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Heresy at St. John's?

Heresy at St. John's?

Heresy at St. John's?--and perpetrated by Bella Hass Weinberg? What immediately comes to mind is a vision of Robert Preston jumping onto center stage singing, "Oh, we got trouble, right here in River City."

St. John's University in Queens, New York, held its annual Congress for Librarians on February 18, 1991, President's Day, titled, "Cataloging Heresy: Challenging the Standard Bibliographic Product." Bella Hass Weinberg chaired this Congress attended by about 350 librarians; I suspect she developed the theme and planned the whole program although that was never explicitly noted in the program brochure. Some words about Bella--no one runs a better meeting. It moves like clockwork. She defines the theme of the meeting and introduces each speaker with a few words describing the reason the talk to be presented has been chosen in relation to the theme. Bella is a sound thinker in the information field and extends her teaching prowess to developing excellent information programs. It is worth following her work and attending her programs even when the subject may be of peripheral interest. This was an unpaid commercial. Now to the meeting.

The challenge and argument at this meeting had to do with the acceptance or non-acceptance of a standard bibliographic product from a central library, the focus obviously being on the Library of Congress. In Bella's words, "Questioning the standard bibliographic product is cataloging heresy, and altering the central bibliographic record files in the face of all the arguments for copy cataloging, i.e., that it is economical, and that it is advantageous to users to find a book cataloged and classified identically in all libraries. These arguments will be examined from a variety of perspectives today, but I shall begin by presenting a case for rejection of the very notion of standard bibliographic data."

Ms. Weinberg's opening paper and those of her next two speakers were perhaps the most heretical of the day. They all would have been sufficient evidence to justify all three speakers being burned at the stake as witches in Salem, MA. Ms. Weinberg's paper, "A Theory of Relativity for Catalogers," concentrated on proving that cataloging data are neither permanent nor absolute and that the relativity of the data must necessarily force one to think of modification rather than permanence of records.

Norman Elliott Anderson of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary had some chance of surviving Salem because in his paper he praised the Library of Congress before gently damning it. "The trouble comes," he said, "when we regard descriptive cataloging as a rote process with objective rules that need only be objectively and mechanically applied in order to come out with a universal product. It is my contention that descriptive cataloging is an interpretive and compositional process, that the records we create should be regarded as living, not static, that many of the elements of descriptive cataloging are non-neutral in several different ways, sometimes good and sometimes not good, and that we ought to take a new look at how we handle the mix of universality and non-neutrality in our descriptive cataloging." Mr. Anderson listed and explained nine ways in which descriptive cataloging was non-neutral. His list and examples proved an excellent case history after Ms. Weinberg's talk. Typical non-neutral areas were descriptive records oriented only to people who speak our language or have our biases. His main point was that the cataloger had to be an interpreter in "building bridges between the materials and those who seek them."

The third speaker would have been the first to burn at the stake. In fact Sanford Berman of the Hennepin County Library in Minnetonka, MN, was introduced as the "the greatest cataloging heretic of them all." He was not gentle with the Library of Congress. He came right to the point. "My sole objective this morning is to utterly demolish the reigning myth that because the Library of Congress (LC) did it or you got the cataloging copy through OCLC, Brodart, or some other vendor, the data must be accurate and useful. A corollary to that is the wonderfully innocent belief--another myth--that major cataloging codes, policies and tools are at once sensible, functional, and up-to date." With example after example, Sanford Berman proceeded to show how insane, dysfunctional, and dated major cataloging codes, policies and tools are. Mr. Berman isn't just all talk. In his own library he extensively augments both descriptive cataloging and subject heading supplied by the Library of Congress in order to improve his services.

It was a stimulating half morning. The questions from the audience involved the cost of modification and customizing the cataloging. The speakers hedged in answering mostly because of lack of time. One hoped it would come up more in depth later in the session. Automation as an important aid was brought up in a minor way by Mr. Anderson, but was misinterpreted by the audience as a substitute for the required intellectual effort for modification rather than the means by which shared expertise might be achieved.

