October 10 2016

Mechanics, voodoo, and the library catalogue: reflections on information organisation

Running a library can be an overwhelming business. The depth and complexity of the task at hand is one that is not to be undertaken lightly, and a cornerstone of this library management task is the provision of a system by which library users can locate and access the resources that we work so hard to curate in our collections – the ubiquitous library catalogue.

I must admit, when I first took over the role at Evans High School almost three years ago, I took the catalogue for granted. It was there, running away quietly on its delightfully outdated DOS based system. I complained about its quirks, the blue screens of death that plagued it, and its unwillingness to allow me to use my lego mouse in order to navigate my way around it, but I didn’t really consider what was there, beyond just a database of the stuff we had. In 2015, we transitioned to Oliver as our library management system, and my interest in the library catalogue shifted gears, as I started to gain a more complete understanding of what it could do for our staff and students.

I still took the back end pretty much for granted though. We are a NSW DoE school. SCIS do our catalogue entries for us. I love them for that, and have had, on occasion, the need to contact them to query a specific entry, or to clarify why certain classifications have been assigned the way they have. The SCIS Wizards have always been amazingly helpful, and incredibly knowledgeable. And I just accepted the black magic they weave on our system, providing us with the spells to import the information we need, which just appeared like voodoo magic on the screen.

Cue ETL505, aka “My Semester of Horror.” I’ve struggled.  I’ve bemoaned ad nauseum – “why do I have to do a subject which teaches me how to do something that I’m actively discouraged from doing in my job as a TL? Why do you hate me so, CSU? Why???”

But then, I put on my big girl pants, reminded myself that I’m a responsible adult, and just got on with it. I worked my way through Ferber. No, wait – FRBR. The Functional Requirements of Bibliographic Records (IFLA, 1998) outline what you need in your catalogue entries in order for those entries to be useful. And, I have to say, it’s something I’d not considered. I just assumed that all that voodoo SCIS did made it work for me. Hider (2012) held my hand as I fell down the rabbit hole of resource description, and Manifold unpacked for me my ETL505 mantra – Metadata. Metadata. I repeat it because it’s a cool word to say, like a meditative “Om”.

So, the answer to my “why” questions? I mean, the one about “why I need to do this” – I’ve made peace with the fact that CSU doesn’t really hold a grudge against me. One of the goals of libraries is to provide users with access to information. That’s pretty straightforward, right? Students come in looking for a book to read, or some information about an assignment they are completing, and we help them find what they need. Ensuring that users are able to access the information they require is essential (Hider, 2012), and the systems we have in place to facilitate this information organisation are critical to maximising the benefits for users of our library service. It matters not how great our collection is, if people can’t find what they need!

I found the RDA Toolkit (American Library Association, 2010) to be a challenging experience. I found developing an understanding of the standards for SCIS subject headings (ESA, 2015) to be a challenging experience. I found WebDewey (2015) to be a challenging experience. (Sensing a theme here?) But what I also found in these experiences was a deeper understanding of the voodoo of cataloguing. I used the analogy recently to that of figuring out how a car works. Before I separated from my husband, he took care of all that stuff under the hood – I put in petrol, and turned the key. When I could no longer rely on his assistance, however, I had to figure it out for myself. I sorted out where the oil and coolant went, and why they were important. I had discussions with my mechanic about what that mysterious ticking noise was, and was even able to make some educated guesses about what might be wrong. And I gained a much better understanding on how things worked and why.

It’s been like that with this subject. Previously, I just relied on things to work in my library catalogue, and I called on the experts to sort it out when it didn’t. Now, with a greater understanding of the requirements of resource description, subject headings, and Dewey Decimal Classification, I can make my own educated guesses about where things belong, and how they should be described in order to provide effective access points for our students. I feel increasingly empowered to be a manager of our school library management system and catalogue, and to make modifications that suit the needs of our users, whilst still complying with the relevant SCIS guidelines. I’m becoming a more confident and enthusiastic voodoo mechanic practitioner. (And I should really stop mixing metaphors!)

So, where to from here? The future of information organisation in library services is only going to increase in complexity. When faced with searching for information, I must admit I rely on Google as my first port of call, rather than searching our library catalogue, and the preference of our students to just “google it” is a challenge we need to face as we move forward into an increasingly connected digital world. Ensuring that our systems for providing access to information are up to the task is a challenge, and requires a comprehensive understanding of the concepts and systems which underpin information description and organisation. I don’t think I’m there yet – I’m still very much an amateur enthusiast in the field of library voodoo mechanics – but I’m working on it!


American Library Association. (2010) RDA Toolkit: Resource description and access. http://www.rdatoolkit.org/

Dewey.org (2015) WebDewey DDC 23.  http://dewey.org/webdewey/

Education Services Australia (2011). Overview and principles of SCIS subject headings [online] Carlton: Education Services Australia. http://www2.curriculum.edu.au/verve/_resources/Overview.pdf

Education Services Australia (2015). Guidelines to using SCIS subject headings. [online] Carlton: Education Services Australia. http://www2.curriculum.edu.au/verve/_resources/SCISSHguidelines.pdf

Education Services Australia, (2015b). SCIS Standards for Cataloguing and Data Entry. [online] Carlton: Education Services Australia. http://www2.curriculum.edu.au/verve/_resources/SCIS_standards.pdf

Hider, P. (2012). Information resource description. London: Facet.

International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA). (1998) IFLA Working Group on the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records: Functional requirements for bibliographic records final report. München: K. G. Saur

Manifold, A. (2014) Libraries and metadata in a sea of information. [online] In Connections.Issue 89.  http://www2.curriculum.edu.au/scis/connections/issue_89_2014/articles/libraries_and_metadata_in_a_sea_of_information.html

OCLC.org (2016) 300.  http://www.oclc.org/content/dam/oclc/webdewey/help/300.pdf

Schools Cataloguing Information Service (n.d.) SCIS Catalogue (OPAC), accessed September 2016 at: http://opac.scis.curriculum.edu.au/

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Posted October 10, 2016 by Tamara Reads in category Book chat

About the Author

NSWPRC Officer, Teacher Librarian, English teacher and social media advocate. I've been teaching in Western Sydney for my entire teaching career, and love my job more than I love Neil Gaiman. (That's a lot, in case you're wondering!) I stalk authors (but always politely), fangirl over books, and drink coffee. And one of my guilty prides about my children is that they all have favourite authors. All opinions are my own.

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