it
greatly enhanced my knowledge of cataloging maps. There is a wealth of manuals and guides
available, both in print and on the web, but nothing beats face-to-face interaction with an experienced
trainer. Attend workshops, ask questions, and take notes. More often than not, the instructor will gladly
welcome questions you will undoubtedly have once you return to work and start cataloging new formats.
Attending workshops is well worth it, even if your institution will not cover the costs.
Keep Up With Trends – Needless to say, technology changes, new formats are invented, and cataloging
rules change. For instance, the DVD is everywhere, but it is a relatively new invention. Also, it wasn’t
long ago that popular metadata schemes such as Dublin Core did not exist. Furthermore, it is important
to keep an eye on the upcoming new version of AACR2 (Anglo-American Cataloging Rules, 2nd Edition).
As of this writing, it is due for publication in 2007 under the tentative title of Resource Description and
Access. The revised rules will have an enormous impact on MARC cataloging of non-book materials.
Believe In the Educational and Recreational Value of Special Materials – This sounds corny, but it really
is important to believe in the value of the items you are cataloging. It will inspire you to create accurate,
thorough bibliographic records that provide appropriate and correct access points to help users find the
materials and information they are seeking.
Get Started Early – Take as many cataloging classes in library school as you can. Also, take courses on
computers in librarianship and any other technology-related courses. In addition, try to get practical
experience by working as an intern in a cataloging department, or at least offer to volunteer at a nearby
library, and ask to assist with cataloging or processing whatever format(s) interest you. It is very likely
that your offer of assistance will be met with tremendous applause, once the librarians’ shock
subsides. You may be “stuck” performing database clean-up projects, but any chance you get to look at
and edit records will be beneficial to your professional development. You really can’t beat experience,
especially when trying to secure your first professional position.
Rely on Experts – As in any other profession, there are a number of experts in the world of special
materials cataloging, and it is highly recommended that as you begin to learn how to catalog unfamiliar
and emerging formats, you rely on the advice of these experts. There are a surprisingly large number of
practical and helpful manuals and guides available, many written by names you will come to know and
love. For example, names such as Jay Weitz, Nancy B. Olson, Verna Urbanski, and Mary Beth Weber will
become familiar as you explore the available literature. These catalogers and authors write from
experience. Take advantage of it by reading articles and books on both the theory and the practice of
Take Advantage of OLAC – I cannot stress enough how helpful an organization OLAC (Online
Audiovisual Catalogers) has been to my career and professional development. Even now, after several
years of experience cataloging a wide variety of materials, I still find myself leaning heavily on OLAC
members for advice and support. OLAC, despite its name, is not just for catalogers of audiovisual
materials. It is for anyone who catalogs the special formats mentioned throughout this article, even
digital resources for which metadata standards apply. The organization’s website <ublib.buffalo.
edu/libraries/units/cts/olac> features an enormous collection of practical and useful resources that will
undoubtedly make your job, and thus your life, easier. The online membership list provides members
with invaluable contacts, and the book reviews inform catalogers of the wide variety of manuals, guides,
and other print and non-print resources that are available. OLAC conferences are an affordable and
enjoyable way to network with others who have similar positions, and thus face the same sort of
challenges, issues, and frustrations.
I firmly believe that this is a wonderful time to be a cataloger. Technology is rapidly changing, making
our jobs and lives both easier and more complex, and the need for access to non-book materials in
libraries has never been greater. Universities are utilizing multimedia resources in their classrooms at
an increasing rate, and rare and fragile papers items are being digitized for safer and easier access, as
well as improved long-term preservation. Catalogers are needed now more than ever to describe and
process these crucial cultural and educational resources. As a well-educated, talented, and creative
cataloger with the ability to seamlessly shift from one cataloging scheme to another and an
understanding and appreciation of emerging technologies, your career will be enormously rewarding
and enjoyable. You will have a positive impact on your profession, your institution, and your career.
About the Author:
Douglas King has been Special Materials Cataloger at Thomas Cooper Library, University of South
Carolina since November 2004. Prior to becoming a Gamecock, Doug held cataloging positions at
Georgia Tech and the University of South Florida. He earned his MLIS in 2000 from the University of
Article published Oct 2005
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