Automation: Has it Deprofessionalized the Work of Cataloguing Librarians?

by Moya K. Mason

An Introduction

The introduction of automation into any profession causes dramatic changes, upheaval, displacement of staff, and changing roles for others. With computer technology growing in leaps and bounds, none of us can expect that automation will not affect workplace systems and logistics. Libraries are a classic example of how automation has impacted traditional ways of doing work, particularly in cataloguing departments - changing how, and by whom, the cataloguing is done. Historically, professional librarians with at least a Master's in Library Science have been responsible for cataloguing library materials and making knowledge accessible to library patrons. From the time Melvil Dewey opened the first library school in 1886, librarianship was recognized as a profession, and cataloguing a primary activity. Fine-tuned, authority-checked, and original records were one of the hallmarks of this great age of librarianship which began to change with the introduction of computer technology in libraries in the 1970s. And along came reductions of allocated budgets, inflation, an explosion in information, and demand for more access.

From the mid-1800s onward, there has been a preoccupation with the cost of cataloguing and it remains an underlying concern. For libraries, one solution is to use copy cataloguing. Automation of library cataloguing departments became the way libraries could participate in sharing catalogue copy and get rid of their backlogs (Smith 1994,1). To do original cataloguing for all materials is an extravagance that can no longer be financed. Libraries need to use their shrinking budgets in more creative ways. Advancements in keyword searching capabilities has meant that fewer subject headings are now required, and the introduction of barcodes for circulation makes call numbers much less important (Rider, 1996,28). Paraprofessionals are quickly taking over both duties.

Professional librarians are usually the smallest group of employees working in a library, with paraprofessionals and support staff making up the majority. A study done in the early 1990s shows that American academic libraries are now hiring more paraprofessionals and fewer professional librarians than normal (Oberg et al. 1992,232). The activities performed by each group used to be quite distinct, but not anymore. Paraprofessionals are doing the lion's share of the cataloguing in libraries today. Copy cataloguing for most items is the answer, but change can be difficult. In the Recovery of Ethics in Librarianship, Richard Severson states that:

Technological innovation is enabling us to create "brave new worlds" . . . But automated environments are unfamiliar worlds. Our old intuitive habits of evaluation, which are adequate for determining what is best in traditional worlds, are inadequate in new and different settings (Severson 1995,13).

It is important that libraries and their staff come to terms with automation and the organizational changes that come along with it. They must prepare for the evolution of practices and job descriptions. Once automation is introduced, there is no stopping the changes that will occur. This paper will look at the arguments regarding how computer systems have changed the work of cataloguing and technical services staff, and consider how the work of cataloguing librarians has been 'deprofessionalized'. A decade and a half has brought many changes to library practices and services, providing a long enough framework to make some observations and predictions.

Automation and the Introduction of the Paraprofessional

The last few decades have witnessed an explosion in how much information is being published, accumulating into what is now described as the Information Explosion. Original cataloguing, using basic word processing and card catalogues, translated into major backlogs in cataloguing departments throughout the world. Ever more material and new formats were being made available to the public, but no corresponding system to keep up with the increasing demands. Libraries were also beginning to feel the first wave of budget cutbacks. Strategies of how to do more with less was the primary concern of library administrators. Automation of manual systems was seen as the panacea for libraries, but it also brought many unforeseen changes as well.

Any time automation is introduced into an equation, major repercussions should be expected. Take the technological conversions of the agricultural industry and how they revolutionalized farm practices, displaced workers, and transformed job qualifications. The same thing happened to the men and women working in libraries when computer technology became the central operating system. Staff lay-offs were a direct result of automation, with Bednar reporting that Pennsylvania State Libraries lost approximately 25% of its staff over five years, but they also experienced higher production levels during the same time period (Bednar 1988,147). Automation also drastically reduced the numbers of people working in clerical jobs, since computers can do those tasks quicker and more correctly (Hafter 1986,63). Technology changes workflow by causing a leveling-out of workplace hierarchies by absorbing routine tasks and making other work routine (Oberg 1992,108). It also works in reverse, and creates brave new worlds for librarians to discover. Karen L. Horny writes that jobs in the technical services, in an automated environment, are typified by an upward reclassification, "placing many jobs in higher grades within the university's classification scheme" (Horny 1987,74).

