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Vol. 8 #2, 2002

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By Robert B. Freeborn


In 1992 the Pennsylvania State University (PSU) decided to transfer control of its Education Library from its College of Education to the University Libraries. Located in the Rackley Building on Penn State's main campus, the Education Library's collection contained a wide variety of materials arranged according to Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system. A full-time Education Librarian was then hired to oversee the branch library's operations. About that same time, plans were developed to move this collection into the main Pattee Library (currently undergoing a major extensive renovation and expansion project) and integrate its holdings into Penn State's Library Information Access System (LIAS), the local online public access catalog (OPAC). Before this could happen, however, the Education Library's collection of 11,800 items needed to be reclassified from DDC to that of the Library of Congress Classification (LC) scheme utilized throughout the rest of the University Libraries. Of these 11,800 items, an estimated 2000 were audiovisual in nature. The remainder of this article will focus on the AV portion of the project by comparing it with the seven points put forward by Verna Urbanski in her 1988 work "Retrospective Conversion of Audiovisual Materials." The seven points are:

  1. Why are we converting this material and why now?
  2. Is there administrative support for the project?
  3. Is there support from the media center staff?
  4. How will the collection be organized?
  5. What is in the collection?
  6. What bibliographic access new exists?
  7. What do you want to have when you are done?
This article will also address any unique problems that arose during the project's lifetime.


The first question Urbanski asks is undoubtedly the most important question any recon project faces: Just exactly why should the library spend time and money on converting this material, and why should it be done now? Urbanski puts forward six reasons for the conversion of AV materials:

  1. To provide better access to these rich collections of information;
  2. Recognition that many AV materials have never been cataloged;
  3. Collections have grown unwieldy, and cannot be reasonably utilized and maintained without full cataloging;
  4. The automation of cataloging and circulation functions throughout the library;
  5. Funds for conversion projects have become available;
  6. Drastic reductions in book budgets have led to a reassignment of cataloging staff. (Urbanski 1989, 61)
In their guide to general retrospective conversion, Beaumont and Cox give eight reasons for undertaking such a project:
  1. To create a database for a local automation system;
  2. To improve service to users;
  3. To improve internal library procedures, such as streamlining technical services routines by integrating acquisitions and cataloging functions;
  4. To generate special products, such as reading lists;
  5. To create an integrated file and eliminate the cost of maintaining parallel systems;
  6. To provide flexibility in changing systems;
  7. To maximize returns on automation expenditures;
  8. To protect library files, such as providing easy backup for the entire catalog. (Beaumont and Cox 1989, 6-7)

The recent "Guidelines for media resources in academic libraries," published by the ACRL Media Resources Committee, makes two recommendations that are relevant to the "Why convert?" question:

8.0 Bibliographic and holding information about media resources should be made accessible through the same retrieval mechanisms available for other library materials.

8.1 Media resources should be cataloged in accordance with current national standards and practices, including full subject access, description, system requirements, and classification to provide maximum information to the user of the library catalog. (ACRL Media Resources Committee 1999)

In the case of Penn State's Education Library, as with most conversion projects, the reasons were a mixture of the altruistic and the expedient. The need to provide better access to materials that had been minimally cataloged (or, as discovered upon examining the paper shelf list, not cataloged at all) was indeed an important reason together with the needs to improve library procedures and eliminate parallel catalogs/shelf lists. The main point for this project was the impending move of the entire collection. The decision to begin converting the audiovisual section at that time rather than earlier or later, or the "Why now?" part of Urbanski's first point, was purely one of expediency.

The library's Music/AV Cataloging Team, consisting at that time of two full-time staff assistants, had recently hired a new professional catalog librarian. The filling of this 8-month vacancy provided the team with the leadership necessary to undertake such a project. The extra member alleviated some of the pressure of the regular cataloging workload and allowed time for additional projects.


Urbanski's next recommendation is to determine what kind of support there is for the conversion, and at what level. Administrators especially need to understand the amount of time and effort that will be required to do the job properly. As she points out: "Media cataloging is more expensive than most print cataloging ...It is time-consuming and often takes the expertise of a professional cataloger." (Urbanski 1988, 61) In addition, are there plans to add to the AV collection once it's been converted? If the answer is yes, then administrators will need to make an on-going commitment to providing full cataloging or the entire project is wasted.

