Cataloguing Questions

I’ve had a bunch of scattered conversations lately about cataloguing and figured it was time to put it all down into one place. Some background: I am a high school librarian. I am the only FT person in my library, the only person with an MLIS, and the de facto head of the library. You name it, and I’m probably in charge of it, if not actually doing it. 


I don’t order from a vendor; instead I get a 20% off educator discount from local indie bookstores as well as Barnes & Noble. On rare occasions I’ll buy a book from Amazon, usually because I’m unable to acquire the book through my usual brick and mortar channels.

There are several reasons why I don’t go through vendors like Ingram or B&T. For one thing, I’d rather give my money to an indie bookstore than some massive conglomerate that doesn’t care about me in the slightest. I don’t see much of a difference between buying from a vendor and buying from Amazon, and I hate buying from Amazon. The discounts are nice, but the trade off for supporting indies is worth more to me. 

Another reason I don’t use vendors is because I don’t need all the extras they sell you on, such as putting on barcodes and spine labels, BISAC, pre-made MARC records, etc. I prefer to put on our own barcodes and make our own spine labels, that way I can tailor them to my community’s needs. It doesn’t save me that much more time, and I don’t mind doing them myself.

The bigger issue is what this post is going to focus on: the cataloguing. When I add a new title to my catalogue (currently using Follett Destiny, quite possibly the worst LMS ever created, yes, worse than SirsiDynix), I do copy cataloguing. The system matches the ISBN I’ve entered to a record from another library, and duplicates that record for me. Most people make few tweaks to that record – maybe only changing the call number field – and move onto the next add title. I, however, make substantial changes, in particular to the subject headings and DDC. 

Subject Headings

I go through the subject headings and either edit or delete the offensive, outdated, or triggering terms. For example, “Indians of North America” becomes “Indigenous people of North America,” “Illegal aliens” becomes “Undocumented immigrants,” and “[insert crime] victims” becomes “[insert crime] survivors”.

I also de-tokenize subject headings. For example, I remove “Gays — Fiction” and change “African American mathematicians” to “Mathematicians”. To only highlight marginalized people isn’t being inclusive, it’s tokenizing. (Read more about this here.) We don’t have “Straights — Fiction” so why do we have “Lesbians — Fiction”? We can argue all we want about how to find materials if they aren’t denoted with subject headings, but frankly my students come first. Their feelings and experiences supercede any challenges I may have with tracking down books about certain identities. I make sure the summary contains enough information to pop up on a keyword search and give the potential reader what they need to decide if it’s what they want. 

The other thing I do to subject headings is add in Tags. (I hope to switch to a different LMS in the future that offers Tags separately, but for now I’m stuck putting them in the subject headings fields.) I tag all YA books as “Young adult fiction,” all fantasy as “Fantasy,” etc. I have a list of Tags that I can refer back to, and they’re all related to genres or sub-genres. 

Call Numbers

The last thing I edit are the call numbers. Fiction books are converted to “F [FULL SURNAME]” or “F [FULL SURNAME] V1” or “F [FULL SURNAME] (SPANISH)”. To that last one, I interfile world languages fiction titles in the main collection. Sometimes we have the same title in multiple languages, so I denote which on the spine label. It’s easier for my students taking world languages classes to quickly find what they’re looking for. 

Nonfiction is trickier. My process is this. First I look up the title in worldcat and find it in 3-5 other libraries. My go-tos are San Francisco Public Library, Los Angeles Public Library, and New York Public Library. I can find most titles within those collections, but otherwise I’ll branch out to other systems. I compare the DDC choices each have made to the one that my record came with to the one in the book itself (if available). I also use LibraryThing (yes, I know it’s outdated, but for the most part it works), and the print DDC index books.

Most of the time, I can find a good call number based on what the other public libraries are using and call it a day. Sometimes, however, I have to find something else. For example, I personally find it deeply offensive that the KKK and the Black Panthers are often catalogued together in the 300s. Instead, I put Black Panther books under 973. 

Final Thoughts

And that’s my process. It takes a lot of time to get through, nonfiction especially. But it’s time well spent, as far as I’m concerned. I want my students to feel like the library is more than just a space they’re welcome in – I want them to feel like the library is theirs. I want them to know that I see them, that I trust them, that I respect them. I want them to be able to do use their library’s resources without being bombarded by microaggressions or macroaggressions. So I make the time to do that, even if it means it takes longer to get new books on the shelf. We find the time to do the things we think are important, and I believe that accurate and non-harmful cataloguing is extremely important.

This system will probably not work for everyone, and I’m not suggesting that it should. However, if we are committed to DEI work as a practice rather than just a statement on our websites, then we must find ways to change our current inequitable, inaccessible, and unjust systems. That will mean different procedures and policies for different libraries and systems. We must find what works best for our staff and our patrons. This is what works for me and mine. I hope you can find what works best for you and yours.

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