Friday, December 18, 2009

Librarians and library assistants, part 2

I mentioned in one of my opening entries how I became employed in my position in the U.C. Berkeley library. I began working for the university in August 1983 at the Indochina Archive, under the supervision of Douglas Pike, a retired foreign service officer who had moved with his large collection of Indochina (particular Vietnam) materials. I was hired not because of any training related to archival or library work, but because I had come to know Mr. Pike through my use of his collection in research for a report on human rights in Vietnam; also because I had sent him my newsletter on the same subject in recent years. In the subsequent 26 years, I have worked at the University of California under the job title of "library assistant".

Those who apply for positions or are employed as library assistants are probably aware that the job title library assistant will generally have several levels of classification, with higher pay and more complicated duties as one advances upwards. Here at UC Berkeley, there are five levels, Library Assistant I through V. At the Indochina Archive, where I worked until 2002, the last several years part time, I was alway a Library Assistant I, my classification never changed. This despite the fact that my job duties were much more wide ranging than now -- in some respects more cerebral activity required, in other respects less. Compared to my present workplace, the Indochina Archive was more like a mom and pop grocery store. I was the only full-time university paid employee, other than Mr. Pike himself, but we also had help from other people, some work-study students, and at least one Vietnamese working under different funding sources. My work ranged from cutting and pasting news clippings to helping visiting researchers to assisting in all aspects of writing, editing, printing and mailing our quarterly Indochina Chronology.

The reason why my classification never changed was partly my fault -- I did not pursue a reclassification despite encouragement from some at the parent institute to do so -- and partly because our funding was "soft", i.e. relied entirely on foundation support, which eventually ran out. In August 1997, Mr. Pike left with much of the collection for the Vietnam Center of Texas Tech, while I stayed behind, working part-time at the archive, until 2002, when I left to work full-time in the library.

I was hired to work at the UC Berkeley library in 1999 copy cataloging Vietnamese books (despite my limited knowledge of the language). Upon hiring I was immediately reclassified to a Library Assistant II and not too long afterwards was reclassified to a Library Assistant IV. The reason for this is that the supervisor noticed I was cataloging many new, previously uncatalogued items. At that time, unlike now, our department did not create partial records in OCLC, we either copied full records, put a "reject" flag in the book and put it back on the shelves to check later; gave it to the original catalogers; or we would catalog it ourselves as a full record. Since no one else catalogued Vietnamese books at the time, it was left to me to create new records for the previously uncatalogued items.

In retrospect, I was fortunate. If I were to do the same now as a Library Assistant II (or III) I would be reprimended rather than rewarded, as I would be working above my job level description. Because of serious funding problems, our library has imposed a hiring freeze, with a few exceptions. Along with that reclassification has also become virtually impossible.

Most of the copy catalogers here are either Library Assistant IIIs Library Assistant IVs. The LA IIIs are much more constrained in the nature of their cataloging, in truth, not because they are any less capable of performing the same work as an LA IV, but because if they did so, and recorded it as such in their weekly statistics sheet, then they would be in a position to demand reclassification. As for me, while I still create new records, it is preferred that I create "level 2" records (records with call numbers but no subject headings). If I do create a full record, technically it is still considered copy cataloging, not original cataloging, as I am deriving from another record.

I credit our library director for managing to steer our library through a difficult state fiscal crisis without any layoffs up to now, but this position against reclassification does not make sense, especially given that many of our co-workers have retired in recent months due to incentives, and now the rest of us are left with more work. The pay difference between an LA III and an LA IV is not significant enough to warrant the current anti-reclassification policy. Keeping some of us at an artificially low level imposes greater burdens on all of us and hampers the overall workflow. It is my hope that our library can remove these job classification ceilings on the nature of our cataloging and allow for more upward mobility in the workplace.

I may discuss this more in a future entry.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Librarians and library assistants

About eight years ago, I became involved in a debate within an online forum of the American Library Association (ALA) over whether or not the ALA should publicly support the independent library movement in Cuba, basically a movement started by dissidents to establish their own libraries outside government control. I sided with those who felt the ALA should, but there were others who strongly opposed this movement, arguing that the individuals involved in this movement were "fake librarians" and "professional dissidents" working in collusion with the U.S. interests section to undermine the Cuban regime.

A question was posed to the forum: does the Cuban government have an official policy of forbidding certain materials, and if so what are those materials. I responded by citing legislation in Cuba's penal code that clearly outlawed a wide range of dissent. As a result, I came under the first of many attacks from an individual well known within ALA forums both for his invective and for his vocal support of those oppressed in capitalist countries. I don't wish to rehash the debate, but what struck me at the time was that I would be attacked for citing Cuba's own legislation in addressing what materials might be officially banned in the country; and more germane to this blog, that I was referred to throughout his denunciation as "library assistant Denney", as if my job title was a pejorative term, a mark of inferiority, making me less qualified than an actual librarian to address the issue of censorship in Cuba.

"'Of that which you are ignorant, be silent', or at least do not pretend to knowledge which you do not have. Especially before a group of librarians and research professionals," he concluded.

The reason this individual knew I was a library assistant is because I signed myself as "Steve Denney, library assistant, UC Berkeley," as I often do as a way of identifying myself when posting to professional forums. It is my job title, nothing to brag about, maybe, but nothing to be ashamed of either.