Another unforeseen change was that workflow had to be centered around the new computer system. A machine directing people, rather than the other way around. As Horny states in New Turns for a New Century: Library Services in the Information Era, "it now seems safe to admit that computerization is the determining technology of our era" (Horny 1987,11). Hafter points out that schedules, work assignments, and planning were no longer decisions made by the head cataloguing librarian. Instead, "network computer availability affected scheduling while system analysts and non-cataloguing administrators began to exert more influence over setting production standards" (Hafter 1986,64). For example, if OCLC's system failed, then the copy cataloguers could not do any work and backlogs would develop. In addition, there are certain times of the day which libraries are charged lower rates to use the bibliographic utilities and that affects scheduling. It was not simply the adoption of automation that caused major changes in technical service departments, rather, it was the simultaneous introduction of bibliographic utilities into cataloguing operations that forever reorganized the work of professional cataloguers and made "skills that were once important in older routines . . . rendered obsolete" (Futura 1990,248).

Libraries could get cataloguing for most of their acquisitions from big utilities like OCLC, RLIN, and WLN, instead of developing original copy for each item, thereby saving huge amounts of money. Collectively, libraries could share their copy and take better advantage of the high quality records available from the Library of Congress. It has been estimated that Library of Congress cataloguers spend three to five hours cataloguing one item. The introduction of automation and bibliographic utilities allowed cataloguing librarians to move away from clerical work and learn new skills in database searching. But before long, library administrators realized that it did not take a well-paid professional cataloguer to search for routine copy in a database. They then transferred the bulk of the work to support staff (Futura 1990,242). This marked the beginning of a new type of library employee: the paraprofessional. They have become increasingly more powerful and vocal (Futura 1990,243).

Some professional cataloguers shifted into supervisory roles, others were laid off, replaced by lower paid paraprofessionals, who, with the help of automation began to clear up the backlog of uncatalogued items and increased library productivity (Horny 1987,74). Students took over the work of clerical staff, support staff began doing much of the work previously done by professionals, and professionals moved into managerial and supervisory roles (Horny 1987,74). More difficult foreign language materials, dissertations, esoteric pieces, and music were left for professional cataloguers (Futura 1990,243). Even that is beginning to change, as "increasing demands on a reduced professional cataloguing staff" and a subsequent increasing reliance on paraprofessionals to handle all sorts of formats and complexities becomes the norm (Kranz 1990,91).

The cataloguing of printed and recorded music was always seen to be one of those special areas in cataloguing that required subject specialty. For example, as Jack Kranz's article Paraprofessional Involvement in Music Cataloging: A Case Study explains, if professional cataloguers choose staff members who are genuinely interested in learning about music cataloguing and they are properly trained, then the quality of copy does not have to decrease (Kranz 1990,97). Kranz sees the deprofessionalization of music cataloguing to be a good thing for several reasons, including an increase in processing time, a quicker turnaround time for patron access, less pressure on professional cataloguers, and more job satisfaction for participating paraprofessionals (Kranz 1990,91-97). This raises one of the most important concepts in the dilemma: job satisfaction.

A study done by Cathleen C. Palmini in 1992 found that the introduction of computerization increased job satisfaction in over half of all support staff in Wisconsin academic libraries, citing an increase in new skills (Palmini 1994,123). A corresponding increase in satisfaction was noted in professionals. Automation also changed the way many library departments were traditionally structured. Before the introduction of computer technology, services were segregated from each other (McCombs 1992,138). Automation caused an integration of once separate work done by acquisitions, collection development and management, and cataloguing. These departments now flow together under the umbrella of technical services and are connected with all other areas of the library, including the library catalogue (McCoombs 1992,136-137). Public services and technical services are no longer separate entities; they are currently interconnected through automation and are two sides of the same coin. This organizational evolution has systematically and radically changed workflow in libraries, making it far less regimented, more efficient, and centralized (McCoombs 1992,137). It has also transformed the way staff, librarians, and paraprofessionals interact with each other (Bednar 1988,145). For fiscal reasons, workflow must be integrated and streamlined. As Gillian M. McCoombs writes:

The convergence of functionalities will in turn give rise to a new professional philosophy of integration. There is no question that the interests of our patrons and academic communities are best served by a series of internal relationships that neither polarize nor politicize the questions of access; a harmonizing relationship in which there are only systems navigators who have discovered that the earth is not flat but round . . . (McCombs 1992,146).

Libraries Today and in the Future

Job satisfaction in libraries today is a two-pronged issue. First, professional librarians are not satisfied with only being responsible for the leftovers or the difficult materials that commonly require original copy. The added problem is that as professional cataloguers continue to train lower paid employees to do their jobs, they are in fact, moving closer to the unemployment lines. Secondly, paraprofessionals are unhappy with handling only routine copy they can find on databases and feel tied into dead-end jobs which provide few incentives, low wages, and no chance of acquiring new skills (Benaud 1992,90). In reality, many paraprofessionals also have university educations, while some are proficient in foreign languages; all they lack is a MLS degree. Both professionals and paraprofessionals get the same quality and quantity of training before doing any cataloguing, so what makes them so different? Some writers, such as Susan Chapman, believe that the theoretical knowledge learned in library schools is much more important than practical experience for working in libraries and makes all the difference in the world (Chapman 1984,189). Also detrimental to job satisfaction is the more serious problem of task blurring, which is exacerbated by librarians who are unwilling to give up routine work that could be performed by support staff (Oberg and al. 1992,215). This has caused a rift between support staff and professionals in libraries for a long time and makes it almost impossible for the profession to be defined. As Larry R. Oberg and associates point out:

Although automation and other change agents contribute to role blurring, they also create exciting new opportunities for librarians as well as support staff. It is particularly vexing therefore, to find professionals who persist in defining their positions by other than their highest-level responsibilities (Oberg and al. 1992,216).

Mary M. Rider feels that paraprofessionals should be able to develop their responsibilities in increasingly new areas and receive more recognition for the tasks they do (Rider 1996,30). Claire-Lise Benaud believes that boredom and frustration are inevitable reactions to doing routine work every day, stressing that libraries should take advantage of paraprofessionals' skills by allowing them to do more challenging work (Benaud 1992,86). Rider sees professional cataloguers using their skills in "planning and maintaining automated systems, developing new applications for technology, and managing both operations and personnel" (Rider 1996,30). Others believe that professional cataloguers should relieve themselves of as many tedious and rudimentary tasks as they can, thereby freeing themselves. Freeing themselves to do what?

A certain number of professional cataloguers will always be needed for training, supervising, and creating original cataloguing. True? Frequently paraprofessionals can also be found in supervisory jobs and increasingly hire, fire, and train. The other major issue in libraries today, affecting all areas, is the reality of faculty status. Many professional cataloguers working in academic libraries today have faculty status. Professional librarians who are very busy doing research, attending meetings, and teaching classes, are also more heavily involved in managerial roles (Benaud 1992,83). They have gradually assigned more of the work they no longer have time for to support staff. As a result, paraprofessionals "are now regularly assigned duties that once characterized the work of librarians" (Oberg 1992,99). The question that should be asked here is if librarians have expanded job responsibilities and a chance to teach, does that mean no one else in the library can learn new skills and take on more challenging roles? Surely librarians must realize they cannot have it both ways. Instead of worrying that they are being deprofessionalized and marginalized, librarians need to use the analytical, managerial, and technical skills they learned in library school to develop strategies to improve automated systems, make information easier to access and use, and work towards reinventing themselves and their libraries by overcoming the obstacles and challenges they face. Increasing communication among all levels of staff instead of undermining and demeaning the profession is also a good starting place for real change. What about the paraprofessionals?

Many paraprofessionals in supervisory roles find it difficult to hire professional cataloguers over fellow paraprofessionals, especially when the professionals have faculty status (Benaud 1992,89). The situation gets more complicated when non-professionals are the ones working closely with the databases, have their skills continually upgraded on new systems, and have fine-tuned their search capabilities, while the 'so-called' professional cataloguers do neither, and subsequently become out of touch with the complexities of the system (Benaud 1992,89). Another problem is that paraprofessionals are not receiving the pay or status for doing librarians' work, which angers them, as does task overlap (Oberg 1992,100). A 1990 study showed that paraprofessionals were increasingly involved in original cataloguing and assigning call numbers and subject headings, which have traditionally fallen within the confines of professional cataloguers' work (Eskoz 1990,388). Instead, professional librarians concentrate on such things as administrative planning, setting guidelines for copy cataloguing and authority work, and spend time "designing and evaluating work flows" (Reid 1986,59).

Conclusion: The Question of Autonomy

These realities coupled with automation, have changed the face of cataloguing forever. Is it less professional? With the introduction of automation in libraries, deprofessionalization was inevitable. Ultimately, what matters most is servicing the reading public in the quickest and cheapest manner possible. According to Marie Bednar in Automation of Cataloguing: Effects on Use of Staff, Efficiency, and Service to Patrons, the days when near-perfect LC and member copy were commonly revised to meet local standards are over (Bednar 1988,148). Online public access computers do not have to be filled with exemplary examples of perfect cataloguing records since technology can make up for the deficiencies. Catalogues can no longer be both finding tools and perfectly organized databases (Bednar 1988,148). Currently, the measure of what is good cataloguing is no longer based on strict quality controlled standards, but whether the copy is available from a network member and appears adequate, with an increased pressure to accept the records as they are (Bednar 1988,145).

