In an interview with John Hudson, Lesley Whyte, one of the major figures to influence methodology relating to the production and distribution of metadata for libraries in the last 25 years and currently Managing Director of BDS, reflects on the changes the library catalogue has undergone since she began her career in Glasgow.
JOHN HUDSON: What was your first experience of cataloguing?
LESLEY WHYTE: September 1980. Fresh from university, clad in the white laboratory-style coat that the library staff wore, I entered the cataloguing department at Glasgow University Library. I was a SCONUL trainee, undertaking a year’s intensive training in all the departments of the library, before going on to University College London to embark on the post-graduate course in Library and Information Studies. I had been working in the library for a few weeks and had already been advised by my colleagues that cataloguing was “difficult”, and that only people who were slightly strange wanted to do it. I quickly found that I had to be one of those strange people because it appealed to the way my brain worked. In those days we were filling in forms, coding the information that was entered by specialist operators, and then contributed to SCOLCAP, a consortium of libraries based in Scotland. For me, this was as exciting as working at NASA or Bletchley Park. I delighted in finding the perfect way to express the description and content of a work.
JH: Did you witness the involvement of technology in cataloguing back then? You must have seen this starting to happen?
LW: At Glasgow, we had three forms of catalogue. The guard book catalogue was a series of huge books with catalogue entries written or typed onto slips of paper that were glued onto the pages. Obviously, the entries were not always in strict alphabetical order, which was challenging if you were searching for something, and to use old terminology, there was only a main entry.
This had been superseded by the sheaf catalogue, a variant of the card catalogue, which allowed multiple access points, but for a collection as large as Glasgow’s the sheaf catalogue in the main hall dominated the ground floor of the library, and if you withdrew a book from the collection you had to remember to remove all the access points and all of the entries from both the main catalogue and the catalogue on the floor where the book was actually situated.
The third catalogue was a microfiche catalogue, produced by SCOLCAP. If you were lucky when cataloguing, you could add your holdings to a record already created by one of the other contributors, otherwise you had to create an original record. Even though microfiche entries were necessarily short, my imagination couldn’t help racing ahead, for the prospect of describing works in much greater detail was there, and this offered so many possibilities for resource discovery.
A new and exciting factor had come into the mix – computers were now being used in libraries to expose the collections in a way that had not been previously possible. Furthermore, union catalogues were available, allowing collaboration and the potential to find a book in another library, if it was not available in your own. So, yes, cataloguing was changing before my eyes and I felt excited to be part of it.
JH: How did this influence what you did next?
LW: At UCL, one of my favourite parts of the course was “cat and class”, which only reinforced the fact that I was strange, since most of my fellow students groaned at the thought, but we were taught by the legendary Ia McIlwaine, and even now, I refer to some of the principles of classification and subject indexing that she taught me.
My first professional job, which really determined the rest of my career, was as the Editor of the University of London’s shared catalogue. The University of London is a federal university, and at that time, twelve institutions collaborated in a shared, automated catalogue, which in turn, fed the shared circulation system. I learned all the principles that are so important to cataloguers – accuracy, attention to detail, adherence to standards and consistency between entries. This was baptism by fire, because cataloguers are perfectionists and can be opinionated people, so if I was telling them that their interpretation of AACR2 or the MARC manual was flawed, I had to be very sure of my facts.
To hone my skills, I was also assigned to work two days per week in the Latin American Library at Senate House, where I was based, cataloguing Spanish and Portuguese material. In this job, I made a new discovery that all cataloguers understand – the joy of learning about new subjects. Sometimes even identifying the title of the work was tricky, but I was also learning about places I had never heard of, political movements, people and poets that were all new to me.
I was also exposed to the concept of specialised classification to suit the collection. Senate House Library used Bliss, a faceted classification scheme. While admiring the way that notation could be built to express the subject of the book very succinctly, I couldn’t help wondering, in this world of nascent library automation, if all this effort could be justified, when often the British Library or Library of Congress had already classified the book using DDC or LCC?
Forming New Ideas
JH: It sounds as if you were already forming the principles that have gone on to make your work in this area so successful. How did these experiences influence your next career move?
LW: My next job was as Head of Technical Services at King’s College London. We had about thirty subject librarians and library assistants involved in the cataloguing process. Some were very good at cataloguing, others were very bad, but the reason work was distributed in this way was because the subject specialists assigned individual classifications to the book for their subject area. So if we had five copies of a book in the library in different locations, it was quite possible that there would be five different classifications. While I understood that the subject specialist’s objective was to make the book fit with the collection in their area of the library, it seemed like a lot of duplication of effort.
