Skip to content

What Does Bookshare’s Librarian Do?

This post was contributed by Amy McNeely, Bookshare’s librarian. While this post is longer than most, it’s quite interesting and worth taking a few minutes to read. After you’ve read the post be sure to leave Amy your thoughts, comments and questions!


How to read a book like a (particular) (cataloging) librarian

To begin with, there are three main types of librarians: the kind who find things, the kind who build things, and the kind who put things away.  The kind that find things are called public services librarians, and these are the most widely known of all librarians.  They include the reference librarians, circulation librarians, and kindly (or wicked) children’s librarians some may remember from their youth who hopefully helped them find the books that made a difference in their lives.  The librarians that build things are called systems librarians; these librarians often have two master’s degrees, one in library science, and another in computer programming.  They make the database infrastructure, design web interfaces, plug the journal links in, and do any and everything computer-related for the library.  Some of them aren’t even degreed librarians.  The third type of librarians, the kind that put things away, are the catalogers, often called metadata librarians in this day and age.  Metadata is simply information about information—tables of contents, information in iTunes, and Bookshare book records are all metadata.  In these examples, the contents of the book, the songs, and the books themselves are the actual data.

I am the third type of librarian.  I have been trained as a metadata librarian.  I tell you all this because my perspective as a librarian is very much skewed as a cataloger.  I also use the phrases “metadata librarian” and “cataloger” somewhat interchangeably, though everyone may not.  This has more to do with my generation of librarianship than anything else.  I am more of a generalist in metadata than a straight cataloger, and those who only catalog would most likely take exception to my fast and loose use of terms.  But librarians are a contentious group—it is hard to find a large group of us who agree on everything.


After my cataloging training began, I approached books differently.  I started to pay a little more attention to the construction of the book than I used to.  When I have the entire book in hand (this is a phrase that has meaning to us; one may not catalog a piece without it “in hand,” meaning all catalog records must be created while actually holding the physical artifact), I look to see how many times the title disagrees with itself.  Is the cover title different from the dust jacket, the spine, and the title page? For this very reason, catalogers have agreed on what we call a “chief source of information” for every piece of metadata in a cataloging record.  One can only harvest the title from the title page, no matter what one thinks the title of the book ought to be.  It makes it simpler, and keeps catalogers from having to make judgment calls every time the title differs.  Still, because the title differs so often, we have a field in library records to capture varying titles when we feel someone will look for the book under them. It isn’t necessarily important for reading the book to see what the “real” title is, but when cataloging the book, it is very important.  It’s just habit now to check the title.


I also look to see how complicated the authorship of the title is. In cataloging, we list the first author as the author of the book. That’s it and that’s all. There’s a place to list everyone involved with the creation of the book—it’s called the “statement of responsibility,” and it includes illustrators, translators, editors—anyone and everyone you can think of. But we have agreed there is only one author. If there is no clear authorship, or too many authors, we don’t list an author at all. Any extra authors (or in the case of too many, all authors), and all translators, editors, illustrators, or anyone else worth mentioning is listed in another part of the record.


The next thing I look at is the verso. That’s what we call the back of the title page.  On the verso is a lot of information particular to the craft of librarianship, but not important to a lot of other people.  (If you ever think of it, look at the verso for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers.  I think the verso is the best part of that book.)  When a book is published, oftentimes the publisher will send the galley—that is, the unfinished, rough book—to the Library of Congress for cataloging. The Library will create a cataloging record from the piece, which will be sent back to the publisher.  The book will then be published with this information on the verso.  This program is called “cataloging in publication” or CIP.  When reading a book, I look at the CIP information. 

What’s included in the CIP is the preliminary record without the physical or local specifications. The physical information is often blank, because the cataloger can’t measure the book according to the galley. Sizes change. Why is size important to a cataloger? Because in every library I’ve worked in besides Bookshare, shelf space is the most important kind of real estate books take up. (Here, it’s disk space.)  If a book is of very unusual size, say 52 cm tall, you would really like to know that when you’re looking at the record. If the book is that tall, or wider than it is tall, it might be kept in a different place than the other books. Page numbers are also recorded here, as are illustrations and plates. CIP also can’t record page numbers (page numbers in galleys often change), but can mention whether or not there are illustrations in the book. Note that we don’t say how many illustrations there are, just whether or not there are any.

Subject Headings

The next part of the CIP record to look at is the subject headings. There are usually two and no more than six. These get to what the book is about. You can search the subject headings yourself here: or here: (Getting me to talk about the subject headings themselves is another ball of wax entirely—these are my research interest, and I have a lot to say about them.  I’ll try to keep it to the “news” and not the “weather.”  Some opinion is bound to creep in, though.)  Subject headings are applied in a very particular way, and are not the same thing as tags.  A good portion of the book content must be described by the heading; you can’t just put a heading on because you think the user will search for the book under the term.  Library of Congress Subject Headings, this particular form of headings (we call it a thesaurus) also has to be followed out through the entire string without truncating it.  For instance, if the book is of fictitious sea stories written from the perspective of the British during the War of 1812, you really need to use this entire heading:

United States –History –War of 1812 –Naval operations, British –Fiction.

You can’t cut out any part of this string, even if you feel it is unnecessary. Even if it would be more precise without part of a string, you have to add the entire thing. That’s the way they work.  Fortunately, the headings work with “literary precedent,” which means the more books there are in a subject area, the more likely they are to add a subject heading for that area.  There are currently over 308,000 headings, and these can very precise. Where a tagging system would put “oranges” and “lemons” on a book about both, there would probably be a subject heading called “Oranges and lemons.”

As a trained cataloger (let me say I am still a novice in the field: I am someone with fewer than three years professional cataloging experience—I mean out of library school and with a degree—and fewer than eight years total “quick and dirty” cataloging work), I sometimes disagree with the CIP records. Record creation is a craft, not a science.  That said, I don’t always decide what headings I would apply to a book.  It’s not as if I know them all by heart.  I’ve also worked with several different thesauri over the years (specifically, the Alcohol and Other Drug Thesaurus and the Medical Subject Headings, more commonly called the AOD Thesaurus and MeSH, as well as a very modified form of the Sears Subject Headings), so I’m not a specialist.  I usually just disagree with what’s been applied to the book.  It’s always easier to be the Monday morning quarterback and decide that someone else has done a poor job than come up with a playbook from scratch.


I also usually look to see if there’s a colophon in the book before I read it.  That’s the last page of the book if it contains bibliographic information.  It isn’t that common in English-language books, but sometimes it will have a note on the typeface or the series the book is a part of.

Reading the book

After examining the book as object and absorbing the metadata as if I were going to process it, I am finally ready to read it.

It’s worth noting it takes far longer to explain this than it does to do it.  It all this takes less than two or three minutes.  I’m used to examining books this way. 

If you have questions or comments for me about this process or anything else about cataloging or library science, please don’t hesitate to ask.  I like talking about this stuff.


  1. Linda Stewart

    I am trying to find books about jobs one can do at home, setting your own hours. If you have any suggestions I would greatly appreciate them.

  2. Liz Halperin

    Fascinating, I didn’t know about the different kinds of librarians, nor the CIP info. But now I still wonder about the title. What do you at Bookshare?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *