Calling Melvil Dewey

To the dismay of many academics, Library of Congress makes catalog changes that will affect research libraries nationwide.
July 28, 2006

Efforts to simplify catalog systems at the Library of Congress may soon make scholarly research a lot more complicated. Many librarians argue that moves by the nation's oldest federal cultural institution could hinder the ability of professors and students nationwide to gather information.

In May, the library announced its first major change, which called for an end to the creation of “series authority records” as part of its classification system. These classifications -- used by most, if not all, top research institutions -- are meant to help scholars distinguish between different volumes of law, medical and other academic texts and journals. In effect, catalog records for new books will no longer indicate if they belong to a series.

College libraries have long been able to “cut and paste” such information from the Library of Congress into their own systems, but the task will now fall upon individual librarians to perform. Some academic librarians argue that the Library of Congress is forgetting its research-based mission of in an effort to save money -- at the same time creating costly and time-consuming work that will likely have to be performed at most colleges and universities.

“Most librarians rely on the Library of Congress cataloguing copy pretty much wholesale,” said Elaine Sanchez, a librarian at Texas State University at San Marcos. “They created the standard, which they are now deciding to undo.” She says that researchers will now be forced to do a lot more “hit or miss” searching, since many libraries can’t afford to employ staff to pick up the slack.

Sanchez, along with Robert Bratton, a librarian at George Washington University’s Law Library, recently created a petition rebuking the decision, which has been signed by nearly 3,500 individuals – many of them college librarians and researchers.

Officials with the American Library Association have also denounced the move. On Thursday, Lynne Bradley, director of ALA’s Office of Government Relations, submitted testimony to the Committee on House Administration, asking that the library’s leadership “rededicate itself  to cooperative cataloguing programs and cooperative standards efforts.”

Audrey Fischer, a spokeswoman with the Library of Congress, said Thursday that library officials were not prepared to talk about the controversy.

For some librarians, the March publication of a report commissioned by the Library of Congress has raised still more alarm bells. According to Karen Calhoun, a librarian at the Cornell University Library and author of the report, the document is intended to help librarians think about ways to make information more accessible in the digital age.

“[S]tudents and scholars routinely bypass library catalogs in favor of other discovery tools, and the catalog represents a shrinking proportion of the universe of scholarly information,” Calhoun wrote in the report’s executive summary. “The catalog is in decline, its processes and structures are unsustainable, and change needs to be swift.”

Among Calhoun’s recommendations:

  • Manage acquisitions and catalog data through batch processes; as much as possible, avoid working on one record at a time.
  • Identify local customization and record editing practices and eliminate them in favor of accepting as much cataloging copy as possible without review or modification.
  • Define fast turnaround and delivery of library materials to users as the gold standard of quality service, not the fullness of catalog data.

She also urged the Library of Congress to dismantle the long-used “Subject Headings” classification system, a method for grouping books with similar topics.

Thomas Mann, a reference librarian with the Library of Congress, has been especially critical of the report. He says that it draws unjustified conclusions about the digital age, inflates wishful thinking, fails to make critical distinctions, and disregards an alternative “niche” strategy for research libraries -- to promote scholarship rather than increase “market position.” He also believes that its goal is more about cost-saving than making libraries more user-friendly.

“[The report’s] recommendations to eliminate Library of Congress Subject Headings and use ‘fast turnaround’ time as the ‘gold standard’ in cataloging, are particularly unjustified,” he wrote in a recent opinion paper for the Library of Congress Professional Guild, an American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union. He believes that the suggestions would “have serious negative consequences for the capacity of research libraries to promote scholarly research.”

Nan Ernst, an archivist with the Library of Congress, believes that such changes, if carried out, would have a negative “ripple down” effect on college and university libraries.

“The traditional and primary function of libraries to focus on print publications is getting short-shrift,” Ernst said Thursday, “Everyone is excited about digital libraries, but a whole lot of important information could soon be lost.”


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