The next two papers described two alternative classification schemes. The first, the National Library of Medicine's Classification and Subject Heading System for Medicine was described by Sally Sinn, and the second, the Getty Foundation's Art and Architecture Thesaurus (AAT), was described by Cathy Whitehead. Ms Sinn very interestingly reviewed the history of the development of the NLM system and its relationship to the LC Classification system. However I was never quite sure whether Ms. Sinn rued or applauded the fact that there are two schemes. NLM's success is obvious and appears to be because of its independence rather than its relationship to LC. The AAT is definitely an independent, customized scheme, systematically built on a faceted basis. Most interesting in terms of this meeting, Ms. Whitehead called it a macrothesaurus, indicating that specialized libraries and systems using the AAT would be expected to modify for further specialization, most likely on a cooperative basis.

After lunch you might have expected much dozing in response to a talk titled, "Standard Cataloging Data and the Academic Library: The Technical Services Manager's Point of View." But Mary Parr of St. John's University Libraries and her wry approach to cataloging problems kept everyone wide awake. She was introduced as "one of the brightest and funniest ladies in the cataloging business" and probably the one responsible for the title of this Congress. Bella Weinberg remembered her first words at a colloquium in 1984 called "The Quintessence and the Quagmire of Serials." They were, "I preach heresy." She broke up the crowd this time when she pronounced, "More serials catalogers than any other group commit suicide." Ms. Parr did not solve any problems in her talk, but in a most forthright manner she asked important questions one has to answer to determine whether or not one can live with the standard bibliographic record. Given the inconsistencies, can you afford to edit? Do you trust your head cataloger? Do you have appropriate personnel? How much are you able to pay? Where do you find the balance between quality and your budget? It's like a ping pong game, and your feelings are tossed between the results of a job well done and utter frustration. In the question period, it seemed the audience was aroused and could be moved to action. Someone suggested that publishers be paid for cataloging. There was little time however to deal with solutions at this meeting, and in fact I began to feel the frustration Ms. Parr mentioned in her talk.

The next paper presented by Liz Bishoff was an OCLC perspective on the master versus the local bibliographic record and was to probe what the implications would be for a bibliographic operation such as OCLC, were tampering of the standard bibliographic record to become widespread. RLIN (The Research Libraries Information Network), a bibliographic utility such as OCLC but with many different features, was then described by Ed Glazier of The Research Libraries Group. Both papers were interesting but suffered from impatience to hear the next speaker.

That speaker was John D. Byrum, Chief of the Descriptive Cataloging Division of the Library of Congress. Appropriately and simply stated the title of the talk was, "Standard Cataloging Data: The View from the Library of Congress." After all the bating from at least four devout heretics, what would Byrum respond? Here are some of my notes: LC handles 200,000 titles annually at a cost of $375 million; he (LC) listens to needs; there are user groups organized at ALA, etc. which include experts and varieties of end users; he is involved in international interests and universal bibliographic control; he is working on cataloging simplification as related to specialized interests; the cost of change is enormous; AACR2 is well accepted; subject headings is a tough area; he can't satisfy everyone; it's tough to intermingle the standard and the non-standard; there's lots of opportunity for cooperative cataloging which has led to modified records; computerization is no help except for speeding up the ability to standardize; no one is abandoning existing standards; prevailing policy however can be improved. After that "life is beautiful" talk I expected a revolutionary reaction, but in contrast not one person in the audience asked a question or made a comment. I think perhaps frustration had won the day--it was very sad.

But, the final speaker was superb. Sheila S. Intner of Simmons College delivered a talk titled, "Rejecting Standard Cataloging Copy: Implication for the Education of Catalogers," subtitled "Some Preliminary Observations on Cataloging, Standard, and Tradition." She opened her gambit with, "How many catalogers does it take to put in a light bulb? Only one, but we have to wait for LC to do it." But this was a most serious talker and not really an LC basher. She spoke of teaching cataloging practice versus cataloging theory. She spoke of the need for librarians to take risks--perhaps even the necessity for courses in risk management. She finally asked whether librarians were really willing to go it alone--how many were truly ready to be heretics? She ended with, "The truly complete cataloger will be someone who has both the knowledge and the will to meet the challenge of making a better catalog. Should making a better catalog be perceived as a worthy effort for which a librarian can be proud? The answer, and the power to act, rests with each one of us."

I must say, I find this "go it alone" attitude and solution rather discouraging but realistic after listening to all aspects of the subject in one day. Ms. Weinberg will be publishing a Proceedings. Procure it. Ms. Intner's paper alone will be worth the price.
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Title Annotation:St. John's University cataloging conference
Author:Brenner, Ev
Publication:Information Today
Date:Apr 1, 1991
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