Present & Future Challenges of Cataloging Special Collections Material: e-Forum Summary

This article was co-written by the e-Forum moderators.

On May 22–23, 2018, the ALCTS Continuing Education Committee hosted the e-forum “Present and Future Challenges of Cataloging Special Collections Material.” The discussion was facilitated by Becky Skeen (special collections cataloging librarian at Utah State University) and Gail Spears (poetry and literature cataloger at Emory University) and included over 225 messages posted by more than 70 participants.

Word cloud of e-Forum summary text

The e-forum started off with background questions, which established that that the group included workers from academic, special, and public libraries ranging in size from small to large. Many participants reside within technical services departments with only a few residing in special collections. Most of the respondents use Library of Congress (LC) and Dewey classification schemes, while others apply some type of local scheme or modified LC or Dewey classification.

Turning to current challenges of cataloging these materials led to discussions on various topics including time constraints, lack of prioritization, lack of staffing and training, and challenges of backlogs in these areas. Moreover, some respondents expressed concern that their administration did not see the significance of those materials for patrons.

Day two began with discussion on topics related to workflow. Most attendees indicated that when they started cataloging special collections materials, documentation was slim or non-existent, but many had been trying to change that and create or update procedures. When asked about the programs or tools besides OCLC Connexion and the integrated library system they used in their daily work most replied that the top tools included MarcEdit, OpenRefine, Classification Web, RDA toolkit, and OCLC Bibliographic Standards and Formats.

Another aspect discussed that day was professional development. Many participants agreed that keeping up with trends in the field was important, but also mentioned that they found it time-consuming and sometimes hard to accomplish. Furthermore, the majority of contributors stated that they do not get a lot of support from their organizations to travel or attend workshops or classes.

To wrap up the e-forum, the final two questions centered upon future challenges and opportunities of our work. Participants identified a wide range of future challenges, including personnel shortages, affordable training, usability and preservation of data found on obsolete formats, budget constraints for preservation of electronic information, and recruitment and retention of special collections catalogers.

As for opportunities, two responses that showed amazing insight. Robyn Russell of the University of Alaska Fairbanks emphasized:

Cataloging is really the key to decrypting the information—sometimes very valuable information—that is concealed inside our special collections materials. Cataloging equals access, usability, and visibility.

Likewise, Craig Haggit of Denver Public Library wrote:

With new technologies, we have the chance to present special collections in interesting and re-usable ways. This opportunity brings up another challenge to handle them in a way that allows that kind of re-purposing of digitized archival materials and special collections, but that’s where opportunity lies. And that’s also where there’s opportunity to show value in a new way to those who hold the pocketbooks!

To view the full e-forum transcript, please see the ALCTS e-forum archive.

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