Behind the scenes at the library: a glance at cataloguing librarianship

By Arouce Wasty

October is Library Month, a time to celebrate libraries and the work that librarians, library technicians and library staff do to ensure that knowledge and information resources are available and accessible to everyone. In the spirit of this month, let us look at a side of the library not normally visible to library-goers and library staff. We’ll take a behind-the-scenes look at the work of the cataloguing librarian.

A black-and-white photograph of two women in a library. One is looking through a card catalogue and the other is holding a book and looking at the work of the other.

An archival image of librarians processing books. Photograph taken March 1941 (MIKAN 3571070)

You’ll rarely, if ever, see a cataloguing librarian behind the reference desk at your local library. Often, cataloguing librarians work in a different building—though one just as packed with books as the library itself, if not more so! The cataloguing librarian, along with cataloguing technicians, prepares the various resources, such as books, CDs, DVDs, video games, etc., to be placed within the main library. Furthermore, they enter the bibliographic information from these library items into the library’s computer system. The main goal of cataloguing is to enter accurate bibliographic information for an item, making that item easy to find through the library catalogue.

Seems fairly simple, right? Actually, cataloguing can be quite complex. Essentially, there are two major steps in cataloguing: descriptive cataloguing and subject analysis.

Descriptive cataloguing involves finding and entering information describing the library item according to cataloguing standards. Descriptive information includes pieces of information such as the name of the author, the title, the name of the publisher, the number of pages, the file type, and so on. These pieces of information are entered into the bibliographic record for that item.

Next is the subject analysis of the item. Here, the cataloguing librarian determines the main topic presented by the item. This is where things can get quite tricky. Even if the librarian figures out the subject of the item, s/he has to use tools such as Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), or Canadian Subject Headings (CSH), to find the appropriate term(s) or heading(s) associated with the subject. For example, for a book about cars, the appropriate subject heading, according to LCSH, would be “Automobiles”, and not “Cars”. Sometimes multiple terms are put together to create a subject heading. For example, a book about the social conditions of African countries in the 1990s would likely have the subject heading “Africa—Social conditions—20th century”. Some items may have multiple subject headings to cover either the range of major topics they touch on or all the aspects of a topic they discuss.

Another aspect of subject analysis is assigning a call number to the item. A call number groups the item with others on the same subject. You may be familiar with the Dewey Decimal System used in public libraries; academic libraries use the Library of Congress Classification system. A cataloguing librarian assigns either one or both of these types of call numbers to an item. Call numbers and subject headings are also entered into the bibliographic record.

A colour screen capture of a cataloguing entry showing the division of descriptive and subject information.

Figure 1: Example of a bibliographic record

Remember, cataloguing is not just about describing or determining the subject of an item. The main aim of cataloguing is to allow library users to find and access library items. Descriptive cataloguing allows users to find items via the library catalogue by using keyword searches as well as advanced search options, such as title or author searches. Subject analysis allows library users to find items on a particular subject by using the “subject search” option in their local library catalogue. And, of course, call numbers allow users to find the item on the library shelves.

This is just a glimpse of the work of cataloguing librarians and technicians. Although you may never see or meet with them, the work they do has a great impact on the workings of a library and the experience of the library user.


Arouce Wasty is a cataloguing librarian in the Descriptive Division of Published Heritage.

One thought on “Behind the scenes at the library: a glance at cataloguing librarianship

  1. Lotta work organizing things. I manage a somewhat large photo and movie archive. I have to do it all, from acquisition and curating to conservation, digitizing and publication. It is very easy to acquire, but dealing with the rest can be tough. My hat off to all you librarians!

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