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.


  1. Don't forget that ISBN = International Standard Bibliographic Number. Many people say ISBN Number, and that is redundant. :-)

  2. Level 2 cataloging sounds like what Cornell calls classification on receipt. They assign a call number and put some keywords in the 653 field (but don't "agonize over selection of terms"), expecting that a fuller record will overlay it later. (I don't think they change the call number, though.) I believe Cornell pioneered it, and it was adopted by other academic libraries.

  3. Yes, I know about that, as cataloging books from Vietnam is one of my tasks and Cornell is one of the major collections for these materials. In general, I find Cornell records very useful whether full level or classification on receipt. I guess you don't have what we call level 3, where books are placed in the stacks with no classification or subject headings, only randomly assigned numbers?

  4. I don't work at Cornell, so I can't say for sure. They don't seem to have anything like your level 3. Their cataloging procedure manual is online at