At Penn State a lack of administrative support was not a problem. As mentioned previously, a team devoted to the cataloging of AV materials had existed for some time. This insured that if new items were added to the converted Education Library collection, they could be handled within the regular parameters of the Cataloging Department's workflow. In addition, Cataloging Department administrators provided a computer configured according to the "Cataloger's Workstation" concept to assist with the recon project. This concept was clearly defined in a report by the University at Buffalo Libraries Cataloger's Workstation Task Force as: "a customized configuration of hardware and software that is used to perform, seamlessly, the functions, including authority control, involved in cataloging (where-ever performed)." (Report of the Cataloger's Workstation Task Force 1997) Penn State's version of the workstation consisted of a Dell Pentium-based computer with a 17-inch color monitor, connected to the library's cataloging network. The software component included the following: Catalogers Desktop/Classification Plus, OCLC Passport for Windows, Netscape Navigator Internet browser, and a Z39.50 interface to the technical services side of the LIAS catalog.

The workstation itself was then housed at the Education Library, with each team member undertaking a 4-hour shift onsite each week. There were four major advantages to cataloging the AV collection at Rackley rather than sending it to the Cataloging Department for processing:

  1. The collection was still accessible to users throughout the project's timeframe;
  2. the turnaround time was significantly reduced (there were other delays which will be addressed later);
  3. the Cataloging Department did not have to deal with storing the collection while it was being processed;
  4. The Music/AV Cataloging Team was able to easily consult with the Education Library's staff when any questions arose.
The only problem with this arrangement concerned the Education Library's computer network. There were not enough connections to run all the public machines and the recon workstation at the same time. Depending on the number of patrons using the Education Library at one time, conversion work could come to a complete standstill.


This brings us to Urbanski's third point: "Does the conversion have the support of the media center staff?" Recon projects cannot be accomplished without the help of the appropriate public service personnel, and it is very important that they be included in the discussions from the very beginning. Urbanski points out that the media staff may view the conversion as a threat, and will fight to keep things as they are. As she states: "they may believe their autonomy will slip away as full cataloging makes material more readily accessible to the unassisted patron." (Urbanski 1988, 61) By including the media staff in the recon discussions from the start, potential problems can be avoided. This in turn can save the administrators and catalogers considerable time, money and effort.

Once again, the Penn State project was fortunate in that the Education Library's staff was completely supportive of the recon. In fact they were the ones who initiated discussions on the project. The staff clearly explained what they wanted from the recon, provided the cataloging team with any and all assistance needed, and always emphasized how satisfied they were with our work.

One important aspect of the recon that will definitely require the support of your media staff is weeding. Nobody wants to take the time and effort to catalog an item only for it to be withdrawn several weeks or months later. Because audiovisual materials are expensive, however, there could be some resistance to removing old or incomplete items. Urbanski urges all parties involved to understand the costs involved in a typical recon project. Not only in terms of the actual cataloging, but also in the hidden costs of unused or rarely used materials taking up valuable space on the shelves.

The Education Library personnel agreed to look over the recon collection items before we processed them, and remove everything that was of little or no use. In a few instances, however, the cataloging team came across damaged or incomplete items that had slipped through. These items were then referred back to the Education Library's staff for consideration.


Urbanski's fourth point finally looks at the AV collection itself, and asks the question: "How will it be organized?" Does the current organization scheme continue to work, or should it be replaced? Will the classification scheme need to be changed as well? Should the collection's various formats be shelved separately to make the best use of the available space, or should they be intershelved to make browsing by classification easier? Is there a way to have the best of both schemes? How will the items be circulated? Are the components of kits currently allowed to circulate separately from each other, and is this policy one that should be continued? What about the collection's packaging and labeling issues? Will components need to be reunited, and is their original container still present and functional? On the other hand, have individually produced items been combined locally to create a makeshift kit, and will they need to be separated out again? All of these questions are important to the success of the conversion project, and this is where the support of the media staff became crucial.

It was decided that the Education Library's AV collection would retain its present organization scheme, in that all audiovisual materials (except for stand-alone videos and audio books) would be housed together in a separate section of the library. As mentioned in the opening paragraph, however, the collection was reclassified from DDC to LC in order to fit with the rest of the University Libraries' holdings. This approach would allow users not only to browse the shelves but also the OPAC shelf list for similar subject materials. Because of certain limits imposed by LIAS, it was decided by the cataloging team to add the label "juvenile subject heading" after appropriate 650 fields in the MARC bibliographic records whenever possible.

