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Tips for Catalogers

by Kelly Haydon

Cataloging can be draining; this is a universal truth. It is often a surprise to new catalogers just how long it can take them to completely describe a single item. Unlike regular data entry, cataloging is an intellectual activity. Catalogers don’t just describe an item, they describe it in such a way so that it can be found. It is the difference between writing “X” and writing “X marks the spot.”

Below are just a few tips for new catalogers based on what I’ve learned in my years working with both catalogers and data entry clerks. The name of the game – especially when the database is new and interest is high –  is to not fall into the cycle of ambition–>discouragement–>lost-momentum. You will be better off if you approach cataloging as a good habit, like exercising or check-book balancing, a daily task with long-term benefits.

1.       Be consistent. This is the cataloger’s mantra but it is often the most difficult to follow, especially if the new cataloger isn’t familiar with the metadata standards professionals learn in school. While it might be difficult to get a full grasp of guidelines as they were established before your time, accept that they were established for a good reason. Don’t fight them too quickly, try to follow the rules, ask questions, give yourself time to learn (and make mistakes). Eventually, cataloging will become second-nature.

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2.       Be interested. The more intellectually curious you are in the item you are cataloging, the easier it will be to focus and accept the length of time high-level cataloging can take. As you go along, you may start to see patterns amongst the items you are cataloging and this can give you a rare insight into certain areas of scholarship that you wouldn’t catch through traditional forms of research.

3.       Be reasonable. Don’t get discouraged if you are not cataloging 100 items a day. Set daily goals for yourself, such as 5 items a day, or schedule an hour block of time to catalog every day. Even if you only catalog 5 items a day for 30 days, that is 150 items that are in the database this month that were not last month. External pressures may exists that compel you to work fast, but try to strike a balance between speedy data entry and complete and accurate cataloging; you can’t always have both.

4.       Be relaxed. Playing music while you catalog is a good way to keep your energy and spirits up. Cataloging with another person and talking through each item can also enliven the activity. If you are working in an environment that discourages music playing or talking while cataloging, quit. The bad associations that come with cataloging are largely because people feel tired, bored, and alone. Do what you can to make the process less of these things for you and others and it will go a long way to a more productive workflow. Cookies help.

5.       Be efficient. Let’s face it, there are some items in an archive that just don’t deserve a full-on catalog record. This might be because there is next to no information on the item to begin with. It might be because the work is commercially produced and not unique. It might be because a supervisor needs all the titles online in a short amount of time. The decision on how much or little a series of records contains should be discussed with the archive coordinator, but streamlining the workflow is as much a part of the cataloging process as entering complete records, it just depends on the situation. If you do cut corners, make sure you are doing so for the benefit of the big picture and not because you don’t want to catalog.


6.       Be proactive.  Become familiar with the features of the software you are using that will allow you to work faster. For example, in Filemaker Pro you can create a new record by duplicating a similar record and changing the key areas where the two records are different (i.e. title, ID). Most db applications have similar features. If there is existing data in electronic form, such as a spreadsheet, you may be able to import the data en masse. Always remember, Google is your friend, use it to find the answers to technical questions and see what others are doing with the software. In short, the  more familiar you are with the software you are using, its benefits and limitations, the more efficient your cataloging will be. But you will need to self-motivate yourself to learn as there might not be anyone around to teach you.

     Pro-activity can also come in the form of thinking ahead. What can we do with all this data? Can we create an online catalog for users to peruse? Bulk upload to Flickr? Use the aggregate data in a grant application or fundraising effort? Think always about where the data you are entering can go and how it can be beneficial to your long and short term goals.

Approaching your cataloging project with the above in mind can help you set realistic goals for yourself and staff or volunteers. If all else fails, just remember: cookies help.