Career Strategies for Librarians
Contract Cataloging in the 21st Century
by Jessie Bishop Powell

Living their professional lives in the library's technical services division, catalogers sometimes get a bad
rap for being reclusive. Lapel pins asserting that "Cataloging IS a public service" aside, catalogers get
stereotyped as the antisocial geeks in the back room, likely to send other librarians running for cover
with an alphabet soup of technobabble. That most catalogers are actually friendly and professional, just
like their colleagues at the reference and circulation desks, often goes unnoticed except in the closest of
library circles. Thus, the lives of contract catalogers, who work remotely—not even hiding out in a
technical services division—may seem even more out-of-touch to the unfamiliar.             

However, for many catalogers contract work is something of a coveted trophy, a position that mingles
professional satisfaction with personal convenience. J. McRee Elrod, founder of Special Libraries
Cataloguing, which employs some eighteen contract catalogers, notes Alvin Toffler's seminal work The
Third Wave (1980), which asserts that we will know the telecommuting age has arrived when rush hour
is gone. Elrod, taking stock of the cataloging rush hour, said "most [catalogers] are still brick and mortar.
But outsourcing and flex hours have made their impact on in-house work hours."1 Thus, contract
cataloging is still a growing field with room for more professionals, particularly as outsourcing becomes
more common in public libraries.             

But not all cataloging lends itself to contract work, and not all catalogers can telecommute. While it may
seem that all you need to become a contract cataloger is a computer with internet access, a quick look
into the field demonstrates that the resources and skills necessary for this job can be daunting. It
requires self-discipline and excellent communication skills, as well as the ability to shift gears from one
library’s set of specifications to another’s. Additionally, an investment of personal resources is required,
and contract catalogers must also be willing to network to drum up a consistent number of

From the cataloger's perspective, the greatest benefits come from a flexible schedule and adjustable
workload. Indeed, contract cataloging lends itself to being a part-time or a full-time career. Employers
enjoy the advantages of setting a project schedule and retaining employees for a set period without
providing workspace or healthcare benefits.  

However, to make contract cataloging successful for both employer and cataloger, there are significant
hurdles to overcome. To begin with, contract catalogers lack the on-site resources provided by most
employers to their in-house staff. The most expensive of these is MARC-editing software. The University
of Oregon's MarcEdit, authored by Terry Reese, is available for free, but even its greatest fans call it
quirky. Many contract catalogers choose instead to pay a hefty sum to a for-fee service to use less-
complicated software. The Library Corporation (TLC), for example, typically charges individuals $600 to
use its BiblioFile software. Some libraries provide telecommuting catalogers access to their databases
for the duration of a project, but this is not a long-term solution for catalogers working on multiple
projects simultaneously.            

In fact, all resources for the home-based cataloger must be self-supplied, and some can be quite
expensive. AACR2 alone, essential to any cataloger's library, costs nearly $100. OCLC offers its Dewey
cuttering software for free, but charges for print copies of the Dewey Decimal Classification tables and
access to WebDewey, an online version of DDC. The complete four-volume printed set of Dewey costs
$375; abridged Dewey (one volume) costs $99. An individual subscription to the complete WebDewey is
$290, and even Abridged WebDewey costs $80. Similarly, the Library of Congress offers Classification
Web to help catalogers assign the appropriate Library of Congress class number, Dewey Decimal
number, and Library of Congress subject headings for a piece, but its utility comes at a price. Solo users
are charged $375 annually for twenty hours a month of unrestricted access. A final useful—but
expensive—resource is the Library of Congress' Cataloger's Desktop, which costs $575 annually for an
individual user, and gives access to AACR2 and other frequently used resources, like the LCRIs (Library
of Congress Rule Interpretations). Some libraries or cataloging groups provide their remote employees
with access to these or similar services, but usage is expected to be limited to the specific library's

Besides the expensive nature of resources, another disadvantage to working from home is that the
cataloger must forge an extended support network to substitute for face-to-face interaction with
colleagues whose opinions are invaluable when struggling with complicated LCRIs and other quirks of
the job. AUTOCAT, the library cataloging and authorities discussion group, can help fill this void, offering
a sense of community with its ongoing discussions among catalogers from a wide range of
backgrounds. However, the list produces anywhere from thirty to seventy messages a day, and it can be
easy to get bogged down by the mail.  

Overcoming the Hurdles            

One of the most effective ways to overcome these problems is to work for a contract cataloging group,
which can provide its contract employees with benefits ranging from discounts on MARC-editing
software to a virtual community to ask project-specific cataloging questions. Such groups include
Marcnow, Library Associates, the Donohue Group, and Special Libraries Cataloguing (SLC).             

