In “The Future of Cooperative Cataloging: Curve, Fork, or Impasse?” Joan Schuitema explores the history of cooperative cataloging in search of patterns that might help provide direction for the future landscape of the profession. She contends that the future of cooperative cataloguing is in question due to shifting values in librarianship, rapid technological change, and competition in information retrieval tools and techniques—i.e., Google interfaces. By looking at some of the landmark developments within the field, Schuitema hopes to determine exactly why particular changes came about and, more importantly, how those changes and their impetuses might relate to the current climate of cooperative cataloging.
Schuitema begins her historical assessment by noting the efforts of Charles Coffin Jewett in pursuit of his goal to make the Smithsonian Institution a hub for library organization—a plan impeded by a lack of funding. She then highlights attempts by libraries to partner with publishers in distributing records along with publications. While such efforts have continued into the present, they have often met resistance due to their tendencies to slow down production, increase publishing costs, and lag behind changes during publishing. Finally, Schuitema examines the impact of printed cards on the development of cooperative cataloging and finds that, although they served to promote standardization, the success of card systems—such as the LC’s—was limited by increases in costs and the inability to keep up with production rates. “By 1940,” says Schuitema, “cataloging had reached crisis proportions and arrearages were growing at alarming rates.” (261) The most intriguing aspect of the history of cooperative cataloging for Schuitema is the fact that practitioners “continue to wrestle with the same issues.” (262)
To answer this question, Schuitema shifts her attention to the current landscape of cooperative cataloging and contemplates the profession’s future. She notes that catalogers are burdened by the continued growth of knowledge and expressions of that knowledge within new formats. Traditional practices are being outsourced and automated, and rules and standards are becoming more elaborate. Coupled with these issues is the fact that libraries are continuously finding ways to cut costs. Perhaps the greatest problem facing catalogers today, according to Schuitema, is that of dealing with shifts among the information-seeking behaviors of users—who, instead of relying on the “pre-defined paths” provided by catalogers, are increasingly utilizing their own techniques to acquire information. Finally, by assessing the nature of cooperative cataloging “through the eyes of a therapist,” the author argues that anxiety regarding the profession’s future largely stems from changes in societal values, which, often result in the devaluation of traditional methods and a need for new skill sets. The shifting retrieval needs of users, contends Schuitema, are accompanied by a requirement for new skills. Many practitioners are simply unable, or unwilling, to adjust to this demand.
While she states that the profession’s future is less clear than ever and that the past fails as an appropriate guide, Schuitema is still optimistic. She sees cooperative cataloguing moving toward a fork in the road, one path involving the continuation of traditional methods and the other “curving” to accommodate changes among societal values and information-seeking behavior. Using Marjorie Kelly to stress the notion “that we can’t advance as long as we’re holding tight to what not longer works,” Schuitema believes that if catalogers fail to meet new challenges, the profession will be at an “impasse.” She suggests that librarians “rid themselves of the notion that there is one best way of organizing the world of information.” By doing so, the cataloging profession can avoid diverging on different paths and, instead, find ways of bringing seemingly disparate needs into “confluence.” (264, 268-269) Schuitema makes a strong case. Catalogers must adapt to technological changes and values shifts in order to advance the profession and meet the information needs of patrons. If cooperative cataloging cannot effectively change course, then competing methods of addressing retrieval needs may indeed render the industry obsolete.