While at King’s, I also became involved in one of the great activities of major libraries in the last decades of the twentieth century – dismantling the work of generations, by automating the catalogue. The benefits of this were manifest to me – multiple access points, longer entries, more cross-referencing. Automation offered a whole new range of possibilities to the student and the researcher. All my reflections on my experience so far, all the ideas that had been forming were beginning to come together in the world around me and, even then, I was aware of the need to take this work further, to create a practical methodology to simplify the process of creating the catalogue and thereby liberate it, free it from the pitfalls of inconsistency and eccentricity.
JH: Was there a Eureka moment?
LW: During my time at King’s, I was fortunate to secure a sabbatical post at the Lucy Scribner Library at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York. I was exposed to the power of shared cataloguing, using what became known as WorldCat.
In the University of London we did lots of original cataloguing, and always had backlogs, depriving students of access to the new books they needed. Gifts and donations stretched uncatalogued along metres and metres of corridors. At Skidmore, we rarely had to do any original cataloguing, as most was derived from the Library of Congress files.
Just in case I missed doing original cataloguing, my colleagues were very keen to hand over a backlog they had developed, for a new format of music called a CD, since nobody knew what to do with them. When I left Skidmore, all the CDs were catalogued. The importance of a single source of quality records made a huge impact on me. My time in Saratoga certainly crystalised my ideas.
JH: Where did you go next?
LW: Now I really wanted to put some of my new ideas into practice. So I decided to move back to Scotland, and went to work for a very enterprising library bookseller called Tom Farries and his company, T C Farries & Co Limited.
I realised that what we now know as metadata was going to be an even more important force in libraries, and I wanted to introduce positive change into the process. Libraries, especially public libraries, driven by the need to introduce efficiencies and save staff costs, were experimenting with selection from information rather than through physical inspection of books, and were moving towards shelf-ready services. This type of innovation was exciting to me, because we could develop services that really helped libraries streamline their workflows.
The business perspective allows one to be free to improve on what has gone before.
JH: So, doing business added a perspective to your thinking about real-world cataloguing?
LW: Definitely. Business forces a strategic approach. You have to be efficient. And such necessity, when managed correctly, benefits everyone and everything within the supply chain.
The Birth of BDS
JH: I can see that we have two strands merging in your experience as an innovative cataloguer and as a practical businesswoman. I guess what happens next is what is known to so many as BDS.
LW: There was still duplication of effort and inefficiency, both within my own company and between competing library suppliers. So, yes, the culmination of my library experience and my business experience lead me to set up BDS with my colleague, Eric Green, in 1994.
Eric and I had already worked together for five years, and we had a shared vision of services we could offer to assist libraries to work more efficiently, for the benefit of staff and users alike. We wanted to offer a model where expert practitioners could focus on creating metadata that could be used many times by all the different players in the supply chain, for universal advantage.
JH: Can you tell us about the factors that have influenced the formation and development of BDS?
LW: There are a number of factors that have always governed our thinking in the shaping and delivery of services to the library community.
The first is that library-quality metadata is governed by standards, and if we at BDS can meet those standards, and use them to describe the content – be it books, physical or digital, audio or video files or any other format that a library uses, then libraries all over the world can use the record without need for further modification. We believe in the value of standards, and I have encouraged colleagues to participate on national and international committees to contribute to the maintenance and development of those standards.
Another principle that I believe in is that if you find the right people, and give them the correct tools and environment to do the job, you’ll get great results. We have invested heavily in training, and even more heavily in technology, writing systems to make the process of creating metadata easy, and everyone at BDS can play a part in that process. This is what I call the BDS Method.
The BDS Method
JH: The realisation of all those insights you accrued all those years before?
LW: Exactly. All that experience and reflection on it has gone to build the BDS Method. Our productivity levels have been benchmarked with major institutions in the world, and we have been found to be many times more effective. It is the result of the right technology, combined with the expertise of our team.
JH: So, the system works?
LW: It’s proven to do so, yes.
My overriding objective in my forty years as a cataloguer, has been to make a difference to my profession. I wanted to make processes easier, and more effective, and I wanted to drive down the cost of metadata creation by reducing duplication of effort, and reducing backlogs, so that libraries derive maximum value from their collections, making stock available at the optimum time for the benefit of their users.
Our mission at BDS is to provide librarians with the raw material that they can use for resource discovery, or to select, acquire and add the item to their stock.
JH: We’ve spoken throughout about how your experience has informed your thinking. What libraries have inspired you most on your travels?