SLC, based in Victoria, British Columbia, was established in 1979 by J. McRee Elrod. It currently serves
about fifty clients and employs eighteen catalogers, most on a contract basis. But before you dash off a
resume to SLC, Elrod notes that "some [clients] are very tiny and occasional; some are special projects
which will end. The largest number of any one category are about 20 law firms."2 Indeed, groups like
SLC must juggle the number of catalogers with the number of available projects, a challenge that can be
quite difficult at times. For example, catalogers with specific knowledge, such as experience using
Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) or National Library of Medicine (NLM) classification, must be matched
with projects needing their skills. Additionally, contract cataloging projects can be disrupted by a number
of factors. Elrod points out that "arrangements are upset by such things as forest fires, childbirth,
holidays, projects which become more complicated than expected, etc.”3   

Where To Begin . . . And What To Expect            

Catalogers looking to move into contract work should begin with some very specific expectations. Expect
that it will take some time and networking to acquire contract work. There is not a guaranteed job base,
even for established contractors, and an updated resume will draw attention only when an employer
knows to look for it. Keep an up-to-date resume on file with the major contract cataloging groups and
post it on the Indiana Library Federation's contract cataloging registry, which helps match available
catalogers with organizations that need workers. Also watch AUTOCAT for contract cataloging
discussions and be sure employers know you are available to work.            

Your employer will provide you with the materials that need to be cataloged, but perhaps not with all of
the resources you will use in cataloging them. Thus, prepare for work as much as possible before you
even begin. If you plan to use MarcEdit, download it and begin using it so that you are familiar with its
quirks. If you are hoping to be hired by a cataloging group, you may want to wait and see if there is a
discount available from the group before spending a lot of money on subscription-based cataloging
resources. However, you can still decide which reference works you need (like AACR2) and buy them,
and which you will expect your employers to provide (like access to WebDewey or Class Web).
(Remember, some employers will expect you to provide everything.)             

When you do find work, expect to be tested. Employers will not necessarily take your credentials for
granted, even when you are swapping between projects in a group. You may need to submit test records
for every single project you work on, not only because employers need to feel confident about the quality
of your work, but because each project will have unique specifications. You will probably not be creating
"pure" MARC records that follow MARC21 and AACR2 to the letter. Instead, you will most likely be using
MARC and AACR2 guidelines to apply local standards to MARC records.            

Indeed, no matter how much MARC experience you have and how many formats you can catalog, you will
experience a learning curve at the beginning of a project. Sometimes, you will be copy cataloging,
modifying derived records to match local standards. Other times you will be cataloging from scratch.
Local requirements may include adding local fields like call numbers and holdings to the MARC record,
or even going against AACR2 and MARC standards to meet a specific need for a particular library.            

As the project progresses, you can expect to receive corrections to your work. Libraries need records to
meet their in-house standards, and they will regularly notify you of errors. Libraries are particularly
concerned with errors that prevent MARC records from being loaded automatically into their catalog. It is
very poor form to ignore a library's corrections. Disregarding corrections, or responding defensively to
them, is not a good way to keep a job!             

That said, a library may make a mistake and "correct" something done correctly, or at the very least,
exactly as the library requested it be done. When this happens, most librarians are willing to engage in a
dialogue to determine where the real error lies. Such conversations should be entered into politely and
with a respectful tone. More often, project specs can change after you have already begun cataloging.
This situation must also be handled gently, both by the cataloger and (hopefully) the library.            

Last but not least, expect the work to be temporary. Contract cataloging is, by its nature, a haphazard line
of employment. Catalogers need to control the number of projects they are doing at any given time so
that all deadlines are met. It is also important to keep an eye on completion dates so that new jobs can
be lined up as old projects end. Some contract cataloging actually takes place on-site at a library, but it is
also common to telecommute. When posting information to the Indiana Library Federation's database, it
is important to specify your availability level for this reason.


Contract cataloging requires a wide-ranging skill set and a great deal of flexibility, both from employers
and catalogers. The willingness to learn new (and sometimes complicated) cataloging skills is
essential, as is the ability to accept corrections gracefully. Most of all, contract cataloging requires
networking skills to find jobs and consistently high-quality work to keep them.

Contract Cataloging Groups (and the ILF Registry)

The Donohue Group

Library Associates


Special Libraries Cataloguing (SLC)

Indiana Library Federation (ILF) Contract Cataloging Registry http://www.ilfonline.

Useful Web Resources


Classification Web – $375 annually for a solo user

MarcEdit  – Free

WebDewey – $290 (full), $80 (abridged)

Useful Print Resources

American Library Association. Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, 2nd Ed. 2002 Revision, 2005 Update.
Chicago: ALA, 2005. ISBN: 0838935567

Chan, Lois Mai. Library of Congress Subject Headings: Principles and Application. 4th Ed. Westport, CT:
Libraries Unlimited, 2005. ISBN: 1591581567

Fritz, Deborah. Cataloging with AACR2 and MARC21: For Books, Electronic Resources, Sound
Recordings, Videorecordings, and Serials. 2nd Ed. Chicago: ALA, 2004. ISBN: 0838908845

Maxwell, Robert L. Maxwell’s Guide to Authority Work. Chicago: ALA: 2002. ISBN: 0838908225

Works Cited

Elrod, J. McRee. Personal interview. E-mail, 05/09/2007

Toffler, Alvin. The Third Wave. New York: William Morrow, 1980

About the Author:

Jessie Bishop Powell graduated from the University of Kentucky with master's degrees in English in
2000 and library science in 2001. She lives in Lexington, Kentucky, with her husband Scott, daughter
Caroline, and son Sam.

Article published Aug 2007

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.