Cataloging inspiration

If you’re not a cataloger, you may want to avert your eyes.

Every year or so, I like to reread “Many Intricate and Difficult Problems that Torture the Mind”: Words of Wisdom for Art Catalogers in the Real World. It’s by Kathy Corcoran, who was then working in the library of the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Neb. It should be much better known than it is. Two other things you need to know:

  1. The quote comes from Sir Thomas Hyde, who worked to make a catalog for the Bodleian Library in the 17th century, and although Corcoran doesn’t believe cataloging is always easy, she doesn’t believe it should “torture the mind” either.
  2. This essay was apparently presented at an art librarians’ conference, but it’s not only for art librarians. Anyone who catalogs (or works with metadata in non-library settings) will find some wisdom in it

That said, I’ll just quote some of my favorite parts.

Remember that AACR2, OCLC, and MARC allow you to create minimal level records; these records are perfectly legal and acceptable and will get the books out there for your users. I have been very happy to see these minimal records on OCLC for example, not only for cataloging but also for interlibrary loan and verification.

Don’t let yourself agonize over your decisions. Just do something and let it go.


Your users don’t really expect you to do perfect cataloging but they probably expect to find library books in the catalog and on the shelf, and not in your office.


Reading Jesse Shera’s 2 Laws of Cataloging added to my relief. He said:

  1. No cataloger will accept the work of any other cataloger;
  2. No cataloger will accept his/her own work six months after the cataloging.


I was thrilled to come across this quote from Cutter’s Rules for a Printed Dictionary Catalog: “The convenience of the public is always to be set before the ease of the cataloger.”



  1. “The degree of difficulty in cataloguing an item is inversely proportional to its relative importance in your collection;
  2. “The degree of difficulty in cataloging an item is inversely proportional to its size.”


I’m convinced that there are books for which it is simply not possible to assign call numbers or subject headings that precisely and accurately describe the content.


[M]aybe it’s time to just decide on something, anything, and move on.


To get “unstuck” you could:

  • Create a minimal level record.
  • Choose a broader classification number instead of a specific one.
  • Put it in the artist’s file.
  • Do the best you can with subject headings.
  • And keep the cataloging flow moving.


  • Be liberal with additional cross-references, especially for local usage.
  • Be generous with content notes.
  • Create local authority records at will.
  • Add subject headings and added entries of local interest.


Each of our libraries serves unique patrons, with its own unique collections, catalogs, rules, practices, and needs.


Thanks to the Internet you can visit other library catalogs to see how others have cataloged different types of material. … Then use what you’ve discovered to develop your own practices. Express your cataloging creativity; it’s “your” catalog, relax!

Update: Title of article corrected.

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