That was the topic discussed recently by OCLC Research Library Partners metadata managers, initiated by John Riemer of University of California, Los Angeles and Jennifer Baxmeyer of Princeton. Turnover in a professional position within a cataloging or metadata unit now comes with a significant risk that it will be impossible to convince administrators to retain the position in the unit and repost it. This is particularly true when the outgoing incumbent performed a high proportion of “traditional” work, e.g., original cataloging in MARC. The odds of retaining the position are much greater if careful thought goes into how the position could be reconfigured or re-purposed to meet emerging needs.
Most metadata managers have had to address varying amounts of turnover, either from retirements or staff leaving for other positions. Half needed to reconfigure the positions of outgoing librarians. Looking at what other institutions are advertising helps in creating an attractive position description. Many cataloging positions do not require an MLS degree, so recruiting professionals has focused on adaptability, aligning new positions with university priorities, and eagerness to learn and take initiative in areas such as metadata for research output, open access, digital collections, and linked data. Mapping out future strategies and designing ways of making metadata interoperate across systems have been components of recent recruitments. New staff with programming skills are sought after, as they can apply batch techniques to metadata that can compensate for the loss of staff. Using technology in the service of library service helps catalogers “do more with less”. (Some of these needs have been discussed previously: see New skill sets for metadata management.) Professionals trail-blaze innovations, which are then routinized for non-professionals.
The impact of losing professional librarians includes:
- Loss of language skills and original cataloging capacity
- Longer throughput
- Increased minimal-level cataloging
- Reduced time for authority work and training
- Some cataloging work just doesn’t get done, increasing backlogs
Metadata managers have a variety of strategies for dealing with this impact. Libraries are relying more on shelf-ready books or outsourcing cataloging for which they no longer have staff. Outsourcing as much of the lower-level work as possible frees resources for higher-level work and preserves librarian-level staff. As most research libraries batchload a large number of records created by publishers and vendors, professional staff can focus on describing the library’s distinctive collections and working on new initiatives. Some consolidate roles and expectations. For example, catalogers with specific subject expertise can be assigned to describing materials outside their areas of expertise; those with language expertise may handle multilingual descriptions in formats other than MARC. With tools like controlled vocabularies, the need for subject expertise might be less.
Institutional processes may limit the extent libraries can assign some professional tasks to non-professionals. In addition, training non-librarians such as students to comply with library standards can be difficult; they do not always understand why librarians do things a certain way. Student assignments are also time-bounded, which makes outsourcing more attractive. Some would like to experiment with harnessing the knowledge of expert readers like academic staff and post-docs who use their special collections, but the training that would be required can be daunting.
Metadata managers’ experiences have shown that it is easier for librarians to learn programming skills than it is to hire IT specialists to learn the “technical services mind-set.” Metadata managers also want new staff to be aware of the broader “cataloging world” that the library’s metadata must integrate with, the “shared cataloging community.” Some catalog records may be good enough for in-house use but don’t work in the larger environment. Libraries’ metadata needs to interoperate with the metadata created by others in different settings.
The library environment keeps evolving, and librarians have had to reflect on their priorities moving forward. Metadata managers need to rethink the roles of metadata specialists beyond “traditional cataloging work,” especially with so much cataloging having moved to batch processing of large chunks of data. More work is being conducted at a consortial rather than institutional level. It has become harder to justify “really specialized” catalogers. Potential candidates with more flexible skill sets have become more attractive than those with a traditional cataloging background who may not adapt well to working in new environments. Many cataloging roles and descriptions may need to be rewritten and retooled. Most ideal would be a process of “continuous modernization,” annually reviewing and adjusting existing positions to meet new needs and not waiting to address this just when vacancies occur.
This retooling has resulted in more group cross-training to update staff skills and learning exercises where staff from across a unit or division work together to resolve knotty issues or problems. Talking through workflows and problems and documenting the resolutions help everyone in the group learn new skills and develop a “we’re all in this together” mindset while breaking down change resistance. The documentation also helps with integrating new staff. Some have established standing “study groups” to learn and how to apply SPARQL, RDF validation, and scripting skills. Staff prefer in-house training to external training as it strengthens team knowledge and demonstrates internal commitment to their professional development. Perhaps the only activities that will perennially remain professional tasks are those like management, scouting new trends, strategizing, leading and implementing changes, and thinking about the big picture.
Do any of you have success stories about successfully reconfiguring a professional metadata position you’re willing to share in the comments below?
Karen Smith-Yoshimura, senior program officer, topics related to creating and managing metadata with a focus on large research libraries and multilingual requirements. Karen retired from OCLC November 2020.