The question of circulation brought up several new problems that needed to be resolved with the aid of the media staff. One case in particular was a large kit consisting of 60+ items ranging in size from tiny seeds and coins to large cooking pots and wooden drums. The media staff had regularly circulated individual components of the kit in the past, and they wanted to maintain that particular service to their users after the conversion. After some discussion, it was decided that small items such as the seeds and coins would be grouped together in locally created boxes for circulation, while the larger items could be checked out individually. (For more details on this particular example, please consult the earlier article "Cataloging of the Weird" by Robert Freeborn.)

Packaging also presented certain problems to the cataloging staff. In many instances, separately produced materials had been bundled together to form impromptu kits. After discussions with the media staff, these items were separated out again and housed in either locally made or commercially supplied containers; their original packaging having long since disappeared. In other cases the original containers did exist, but were in desperate need of replacement. All of these changes were noted in the bibliographic record. Labeling probably caused the biggest headache during the conversion. Since there were other factors involved, however, this problem will be discussed later in the article.


Urbanski now comes to the main question of any cataloging project: "Just exactly what's in the collection?" She points out that AV collections typically feature potential hazards not usually seen with print materials in that they "typically have a mixture of commercially produced materials, unpublished materials, and the often-hard-to-identify unauthorized copy." (Urbanski 1988, 62) Urbanski warns that "if unauthorized copies are cataloged, and especially if records are entered into the national bibliographic utilities, the agency can be charged with copyright infringement." (Urbanski 1988, 62)

Fortunately, the PSU AV recon project did not have to deal with any unauthorized, or even unpublished, materials. Urbanski notes that there is usually good LC or bibliographic utility member cataloging for most commercially produced media, and this turned out to be true for the majority of the collection. The materials themselves ran the gamut from the typical (filmstrips, kits, prints, games) to the unusual (dolls, models, artifacts, clothing, musical instruments), and provided the cataloging team with a welcome diversion from their normal routine. Handling these unusual items also gave them valuable experience that could be utilized in future AV projects.

The biggest problem encountered with the collection itself was that of incompleteness. Many items were missing either their original containers or their accompanying printed material...or both. In several cases it was impossible to determine the actual publisher, publishing date, contents count, or even title/author statement for an item. While most items had a locally created label listing the contents, there was no way to verify whether this listing had been done when the item had been originally received (and when it was presumably complete) or later on in the collection's history. A classic example of such a problem, and the steps taken to rectify the situation, can be seen in the case of "Wooden sounds," which was presented by the author in his aforementioned article. (Freeborn 1999)


Urbanski's sixth point looks at what bibliographic access (if any) currently exists for the collection. Is there something on hand which the recon catalogers can use to either search for copy on a national utility or create a new bibliographic record from scratch? Perhaps it is something as simple as a title accession list, or as complex as distributor-supplied catalog cards. Maybe the paper catalog was created locally according to some non-standard but consistent guidelines? Worst case scenario states that there is nothing at all, and the only access is via some sort of oral tradition passed down from the senior staff to their juniors.

Thankfully, the Education Library had either created or inherited an index card shelf list of the collection. Below are two examples:

KIT ECONOMICS (Social Science)
D Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1969
CONTENTS: 6 crisis pads
1 pad of decision reports
2 pads of decision-maker's check sheets
6 information files
1 decision choice wheel
3 sheets of sticker badges
1 stand
40 troop cards
50 bills

KIT ALASKA (United States)
979.8 Ward, Carol J. (Compiler)
Compile-A-Topic No.9
Philadelphia, PA: DCA Educational Products, iNc., 1969

This shelf list did prove of some use to the cataloging team in terms of searching for appropriate copy. However, the list was both inconsistent in information provided and incomplete in its holdings. Many shelf list cards for items in need of original cataloging, such as the kit "Changing Africa" and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) dioramas addressed in the author's earlier article (Freeborn 1999), were nowhere to be found.