LW: One of the great pleasures in my job is getting the opportunity to visit libraries, both all over the UK and also abroad. It has been a career-long hobby for me. Access to some of the great research libraries in the UK fuelled my appetite to see more whenever I could. I will never forget the impact of my first visit to the Library of Congress when I was working at Skidmore in 1986. Surely nobody who visits the Reading Room ever forgets it?
There are so many highlights that it is invidious to select a few, but particularly memorable was my visit to the National Library of Spain, where I saw an early illustrated edition of Don Quixote, widely regarded as the first novel ever written, complete with its engravings, which is very rare, because, as the curator explained, the illustrations were usually removed.
The Library of Catherine the Great in St Petersburg was awe-inspiring, with the largest card catalogue I’ve ever seen [see image at top of article]. I could not help but marvel at the scale of this record of human achievement. I have made many visits to libraries where the architecture of the building is a prequel to the marvels that one is about to discover inside, and very close to the top of this category has to be the Black Diamond, the National Library of Denmark.
However, a bibliophile like me still thrills to the sight of a baroque library, containing in harmonious surroundings, everything known at the time of knowledge and human endeavour. The Strahov Library in Prague comes to mind. But how could I ever forget the tiny library on the very tiny Caribbean island of Culebra, serving its local population and passing sailors in a town called Dewey?
I particularly enjoyed visiting the National Library of Australia, where I presented to a group of cataloguers who were visiting the library from all over the country. It was a great privilege to see so many cataloguers from one country interested to find out about working practices in another country. These visits go beyond providing a good day out. They inspire me with the dedication I have seen all over the world and give me ideas that I can bring back to inform work practices in my own company.
During lockdown, my library visits have been sadly curtailed, but I was invited by the London Book Fair to participate in the virtual judging of International Library of the Year 2021. The result is still a secret, but the winner in 2018, the National Library of Latvia, has to be one of the great libraries of the world, due to its iconic architecture, its collections, and also the story of how it came to be built. A country that cares enough about its literary output for the citizens to carry the collection through the capital city to deposit the books safely deserves mention on any list.
Looking to the Future
JH: What do you see as the next developments in the world of metadata?
LW: Oh, so many exciting possibilities.
Publishers are producing content in many different formats, and for all of us, particularly after recent worldwide events, we are relying more and more on digital content. Digital content is not as static as a printed book, so we need to ensure that the description of the item is current. At BDS we work very closely with publishers, and they are releasing more and more rich content about the works they publish. I’d like libraries to be able to access this content and use it to promote their collections.
It is remarkable to think that when I started work, the first thing we did when we accessioned a new book was to remove the jacket. All the information that the publisher thought would attract readers was taken away. Now extended content such as cover images is seen as an asset to be exploited. This information, linked to the catalogue record, is set to grow and the possibilities are huge, extending accessibility and opening up information retrieval in ways to suit everybody. The card catalogue meant that the only information you had available for the item was confined to the physical space on the card. Now we have APIs linking to various sources, both internal and external, providing a wealth of information about the work or related works.
JH: Despite being the Managing Director of a company that employs over 60 people, you still seem to be engaged with the nuts and bolts of cataloguing…
LW: I don’t work “at the tools” any more, but my colleagues keep me informed on new ways of thinking and new ways to describe and access information. There are always new subjects to be described – a year ago, nobody had heard of COVID-19 – so classification systems and thesauri need to be maintained.
We’ve moved from a single point of access to a work, one where you almost had to know in advance that it existed, to one where the potential for resource discovery is unlimited. Every word in a record can be indexed, every information code analysed and content, whether text, video or audio is available to enhance the experience of searching for the right resource.
Manifestations of a work can be linked, formats have proliferated and works can be updated in real-time. We can share records with libraries all over the world.
But these objectives can only be achieved if robust principles govern the recording of knowledge. Cataloguing rules, standards and identifiers are more important than ever if we are going to make sense of this infinite quantity of content.
Moving forward, libraries, as always, are probably going to have to serve the increasingly sophisticated needs of their users by doing more with less. The job of the librarian, right book, right reader is harder than ever, so the need for shared, accurate data is paramount.
JH: And so, I guess, we come back to your method, what you call The BDS Method?
LW: It is the culmination of everything I have learned in my working life, from my first day in the cataloguing department at Glasgow University.
I owe so much to my teachers and mentors, Dr Marlene Clayton, Colin Galloway, Professor Ia McIlwaine, Maureen Pettifer, Patricia Noble… I hope I have added a little to the library of cataloguing expertise they themselves helped to build.
Note: A slightly different version of this interview first appeared in the 200th edition of Catalogue and Index magazine, published in September 2020 by the Metadata Discovery Group (MDG) of CILIP.