Drawing the line in Creative Cataloging

This is in response to adstbeebe’s post on Finding a Balance in Creative Cataloging, regarding the article Cataloging Legacies into Descriptive Metadata Creation.

The article states, “creative cataloging means doing users’ work for users, in advance.”

To which adstbeebe replies, “where exactly is the line drawn?”  And I want to comment on that, because it’s really a good question on academic librarians’ work in general, especially reference librarians: When do we stop doing the work for them?  One does hear the occasional complaint that “the students want me to do their research and proofread the paper afterwards” or “am I writing this professors’ articles for them, too?”

The article works to address this as well:

Therefore, metadata creators should maintain productivity to achieve departmental goals and at the same time engage in clear communication and negotiation with managers or supervisors to gain their support and understanding for a positive working environment.


The article also emphasizes the collaborative nature of creative cataloging, which I’ll get to more later.  But here we go: How to know where your line is when helping users.

  • Supervisor/cultural expectation.  A bit of truth: Whatever your supervisor says, after a bit of possible discussion, goes.  If you find yourself doing more than you think is correct for a librarian, then you may be adding lines to your résumé for the next, better job.
  • Collaboration as a skill.  You are not a researcher (unless you are).  You are not the second author on a paper (unless you are).  Know what you do well, and get input on that which you don’t do well.  Big note: Never assume that “knowing what users want” is something you do well.
    For example, an archival metadata project should involve researchers, historians, whoever can provide their expertise; that is, it should involve potential users.  They are users, too, but at this stage, you will not be doing their work for them, in advance.  Instead, you will all be working for a future group of users that they (not you) know. Your, to quote the article, “curious mind and some research work” may find a great reference work to help, but if they can determine helpful sources with their expertise and previously-done research, then let them.
  • For students and faculty, provide instruction and resources, not results.  You can show folks how to use your resources. You can, if that is your niche, show them how to judge and analyze their data.  Unless overridden by your supervisor (see above), you don’t do the actual analysis on the actual data.  Unless you get that second authorship.  Public library users, on the other hand, should get all the help they want. I am now going to complete contradict this point.
  • Only teach future fishermen how to fish, unless they’re being graded on their fishing.  Librarians go overboard in instruction, sometimes. “They might need to know this later!” “If you teach someone to fish…” How’s this for some inspirational quotes?
    • If you are a fisherman, your job is to give people fish.
    • If you teach someone to fish, and they have work to do that depends on them having only a fish, and the fish are right next to you, then you’re wasting their time.
    • If someone loves fish, and they want to get their own fish, they’ll ask for fishing lessons. You did, after all.

But sincerely, we do sometimes mix up “saving users later work” with “telling them everything we know about the library.”

So, there we have it.  Hope this helps.

Drawing the line in Creative Cataloging

4 thoughts on “Drawing the line in Creative Cataloging

  1. Nice post MetaDamen! Your experience and perspective are extra helpful. You are right that my initial post underestimated the collaborative approach. I’m eager to hear what else you have to say on that subject. Also, I’m curious of what you think about the bias problem that I brought up. Do you see it as being a real issue?


    1. It’s a real issue. I’ve seen it covered in other textbooks: How do you describe Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper? If you say “12 men sit around a table with food on it,” that’s TECHNICALLY correct, but most would consider that… lacking. If you mention that it’s Jesus and his disciples, you’re doing better, but that’s information that’s not in the painting itself. And if you start mentioning who looks suspicious and what things represent, then you’ll have to quote conspiracy theories at some point in this scale. Just a few things to help: Quote your sources for metadata, use GOOD sources for metadata, and yes, be biased, but toward what your patrons want. If your users find it helpful, it was helpful; if not, not; and make sure you asked some users to find out which before everyone sees it.


  2. good work all .. nice response to a fellow student’s work!
    In general, I’d respond to “how much to do for ’em” by way of saying “it depends” with a big aspect of “it depends” depending on institutional mission/historical role of a given library within the context of its parent organization (i.e., university/community/corporation, etc). Good topic!


  3. I like the fishing metaphors–reminds of something we talked about in Digital Reference: it’s nice to teach the user to fish, but sometimes you just need to hand the user a big, juicy salmon and move on to the next customer!

    But to extend the metaphor, I would suggest that creative cataloging is not so much handing the user a fish as it is handing them a much better fishing pole and stocking the pond with hungry fish.


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