Judging people by their job titles or educational degrees they hold can be very misleading. I don't doubt that one can learn much in an MLIS* program, but to me, the chief value of the degree lies more in the professional doors it opens than in the knowledge and training it provides. Essentially, it certifies that one is qualified to perform library work at a certain level, but those lacking the degree are not necessarily less qualified to perform the same work. Much less does the degree make one wiser in other areas that fall outside the realm of library science, such as how a government represses dissent, or how to behave toward other people.

Among my fellow copy catalogers, there is a wide variety of educational and professional backgrounds -- from our staff of about a dozen at least two hold doctorates (but not in library science), another graduated from a university in the Soviet Union with a degree in library science and worked as a librarian there before emigrating to the U.S. Others went straight into cataloging after graduating from U.C. Berkeley.

Here in technical services, most of us work under the job title of "library assistant." There is, for the most part, no sense of superiority or inferiority, but rather a sense of collegiality among us. Nevertheless, we work under a pecking order imposed from above. This has affected the cataloging workflow among other matters, and has been aggravated by the state budget crisis. I will discuss this problem more in my next entry.

* Masters of Library and Information Science, generally required from an ALA accredited college graduate program in order to qualify as a librarian in the U.S.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Different levels of a record

Library catalog websites sometimes offer different views of a catalogued record. The Library of Congress, for example, offers four views: brief record, subject/contents, full record and MARC tags. The brief record in this catalog presents only a physical description of the book, along with title, publisher, author/editor and ISBN number, but links to the full record. The subject/contents view presents the subject heading(s) and call number, along with a link to the full record. The full record lists all the basic details: author/editor, title, publisher, physical description and subject headings being the main categories. The MARC tags view is the same as the full record, except written in numerically coded format. See my Nov. 17 entry on "the catalogued record" for more information.

Sometimes however, even the full view of the record provides incomplete information. That is for a variety of reasons, one of them being that libraries often experience a large backlog of uncatalogued materials and therefore seek to get the items catalogued and on the shelves, even if the record is in low level format. Since these records are usually put into the OCLC shared library database, catalogers from other libraries using OCLC will either export the record as it is into their catalog, or upgrade the record, with the upgraded version going into the cataloger's library database and usually OCLC as well.

Those who catalog in OCLC will see a wide variety of choices in describing the level of a record in the Elvl fixed field. (The fixed fields cannot be seen in most online library catalogs, but are a basic part of cataloging for the cataloger.) I won't go into the many different categories here, but suffice to say that the blank Elvl represents a full record created by the Library of Congress or a PCC participating library (more on that in a future entry), while other symbols (except I) generally indicate less than full records.

Much of my work in copy cataloging involves either upgrading an already existing record, or creating an incomplete record with the hope that it will be upgraded by another participating library in OCLC. Original catalogers, on the other hand, are expected to create full level records for items which were previously not catalogued.

Here at the UC Berkeley library technical services, we began a new workflow system a few years ago to deal with the large backlog. For copy catalogers, we are given three options with books which are either uncatalogued or have incomplete records in OCLC: Level 1, which is a full level record with subject headings, call number and other basic details; Level 2, which is the same as Level 1 except without subject headings; and Level 3, which has neither subject headings nor an LC call number and only the pagination listed in the physical description field. Level 3 books are given a random number from a sheet of labels and then placed with other books in a particular section of the library. A level 3 book can be found only by searching for the author or title, then locating it from the randomly assigned number.

Level 2 and Level 3 records are given codes in the local description and assigned K in the Elvl of the fixed field. This is so that if the record is upgraded by another library in the OCLC system, then it will overlay the record in our library. In the case of Level 3 books, this would require that such a book be retrieved once the more complete record is in our catalog, placing the correct LC call number label on the spine, then shelving it in its proper location.

The rationale for this system is to reduce the backlog and get the books out onto the shelves, where they can be retrieved, even if in low-level form. The problem with level 3 books is that this level is often assigned to the more obscure books not likely to be found in other libraries (at least in the U.S.), and therefore not likely to be upgraded anytime soon. Furthermore since the books are shelved in random order, they cannot be located through the conventional method of browsing the stacks, either physically or virtually, nor by subject heading searches, although it is possible that a researcher might locate the book through a keyword title search, in addition to locating it by searching for the specific author or title. The other problem with level 3 records is that once the record is overlaid, it is still necessary for staff to retrieve the book and label it, so it is questionable how much time is actually saved in creating level 3 records.

I have less problem with creating level 2 records, but still, since level 2 records involve creating a call number for the book, it requires, with the exception of literary works that one finds the appropriate subject heading that matches the call number. Yet, a level 2 record does not include subject headings. The subject heading is the anchor for the call number. When the level 2 record is overlaid from an upgraded version in OCLC, the subject heading(s) will be added to the record in our catalog but the call number is not changed. Thus, there is the possibility that the upgraded level 2 record will have subject heading(s) that don't match the call number.

In the case of literary works, it is rare to have subject headings in a full record, unless it is a work of historical fiction, or a work about an author, so there is no point in creating such records as level 2, although I have often seen level 2 flags in literary works to be catalogued.

In sum, in creating new records, it makes more sense to either create them as full level, level 1 records, or to create them as level 2 but put at least one subject heading into the record so that it will match the call number.

I am speaking here just of my library at UC Berkeley. I don't know if other libraries use similar systems in dealing with their backlog.