Making the management of resources invisible and/or seamless is the goal of library automation. The people who manage the back end of this system, however, usually take some comfort in knowing that they have a common language with their fellow technical services librarians.
However, in my experience among the relatively comparable acquisitions and management processes that occur within large academic research libraries, I’ve clearly forgotten that the language that we use for work is dependent on the organizational structure, workflows, and systems used. These are highly dependent on the size of the collection and the organization.
Cataloging and metadata in a library catalog are perhaps the most sensitive to these contexts. My first few days at NISH were somewhat overtaken by having to discuss with the librarian how she was using terms like “Topic”, “Subject”, and “Keyword” in describing materials, and how there were being represented in the integrated library system’s (ILS) cataloging module. Of course, she also had to understand how I was using those terms. Back and forth we went – she showed me the terms in the ILS, I would show her the University of Michigan’s Mirlyn catalog – trying to provide each other with clarifying examples about what we meant by these larger levels of metadata. This was not merely about a prominent language barrier, but one of different institutional practices.
In the end, I think we dropped it because it was not entirely crucial to the work the GIEP fellows need to complete. Also, the truth is that the practice of cataloging should be very flexible, particularly within small institutions like NISH that are focused on a narrow set of subjects that require a different metadata structure.
NISH is an institution that is focused on researching the needs, education, and development of services for people with disabilities, particularly with those who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing. As such, the majority of the library’s collection is focused on topics like audiology and speech language pathology. However, they also want to expand and become more visible to outside researchers. Our project is an exploratory arm of that objective.
Confusion over cataloging/metadata terms highlights a tension between what NISH is right now and what NISH hopes to be. In order to become better integrated with what scholars around the world use in their research libraries, NISH’s online library catalog might need to amend some of its metadata practices to conform with international standards. Doing that, however, risks the possibility that NISH’s librarian and users have to use standards that are less familiar and therefore harder to use. This violates the mantra of user-centered design.
At the moment, I don’t have a solution. Cataloging practices in North American libraries cannot be imported wholesale within a 2-month period. Furthermore, I have no desire to inflict that on a solo librarian. However, it is interesting to note that the standards that this library is expected to conform to is primarily based on practices in large western research libraries. Using them will allow NISH’s collection to become more visible to outside users. However, this needs to be balanced against how patrons and managers of this library actually use the resources.