One way that professions are characterized is by the amount of autonomy they provide workers. In the heyday of librarianship, independence, personal growth, and autonomy were givens, but that is no longer the case. Once control over the job is lost, deprofessionalization is the result. Librarians, including professional cataloguers, have lost their autonomy to the computer system, to library administrators, to system administrators, and to network programmers, who tell them when and when not to work (Hafter 1986,77). Once the core of a professional's work load is taken over by a machine or another person, deprofessionalization sets in and takes on a life of its own. This is clearly seen when paraprofessionals are put in supervisory roles and have "the right to evaluate professional work" (Hafter 1986,74). Cataloguers are in a losing battle if they think they can turn back the clock; it just isn't the same world out there anymore. For one thing, there is simply too much information to catalogue without using automated systems. What it really comes down to is money. Librarians shouldn't take the deprofessionalization of their work personally, it is just a fiscal and technological reality that is prevalent across all professions. It doesn't mean they aren't valued. Original cataloguing departments are going the way the university presses have and the way the dinosaur did before. As Gillian McCoombs points out:

Species that do not evolve in response to a changing environment do not survive, dinosaurs being a case in point. Librarians have the opportunity to choose to evolve, to emphasize relationships, and to respond to the environment. Unless we pause to take stock, to reach out to librarians in other parts of the library, to sound out our users as to their informational needs, we will find ourselves, like relics of the past instead of active participants in the information services of the future (McCoombs 1992,147).

Related Papers

A Look Inside the Dewey Decimal System
Copy Cataloguing: Our Quest For Perfect Copy
Corporate Bodies: Problems Associated With Access Points and Cross-References
Dewey Decimal Classification and Fundamental Laws Governing Knowledge
How Useful are Library of Congress Subject Headings?
Historical Development of Library Catalogues: Their Purpose and Organization
Online Public Access Computers and the Rediscovery of Authority Control
Purpose of Authority Work and Files
Library of Congress and Its Treatment of the Environment
Grey Literature: History, Definition, Acquisition, and Cataloguing


Bednar, M. 1988. Automation of Cataloguing: Effects on Use of Staff, Efficiency, and Service to Patrons. Journal of Academic Librarianship, Vol. 14, No. 3, pp. 145-149.

Benaud, Claire-Lise. 1992. The Academic Paraprofessional Cataloger: Underappreciated? Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 3, pp. 81-91.

Chapman, Susan. 1984. Paraprofessionals in a Cataloging Unit. Canadian Library Journal, Vol. 41, No. 4, pp. 189-193.

Eskov, Patricia A. 1991. Catalog Librarians and Public Services: A Changing Role? Library Resources & Technical Services, Vol. 34, pp. 76-86.

Futura, Kenneth. 1990. The Impact of Automation on Professional Catalogers. Information Technology and Libraries, Vol. 9, No. 3, pp. 242-252.

Hafter, Ruth. 1986. Academic Librarians and Cataloging Networks: Visibility, Quality Control, and Professional Status. New York: Greenwood (Chapter 3).

Horny, Karen. Fifteen Years of Automation: Evolution of Technical Services Staffing. Library Resources & Technical Services, Vol. 3, No. 1, Jan./Mar. 1987, pp. 69-76.

Kranz, Jack. 1990. Paraprofessional Involvement in Music Cataloging. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 4, pp. 89-98.

McCombs, Gillian. Technical Services in the 1990s: A Process of Convergent Evolution. Library Resources & Technical Services, Vol. 36, April 1992, pp. 135-146.

Oberg, Larry R. The Emergence of the Paraprofessional in Academic Libraries: Perceptions and Realities. College & Research Libraries, Vol. 53, March 1992, pp. 99-112.

Oberg, Larry R. et al. The Role, Status, and Working Conditions of Paraprofessionals: A National Survey of Academic Libraries. College & Research Libraries, Vol. 53, May 1992, pp. 215-38.

Palmini, Cathleen C. The Impact of Computerization on Library Support Staff: A Study of Support Staff in Academic Libraries in Wisconsin. College & Research Libraries, Vol. 55, No. 2, March 1994, pp. 119-127.

Reid, Marion T. and Walter M. High. 1986. The Role of the Professional in Technical Services. RTSD Newsletter, Vol. 11, No. 6, pp. 58-60.

Rider, Mary M. Developing New Roles for Paraprofessionals in Cataloging. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, Vol. 22, No. 1, Jan. 1996, pp. 26-32.

Smith, Stephen J. 1994. Cataloguing with Copy: Methods for Increasing Productivity. Technical Services Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 4, pp. 1-11.

Copyright © 2024 Moya K. Mason, All Rights Reserved

Back to: Resume and More Papers