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Ten Essential Qualities for Success: A New Cataloging Librarian’s Guide from a Supervisor’s Perspective

by Myung Gi Sung on June 26, 2013

A cataloging librarian’s job description is different from institution to institution, depending on specific needs. These descriptions range from managing a department to supervising copy catalogers or student workers to even working in reference. In this article, a cataloging librarian is defined as a librarian who has an MLIS or MLS degree and catalogs without managerial or supervising duties. His or her primary responsibilities are to prepare bibliographic records to represent items acquired by the library and to provide efficient access and retrieval for catalog users.

During my career as a librarian and, in particular, as a supervisor, I interviewed many candidates for the position of cataloging librarian. Few were prepared to answer the question, “What are the essential qualities of a successful cataloging librarian?” The most popular response given was “detail oriented.” While the very nature of working as a cataloging librarian requires comfort in managing detailed tasks, there exist many more qualities essential to an effective and efficient cataloging librarian. The following ten qualities will help you achieve success in cataloging.

1. Competence

There is nothing more important in cataloging than professional knowledge; this includes theoretical background as well as technical skills for cataloging. Knowledge of cataloging tools is a must-have. Basic cataloging tools include the following:

  • Anglo-American Cataloging Rules, 2nd edition (AACR2) and/or Resource Description & Access (RDA)
  • MARC 21 Formats for Bibliographic Data
  • WebDewey and/or printed Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC)
  • Library of Congress Classification (LCC)
  • Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH)
  • Library of Congress Subject Cataloging Manual (LCSCM)
  • OCLC Bibliographic Formats and Standards
  • Library of Congress-Program for Cooperative Cataloging Policy Statements (LC-PCC PSs)
  • Library of Congress Name Authorities
  • CONSER Cataloging Manual (for Serials)

A cataloging librarian must not only know how to use these tools and this knowledge, but also how to keep abreast of the latest changes and updates. Cataloging tools and rules change regularly to reflect or accommodate changes or new developments. Reading professional publications is helpful for learning about updates and changes in cataloging tools and building plans to keep up with them.

Understanding whole functions of the integrated library system (ILS)—that is, relationships between cataloging, serials control, circulation, online public access catalog (OPAC), and acquisition functions—is necessary to create the most useful records for catalog users. Understanding the cataloging module inside and out is a key requirement. Does the cataloging module provide effective authority control? Does the cataloging module allow input of detailed holdings and status information? Does the cataloging module provide for indexing on any bibliographic fields or subfields for searching? The answers to these questions are helpful in learning and mastering the cataloging module.

Knowing how to use one national bibliographic utility (e.g., OCLC or Skyriver), including the authority file, is another requisite skill. Understanding the relationship between AACR2/RDA and MARC coding is important for creating original bibliographic records in the bibliographic utility. Also important is being familiar with the criteria for deciding when to contribute a new record to the bibliographic utility to avoid duplicate records and unnecessary efforts.

2. Accuracy

In the Internet Age, searching the library catalog is essential. Accurate inputting of item descriptions and access points in the record that can accurately represent an item is necessary for effective retrieval by catalog users.

Typos and MARC coding mistakes in the bibliographic record affect searching results in the OPAC. Some mistakes in the item record affect an item’s loan period or location information. Typos in call numbers affect patrons’ browsing and staff’s shelving. It often requires relabeling spine labels. Inaccuracies from typos and other mistakes in the bibliographic or item records create extra work for the staff to fix them. Correcting mistakes is very expensive but will be avoided if the job is done correctly the first time. Furthermore, while the staff is correcting the mistakes, patrons are inconvenienced by the unavailability of an item. Accurate keyboarding skills are necessary for inputting information in the records correctly. Every effort should be made to avoid mistakes in editing or inputting information in the records.

3. Efficiency

No library has an unlimited budget. Most libraries are nonprofit organizations and are responsible for spending money effectively and efficiently instead of focusing on generating revenues. Accordingly, cost-effectiveness in cataloging should be pursued; a cataloging librarian should have a strong sense of economy in cataloging and provide the best quality record for the least cost. A cataloging librarian needs to be cognizant of increasing efficiency while cataloging as well as of the factors that can affect the achievement of these goals.

