How I became a cataloguer

SCIS cataloguer Laura Iseman writes about her career as a librarian, and what she loves about cataloguing.

As is common with many librarians, I loved reading as a child. I had a respectable collection of books, and I organised them on my shelves by how much I liked them. This was perhaps not the best system, but I knew where they all were.

My love of books led me to make them my career, and my first professional position was as a children’s librarian in a public library. In those days, it was not yet common for records to be imported. So adding items to the collection meant the individual creation of all records and the children’s collection was my responsibility.

Because I was cataloguing all the new acquisitions, I was very familiar with the collection. When working with children visiting the library I knew what the latest trends were and could let them know what was available. I liked knowing that my work meant students could easily find the resources they were looking for.

In addition to the fun of looking at all the new books, I also enjoyed the process of cataloguing. I am a process worker by nature, and I like categories. Every book is different, but the fundamental structure of the catalogue record doesn’t change. I enjoy the challenge of choosing the best terms and classification for each resource, to give the people looking for them the best chance of finding what they want.

I progressed from cataloguing only children’s books to working on the full collection and then to working in academic libraries. By this time, many records were available online. But there were always those obscure or very new titles that needed a full record made. At the university this, of course, included the research output of the students and staff.

Cataloguing theses can be a real challenge, particularly doctorate theses. I was very grateful to have access to Google when I was working on them. I am not a trained scientist, and sometimes I needed to look up all the words in the thesis title to be sure I was assigning the right subjects. This also exposed me to a range of topics I would never have chosen to investigate. I know more about microbiology than I ever expected to know, and for a while I was quite up to date on research into the prevention of malaria. Higher mathematics, however, remains a mystery to me. Cataloguing academic theses did give me some idea of just how broad this topic can be.

Works in the humanities were closer to my interests, and I appreciated the new ideas that I saw expressed. One, in particular, that has remained with me was a study of Jewish immigrants to Melbourne in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I was interested in the discussion of the ways that religious practices and dietary restrictions helped to maintain the community as distinct from society at large. So much of our social bonding happens over food, it is difficult to develop intimate relationships with people if you can’t eat together.

My career as a cataloguer has come full circle and I am once again working on resources for children and young adults. I am enjoying the fact that these titles rarely contain words I don’t know. I can delight in seeing new picture books and be reminded of old favourites as they are re-issued.

The daily pattern of my work now is one I could not have imagined when I first started. The idea that I could make quality records without having the items in hand would have been bewildering when I first started cataloguing. The fundamental process is still the same though, and I still find satisfaction in knowing that I am helping many people in their search for knowledge, enlightenment, or a cosy read to enjoy before bedtime.

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SCIS (Schools Catalogue Information Service) was created with the aim of providing schools with access to a database of consistent catalogue records created according to agreed national standards, in order to reduce the cost and duplication of effort of cataloguing resources in schools. Since its inception, SCIS has been responsible for improving the quality and consistency of cataloguing materials for schools.

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