On the teaching of cataloguing

Few things have raised as much controversy in the normally quiet world of library/education as how, and why, we teach cataloguing. On the one side are those who mourn the decline of teaching of traditional style ‘cat and class’, fearing that we are denying our students one of the few undeniably unique skills of the information professions. On the other are those who see the subject as obsessed with minutiae, and having more than a whiff of the nineteenth century, and who applaud what they see as the positive and sensible integration of these topics into wider presentation of metadata and resource description.

So, especially as we are often asked about this by potential students, it seemed a good idea to set out briefly how, and why, we teach these subjects in the library/information courses at City University London.

Our approach is not primarily dictated by our views of cataloguing and associated issues per se; although, if pressed, we would probably have more sympathy with the latter of the above approaches. Rather, we start from the purpose of our courses: to provide an introduction to an academic subject, such that out students can go on to careers in a variety of professional settings, rather than to provide vocational skills training for a narrow career path. Also, we emphasise principles and concepts, to give a foundation to be built on through workplace training and experience, professional development and lifelong learning.

It is then fairly obvious that we take the view that, while it is essential that students gain an awareness of the principles of cataloguing and of resource description generally, it is not appropriate to include detailed instruction in any specific system or format. Partly this reflects the changing nature of library/information work: as Cristina Patuelli says in a 2010 paper in Journal of Information Science:“While cataloguing competencies remain central to the profession, traditional cataloguing duties, however they are defined, are less central to the organisation … the mission and duties of cataloguers have become increasing ambiguous”. Detailed cataloguing rules, originating in the world of print, must adapt to the new metadata world, an idea which a blog post by James Weinheimer examines.

Partly, our view also reflects that fact that the practical competences of traditional cataloguing, though still a relevant set of professional skills for some contexts and circumstances, are not really the stuff of Masters level education: as Maurice Line put, in typically robust fashion, “Cataloguers would lose much of their status if it were shown that most cataloguing is a trivial job easily done by clerical staff”.

And finally it reflects that fact that we have another institution in London providing a very through treatment of these issues in its Masters courses; we feel it more productive to offer an alternative approach.

So our approach emphasizes principles and concepts, rather than details and practices. We do not ignore the history: far from it, modern metadata cannot be understood fully without knowing something of Panizzi, Cutter, the Paris Principles and the rest. But we focus on the much wider contexts of modern resource description. Nor do we stick to theoretical principles; these cannot be understood without some clear examples. But we do not feel it appropriate to devote over-much time in a crowded course to extensive practice of skills which, in detail, will only benefit a small proportion of students for a relatively short period of time. Moreover, we do not attempt to treat cataloguing, or even ‘cat and class’, as an isolated topic, but rather to set it in the wider context of how we understand documents and information resources, and then how we represent and describe them.

This ‘principles not details’ approach is supported by the views of many employers, such as those expressed in articles in the Spring 2007 issue of Catalogue and Index. For example, Heather Jardine of the City of London libraries: “What [I want] is an intelligent candidate who understands the principles of cataloguing and indexing, and to whom I can therefore easily explain the ways in which we choose to apply them in our own situation”. And Alan Danskin of the British Library: “ What is needed is a principles based approach that looks at resource discovery holistically. Cataloguing has too often been concerned with the minutiae of the inputs … The curriculum should equip the student with the knowledge to ask the right questions about the resource they are cataloguing or the discovery system they are using.” We also persuaded a Masters student to do a dissertation surveying some of these issues, later published as a journal article.

So, we believe that we are providing, as best as we can within the confines of a one-year course, what a majority of students and of employers want in the treatment of this rather contentious subject. Of course – as with any topic on a postgraduate course – some students want to go beyond the basic provision; to look in more detail at specific cataloguing tools and codes, and to gain practice in their use. This they do through choice of assignments, electives and dissertation, and by general self-study. One positive effect of the diminution of formal cataloguing courses has been the advent of resources aimed at helping interesting students build on an introduction to basic principles. One example, which we enthusiastically recommend to our students is the excellent textbook by Anne Welsh and Sue Batley, which specifically aims to complement a ‘basic principles’ course.

Anyone interested in the City approach to teaching these subjects will find more details in a journal article and in our course brochure.

2 thoughts on “On the teaching of cataloguing”

  1. Really glad that you find Practical Cataloguing useful. Of course, it aims to support those new to cataloguing, whether taking a course at university or learning in the workplace. However, it would be disengenuous of me to claim it was written with solely a ‘basic principles’ course in mind: as the lecturer teaching at the other London university you kindly mention, it’s come from my general principles plus detailed practical instruction course, and will support the 20 hours of practical cataloguing we manage to fit into our syllabus (alongside 10 hours of theory).

    As Gorman says in his autobiography, at university, practical experience should support the learning of the principles. Personally, I believe to fully understand the principles of cataloguing some experience applying them in both easy and complex situations is required. I admire anyone who can understand (or teach) a principles-only course. I don’t know how to do it – the principles seem so easy and obvious until we are confronted with real world examples. Hopefully, Practical Cataloguing provides a few of these to ponder.

    Kindest and best,


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