Urbanski admits that her last point on recon cataloging really should be one of the first one asked: "What do you want to have when you are done?" Every detail discussed, every dollar spent, and every work hour spent on the project should be done with the final goal firmly in mind. Is it "quick and dirty/get something in the OPAC" cataloging you're after, or will you settle for nothing less than full cataloging? Maybe a compromise between the two extremes? Whatever the decision, it would be prudent for us to remember Urbanski's final statement on recon cataloging: "as is so often the case, an agency's users will get out of the bibliographic information exactly what is put into it-no more, no less." (Urbanski 1988, 63)

At Penn State, the goal for the conversion project was a simple and straightforward one: full-level cataloging for everything. Of course with the resources available to the Music/AV Cataloging Team, this was a goal well within our grasp. In the end we had added a collection of 1100 AV items (after weeding) to our OPAC in just less than 2 years, while at the same time still we maintained a reasonable turnaround rate for current materials.


Even after Urbanski's 7 points have been addressed, recon catalogers will still run into many unforeseen problems or situations. The major problem that confronted the Education Library AV conversion project was a combination of staffing and communication concerns. Almost all of the physical processing of materials at the Penn State University Libraries is done in-house by the CatMarking Team. It was understood that CatMarking could undertake the project's processing requirements utilizing the same workstation setup at the Education Library that the catalogers themselves used. Unfortunately, the CatMarking Team was not consulted at the beginning of the project as to their opinions on this arrangement. We discovered later that although they could use the workstation in the Education Library to create the labels and assign barcodes, the local printer could not actually print the proper labels. This meant they would have to create and print their labels in the Cataloging Department, and then travel to the other side of the PSU campus where the Education Library is located to attach the labels. Several months into the project we also discovered that this was the time of the year when CatMarking's workload hit its peak, thereby putting a major constraint on their participation in the recon project. A five to six month work stoppage occurred, and only after all parties involved met to discuss the project did work resume. These points all seemed to lead to the headaches to which Urbanski warned in terms of media staff support.


After comparing the outcome of Penn State's AV recon project with the seven points put forward by Verna Urbanski in her seminal 1988 article, the Education Library conversion was an ALMOST ideal scenario. Administrative and media staff support was strong, resources and staffing were quite sufficient, and the end product resulted in full level cataloging for the entire collection. There were, however, two setbacks to the project that were not addressed in the Urbanski article: 1.) Not including all concerned parties at the initial discussion phase; and 2.) not maintaining communication links between parties throughout the project's entire timeframe. Had the Music/AV Cataloging Team known about both of CatMarking's problems with the processing arrangements and their heavier workload, steps could have been taken earlier to ease the situation. Consequently, the entire conversion could have been completed in a substantially shorter time. Therefore, it is imperative that any library preparing for a retrospective conversion project, whether it involves audiovisual materials or not, needs to make sure that: 1.) All concerned personnel are included at the beginning; and 2.) There is constant communication among these personnel throughout the process. This way everyone comes out a winner: the administration, the catalogers, the processing staff, the public service personnel, and especially the users.

Beaumont, J., and J.P. Cox. 1989. Retrospective Conversion: A Practical Guide for Libraries. Westport:Meckler.

Bryant, P., B. Bloomfield and B. Naylor. 1997. "Sour Grapes and Cherry Picking," Library Association Record. 99:378, 380.

Chapman, A. 1996. "Retrospective Catalogue Conversion: A National Study and a Discussion based on Selected Literature." Libri. 46:16-24.

Freeborn, R. 1999. "Cataloging of the Weird." MC Journal. 67(2)

ACRL Media Resources Committee. 1999. Guidelines for media resources in academic libraries.

Harrison, K., and D. Summers. 1995. "Retrospective Catalogue Conversion at Lancaster University Library." Program. 29:107-122.

Olson, N.B. 1992. Cataloging of Audiovisual Materials: A Manual Based on AACR 2. 3rd ed. Edited by S.S. Intner and E. Swanson. DeKalb:Minnesota Scholarly Press.

Olson, N.B. 1993. A Cataloger's Guide to MARC Coding and Tagging for Audiovisual Material. DeKalb:Minnesota Scholarly Press.

Report of the Cataloger's Workstation Task Force, Central Technical Services, University at Buffalo Libraries. 1997.

Urbanski, V. 1988. "Retrospective Conversion of Audiovisual Materials." RTSD Newsletter 13(6):60-63.

Robert Freeborn is the Music/AV Cataloger-Military Studies Selector at the Pennsylvania State University.

Copyright 2000 Robert Freeborn. All rights reserved. Commercial use requires permission of the author and the editor of this journal.

The author and editors do not maintain links to World Wide Web resources.

ISSN 1069-6792
Revised: 3/6/00