The Status of Catalogers in Academic Libraries and Implications for Chinese American Librarians

Wendy Tan
Head Cataloger
Hunter College, The City University of New York
695 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10021

The Golden Age of Cataloging

Decades ago catalog librarians were the chief "designers" of library catalogs. The work flow which consisted of receiving items, doing authority work, cataloging, typing cards, processing materials, shelving materials, and filing cards, etc. was tedious and labor intensive, but there was not an alternative to this manual process. Accordingly, the operation of cataloging in each library must be massive and very expensive. However, this disadvantage did not make cataloging departments a target for budgetary reduction, because cataloging played a pivotal role for a successful library operation. To most administrators, catalog librarians and reference librarians were both pillars of library services.

The Revolution of Cataloging Process

With the introduction of OCLC and other national bibliographic utilities in 1970s and 1980s, sharing cataloging was made possible and getting more and more popular. This cooperative method was really a giant step toward modernization of cataloging, for it reduced staffing time as well as costs for each library. Meanwhile quantity and quality of cataloging have been improved enormously.

Therefore, it did not come as a surprise to know that clusters of public libraries centralized their cataloging services among branches or regions in the wave of this automation. As a result, this revolutionary approach of cataloging has eliminated a great deal of opportunities for catalogers in public libraries.

However, according to a research done by Getz and Phelps in 1984, the impact of computerized cataloging on staffing of academic libraries was relatively limited. If we make a conclusion, based on this particular research, that job availability for catalogers was not affected by library automation in academic libraries, the rationales for this outcome may be explained by the following scenarios. Original cataloging is still in great demand in most academic libraries because of rare materials. Also, academic libraries have the advantage of utilizing student manpower for routine work during "dark ages" or periods of power outage. So the effects of automation on the number of regular staff is minimal. Nevertheless, it has been known that whenever layoffs are unavoidable for a library, catalogers are often the targeted victims. Due to the benefit of information sharing, their contributions to library catalogs no longer carry such significance as before. Moreover, most catalogers feel they become secondary in the library to reference librarians.

The Emergence of Outsourcing

For the past three years, another "war" on cataloging has effected a wave of shakeup at cataloging community among academic libraries. It started out with a case at Wright State University Library. The then library director decided to do away with the cataloging department by outsourcing their cataloging to the OCLC Techopro service. The saving of the operational expense was, as the Director pointed out, about $250,000 for the first year. Following his announcement, considerable attention and heated debates have been directed toward outsourcing cataloging for academic libraries, and quite a few library administrators were eager to explore the possibility of contracting out their cataloging services. Although the concept that cataloging is a dispensable operation had been already in many people's minds ever since library automation was in place, the status of professional catalogers in academic libraries has been more seriously challenged with the emergence of outsourcing.

It is not far from the truth that creating a library catalog does not require as much professional knowledge as in the past because of the utilization of national bibliographic databases. To some extent, it is as simple as pressing a few computer keys. Consequently, some privately-owned cataloging agencies or book jobbers have been formed to provide cataloging services to libraries. Due to effective personnel management and efficiency in production, they are able to minimize their operational costs and thus charge a relatively low fee for services.

To ease the constraint of budgets, many library administrators favor this avenue of saving by contracting out cataloging services entirely or partially. Consequently, expressions such as demise of cataloging, merging of catalog departments, dying species etc. have been associated with this field. In my own perception, even though the importance of cataloging in academic libraries is diminishing, the threat of the advent of dooms day for catalogers in the academic world may not be imminent. Catalogers must continue to sharpen their skills and embrace necessary changes with positive attitudes. The change most catalogers have to cope with at this stage is addenda of responsibilities. It has been a common practice in many academic libraries that catalogers are required to do some reference work or bibliographic instructions (BI).

In general, catalogers are very adaptive and are able to adjust to new responsibilities and assume new roles. However, as a Chinese American librarian, I have greater concerns over the implications this trend has for this smaller community.

The Status of Chinese American Librarians

An analysis of Chinese American Librarians Association membership directories leads to the finding that, as I expected, a great majority of Chinese American librarians who have been working at academic libraries are in the field of technical services. Why are the career choices so lopsided to this area among Chinese American librarians? Perhaps there may not be a single reason for this phenomenon, but we can still formulate a logical assumption.

You do not have to be gifted to be a reference librarian or bibliographic instructor, but having a good command of English is the basic building block to the success of reference and teaching work. Needless to say that a majority of Chinese librarians are foreign born Americans. So English was learned as a second language after puberty. It takes them tremendous efforts to speak accent free English in order to compete with native-born Americans for the effectiveness of verbal communication. A great number of Chinese librarians are unable to overcome this language barrier and thus have fear of taking on the challenges in the reference job. Besides this obstacle, Chinese culture, with which Chinese children were brought up, tends to nurture an inward and shy personality which does not seem appropriate as a qualification for a reference librarian.

Furthermore, back in those old days, being a cataloger meant you could sit by your desk and do your work quietly all day. It was more important that you could present impressive monthly statistics than possessing excellent communication skills. Therefore, cataloging jobs welcome librarians with attributes which most Chinese librarians exhibit. Based on my experiences and observations on employers' viewpoints, Chinese librarians are not so favored in reference jobs due to reasons I have just brought up. In a sharp contrast, Chinese librarians have earned a lot of respect as catalogers or technical services librarians in academic libraries.

The above-mentioned reasons provide only a partial picture of explanations. Certainly there are those librarians who were determined to be catalogers based on their aptitudes. They could be very competent reference librarians, but they prefer not to deal with the public and have no desire in teaching at all. The addition of public services to their cataloging jobs, which are normally performed behind the scene in the back room, may well take away their interest of being a librarian.

Implications for Chinese American Librarians

An informal survey done with an Internet discussion group among American catalogers showed that several of them would consider to quit their jobs if they are asked to do some reference or BI work. If the survey were conducted among Chinese American librarians, the number of people willing to give up their job would be significantly higher.

In this ever-changing job market, what would the future hold for the catalogers and especially Chinese American librarians? Are we truly destined to be the dying species in academic libraries? I shall leave these momentous questions for my fellow librarians to muse upon.


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Copyright © 1996 Wendy Tan.
Submitted to CLIEJ on 18 March 1996.