The Empiricist

I recently finished The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead. Brief summary follows if you haven’t read it [no spoilers]: In the world of elevator inspection there are two schools of thought: the well-established and long standing Empiricists, and the new and scary-to-the-mainsteam Intuitionists. The Empiricists are those which inspect elevators the traditional way (clunking around with tools and poking at the various boxes, gears, and what-not). The Intuitionists do just that — they intuit if an elevator is up to code (and if not, what’s wrong) just by standing in the elevator and riding it.

While I was reading the book, I couldn’t help but think about our little sphere of cataloging…because I always am.

Cataloging isn’t neatly divided into two schools of thought. We don’t have a wealth of schools either — as far as I can tell, there’s only one. We are the Empiricists. While there is certainly wiggle room, required vs. optional, and areas of cataloger’s judgment (or cat judge as I affectionately call it), we are a people with an incredibly long and detailed set of rules. Just today while watching a NACO training webinar (conducted by the ever talented Paul Frank), I heard that we must consult the following when determining what to record in an authority record:

  • an RDA rule
  • the LC-PCC-PS(s) for that rule
  • LC supplement guidelines for the MARC field we plan to record in
  • the DCM Z1 for that MARC field
  • maybe even the PCC homepage for the latest updates as those other resources update on quarterly schedules

That’s a lot for recording a single element.

Now maybe you’re sitting out there and gonna tell me that that isn’t cataloging-qua-cataloging, that’s just United States cataloging, or even just PCC cataloging. Sure, maybe you’re right, you probably are.

But it’s the world I live in. Participating in the national conversations, on the big stages with the fancy names means joining this world.

So I get the Empiricists: this is how examine elevators, this is how we’ve always examined elevators, and this is how we always will examine elevators. Call the next step Bibframe or call it MARC22, we’re still trying to fulfill Cutter’s objectives of the catalog from 1876.

As a recent grad of library school, I’m most comfortable talking about the traditional forms and functions of cataloging, because that’s what I know. That’s what I’ve been taught and am continuing to learn about.

But on the other side of my education, which is mostly twitter people and their blogs, I hear different views and different ideas. Some of these are completely radical and fundamentally unrelated to the ones I’ve been accepting as natural and commonsense. This is invaluable to me and I think, to cataloging.

I think we desperately need Intuitionists. We need them to break apart and challenge our assumptions of what cataloging should be. To continue the metaphor from the book, these are the people who have been traditionally barred (structurally and informally) from entering the profession.

I’m a born and bred Empiricist, “learn the rules — then apply the rules” has been a very consistent line to follow in my white upper-middle class life. Look around the room at the cataloging-section of conferences, and you may see more of the same. How can we possible ever get at the heart of how best to catalog, or inspect elevators, if we’re all coming from the same place?

2 thoughts on “The Empiricist

  1. “How can we possible ever get at the heart of how best to catalog, or inspect elevators, if we’re all coming from the same place?” I love that you’re asking that question. I wish more catalogers – or just librarians in general – were asking it too. It frustrates me as a cataloger when I feel I can’t really catalog something like Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi because there are the proper subject headings or call numbers to reflect its content. We need more people thinking outside the box!


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