Remote Cataloging

Guest post by Sarah Lin, Information Architect and Digital Librarian, RStudio, Inc. 

For eleven years, I worked at a large global law firm, Reed Smith, and during that entire time, I cataloged books that were not located where I was and managed our entire ILS and materials workflow with a dispersed technical services team.

Logistically, we handled this by having staff in other locations scan the title page, verso, and sometimes the table of contents to me via PDF.  I gave them the information on how to calculate height, which led to a funny conversation over the phone as I tried to communicate that height meant spine, not the height of the book if you laid it flat on a table, nor the width from spine to edge.  The situation was challenged by the fact that the folks on the ground in other locations were usually contractors in the office anywhere from twice a month to three times per week.  Communication had to be timed, emails responded to promptly when timezones didn’t interfere, and I had to be absolutely consistent in what I asked of each person so far away from me.  Indeed, because my team was used to not seeing me in person when I lived in Chicago and they were around the globe, when I moved to California and started working from home there was not any notable difference in our interactions save the time change!

Probably my biggest remote challenge came when I was asked to catalog the books in one of our German offices.  There wasn’t a dedicated library staff member in the office, and due to the time difference between California and Germany, my schedule never overlapped with the secretary who was the keeper of their Excel spreadsheet.  In the end, that didn’t matter because I was instructed that she didn’t have time to help me anyway.  So, I took a spreadsheet, plus my college German, OCLC Connexion and Google, and proceeded to get bib records and create item records for just about every title.

Now, unless librarians today had the foresight to scan title pages and versos before they left their offices for the last time for the foreseeable future, there isn’t anyone left to send a scan, much less open a shipment of new books.  And more impactfully, there aren’t any users to read those print titles!  What advice I have left to offer, though, is actually the most important aspect of successful remote cataloging, and really any kind of remote metadata management: be ok with imperfection.

If I worked with actual books now, I’d be thinking about running a report of all records entered during my time working from home once I was back in the office.  In the interim, I’d be going with the best guess if I wasn’t certain which of the many OCLC records I had to choose from and moving on to the next task.  I’d be thinking about metadata cleanups that I could do without needing to see a book in person—typos in the catalog, authority control, and the like.  I might spend time updating procedural documentation or working through what’s likely to need to be done once the doors open again.  My best guess is that access to online resources and expanding online collections are top of mind (if my Twitter feed from academic friends is any indication), and you can run a URL check and import records from home just as well as you can from the office.

If working remotely is new for you, give yourself some time to adjust and expand your thinking—you can probably do all of your jobs, so long as you accept the substitutes you have for your usual workflow, and think creatively about making do with the situation you’re in.

Assistant Director, Research and Instruction, at Boley Law Library, Lewis and Clark Law School, in Portland, Oregon.