The method for editing records matters. These days, to save cataloging time and cost, most cataloging librarians utilize the records from a bibliographic utility by editing its records according to the institution’s needs. As an editing method, screen editing (editing live) should be used instead of paper editing (writing out copy to be edited later) because paper editing is very costly and inefficient (see the article “Increasing Technical Services Efficiency to Eliminate Cataloging Backlogs”).1 Utilizing macro functions and shortcuts not only eliminates the repetition of steps, but also reduces the amount of time typing entries. The method for editing records should be reassessed periodically. The editing method that minimizes costs and maximizes efficiency should be utilized.

Workflow and procedures also affect efficiency. Materials should not be handled more than once. The cataloging tasks should be prioritized by urgency and record availability from a bibliographic utility. Creating and utilizing reference cheat sheets for repeatedly used classification numbers helps expedite the process of classifying without always having to use the classification tool. It is necessary to constantly assess workflow, eliminate redundant or unnecessary procedures or steps, and maintain an efficient workflow for expediting the process of cataloging to deliver materials to patrons in a timely manner.

Time-management and organizing skills affect efficiency. In addition to the regular cataloging workload, a cataloging librarian handles projects. These include reclassification, record maintenance, and elimination of backlog. To complete the project by the deadline, effective management of the workload and working hours based on priority is highly valuable. Serious planning and effort should be made to develop strong time-management and organizational skills.

4. Consistency

Consistency is a key factor in organizing the library collection. The cataloging rules and standards should be applied consistently to provide a consistent level of cataloging quality. The classification numbers and subject headings should be assigned while considering the collection as a whole to provide and maintain subject consistency and uniformity throughout the library collection. Standardization of descriptions and construction of access points should be done consistently as far as possible to increase the ability to share bibliographic and authority data.
When national cataloging rules, tools, and standards cannot accommodate all the needs of your specific community, a cataloging librarian needs to establish local policies or practices. These local policies, rules, and procedures need to be well documented for consistency and continuity within the library collection from current to future processes.

Consistency comes from the cataloging librarian’s logical and consistent mind-set. Cultivating and strengthening the logical and consistent mind-set is necessary because it affects the integrity and organization of the whole library collection.

5. Adaptability

The library world is changing more rapidly than ever, especially in terms of technology and workflow. Libraries often will implement a new ILS or upgrade it. This usually provides new features and enhancements and often requires changes in the existing workflow. A cataloging librarian should be flexible enough to quickly unlearn the old ways and learn how to use the new features and enhancements of the system while being flexible enough to adopt new workflows for better productivity.

What counts as a sufficient reason to do something in one setting may not count in another setting. Decisions need to be revisited and reviewed as needed. Cataloging procedures and policies can be changed to reflect new decisions or to provide better service for patrons. The amount of materials ordered fluctuates throughout the fiscal year according to availability and library budgets. The formats of library materials ordered change according to the demands and needs of the community and demographic changes. All these changes affect the cataloging librarian’s workflow and workload. Being aware of, and understanding, these changes in the department and library help the cataloging librarian adapt to the new workflows and workload easily.

6. Judgment

In assigning subject headings and classification numbers, applying cataloging rules, and inputting information into the ILS using MARC format, many issues arise causing uncertainty and ambiguity. These issues are not always easily dealt with and require good judgment.

Cataloging rules and standards are precoordinated. In original cataloging, there is a great deal of interpretation in trying to fit actual contents within the scope of existing subject headings, classification, and cataloging rules. AACR2 and MARC were established a long time ago when we did not have online and digital materials. Even though they were revised many times, they do not cover every possible scenario. Cataloging judgment is needed where “if in doubt,” “if appropriate” or “supply” is presented in the cataloging rules and standards. A cataloging librarian should be comfortable making good judgments in handling gray areas and differences in interpretation of cataloging rules and standards. Good judgment based on logical reasoning and cataloging principles is necessary.

There are many resources that provide good examples and explanations to help support making good judgments in cataloging—LC-PCC PSs, LCSCM, Cataloger’s Judgment,2 and Maxwell’s Handbook for AACR2,3 for example. Also, other cataloging librarians’ wisdom or judgments can be obtained by joining electronic discussion lists such as OLAC-L and the AUTOCAT electronic discussion list.

7. Problem Solving

In implementing cataloging rules and standards, a cataloging librarian faces many issues with practicality or causing inconvenience to patrons. Cataloging rules and classification are evolving systems, so there are always periodic updates. A cataloging librarian should be comfortable in deciding what or how much to implement from the updates for his or her library. He or she also should be comfortable in deciding how to achieve the optimal balance both between quality and quantity and between consistency and flexibility.

Problem-solving skills based on logical reasoning are necessary to resolve small and big issues of practicality in cataloging. A cataloging librarian needs to be able to see the big picture of a collection to find long-term solutions, not just quick fixes. The solutions should be cost effective, realistic, practical to implement, and convenient and easy for patrons. If a library is a part of a consortium, the consortium’s cataloging policies and rules should be considered in finding solutions. Sometimes some exceptions to cataloging rules need to be considered to provide convenience for library patrons.

Once the solutions are found and decisions are made to implement them, following through with them is important. It is also important to have the professional courage to fix or change course right away if there are mistakes in the solutions or decisions made.

8. Commitment

Supervisors want a cataloging librarian who seeks a challenge and tries to exceed expectations. He or she should be willing to find answers to a question about cataloging or to find a solution to a problem. A strong sense of responsibility to perform at the highest level should be cultivated. Striving to be known for excellence brings not only success on the job but also satisfaction and fulfillment.

A cataloging librarian should periodically review the job description and technical requirements and work to improve or enhance his or her abilities. A continuing commitment to do the best job is necessary for more productive cataloging.

A cataloging librarian needs to have a good understanding of the documented local procedures, policies, and practices in cataloging to provide consistency throughout the collection and for future use. However, documentation alone does not result in productive cataloging. Memory plays an important role in increasing productivity in cataloging. A cataloging librarian should make a continuing commitment to remember local procedures, policies, practices, and cataloging rules until they become automatic, allowing him or her to be more productive in cataloging.

9. Research Ability

The growth and development of the library profession depends on extensive research. Research is an important tool for advancing knowledge. A cataloging librarian deals with and organizes a variety of subject areas. He or she needs to systematically research the subjects, terminologies, and languages that he or she is not familiar with. The ability to find the information necessary to solve problems and make decisions is useful. Being familiar with research guides and reference resources, whether printed or online, and having research skills are helpful for doing authority work or classification and subject analysis.

10. Self-Discipline

The honor system is the best system. Self-control is the best control. Self-monitoring one’s own work ethics and habits and inspecting one’s own work is the best quality control. A cataloging librarian should have ownership of his or her work.

The self-motivated plan is the best plan. A cataloging librarian should develop his or her own daily, weekly, and monthly plans to increase cataloging productivity. He or she should set up his or her own short- and long-term professional career development plans or programs to improve and maintain professional knowledge in cataloging. Investing for the future is crucial to success in any career.

The work of the cataloging librarian is to examine physical items or electronic resources to be cataloged. It involves repetitiveness of scanning or typing and sitting and reading a computer screen for extended periods. Sometimes this can cause health problems. It is important to take care of one’s health to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome, back pain, or eye problems. To be more productive, the workstation should be configured to support neutral body positioning and facilitate a comfortable posture.

A cataloging librarian has coworkers, but most of the time works alone and independently. He or she needs to be comfortable working alone independently, not easily distracted by background noise, and able to concentrate on his or her own work. Conclusion Success as a cataloging librarian requires a commitment to acquire and maintain professional knowledge in cataloging and maintain high productivity in both quality and quantity. The roles and duties of the cataloging librarian are important because circulation and reference staff and patrons rely on and use the information that a cataloging librarian inputs into the ILS. He or she needs to make diligent and systematic efforts to input the data in the ILS accurately so it can be easily searchable by catalog users. Periodically ask yourself, “Do I have the essential qualities for this position?” and commit to doing all the things that would enable you to answer yes. Good luck on your cataloging librarian position!


  1. Myung Gi Sung, “Increasing Technical Services Efficiency to Eliminate Cataloging Backlogs,” Public Libraries 43, no. 6 (Nov./Dec. 2004): 347.
  2. Jay Weitz, Cataloger’s Judgment (Westport, Conn.: Libraries Unlimited, 2004).
  3. Robert L. Maxwell, Maxwell’s Handbook for AACR2 (Chicago: ALA, 2004).


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