On truth in cataloging

(Or, to boldly go where no cataloger has gone before….)

Recently, there has been much discussion in the library cataloging community surrounding the recent release of The Autobiography of James T. Kirk. That’s right - an autobiography. Which means a biography (so, a book about a person), written by that person. Except James T. Kirk is a fictional character and therefore not able to write real books out here in the real world.

                                                                                                       Surprise! I'm fictional!

                                                                                                       Surprise! I'm fictional!

Except under RDA, our current set of cataloging rules, standards, and practices, fictional authors are considered to be true authors of their own works, if the item presents them as such. This is a change from previous practice, and from the previous framework that outlined our rules, standards, and practices. This change was hotly debated when the RDA framework was being written, and when RDA was released five years ago, and apparently is still being contested today. Someone on one of the cataloging listservs I subscribe to went so far as to say that “cataloging is the pursuit of truth” and therefore, we could not afford authorship to fictional characters, as we would be misleading the public and propagating dangerous and unethical hoax information.

To which I say: hogwash.

First of all, let me say that anyone who thinks “cataloging is the pursuit of truth” needs to come down off of their pretentious high horse and realize what cataloging truly is: a means of collecting and describing various pertinent information, data, and metadata about an object in a library collection, ideally so that information can be used to fully describe the object to aid patrons and staff in finding materials. Cataloging is a public service. It’s ground up. We catalog so that the public can find things and can know what it is that they have found. This is, by necessity, a job that must be done as objectively as possible - once we start refusing to describe things we don’t like, or describing things in a clearly biased way (“this book is written by a political candidate I disagree with so I’ll mark it as ‘humor’ and that’ll show ‘em”), we are failing to provide that public service. We are instead pushing our own agenda.

Of course, no human being is truly able to do anything in a completely unbiased manner, because as human beings we have experiences and memories and relationships that color our perceptions, often without our full awareness. But one important way that the cataloging standards attempt to check our human biases is through one simple, cardinal rule that every MLIS candidate learns on their first day of cataloging class: record what you see.

This means if the title has a typo in it, and you know it’s a typo, and everyone knows it’s a typo, and you would so desperately like to fix that typo - don’t. Record what you see. There are other places within the cataloging record where you can note to your public that this is probably a typo and you can make their searches easier by recording the un-typoed version.

This means that when I get a book with a copyright date of “2016” (of which we have received several already this year, usually from the same misguided publisher who apparently can’t get their dates right?), 2016 is what goes in the record as the copyright date.

Now, thanks to RDA, this also means that when your book about a talking mouse purports to be authored by same talking mouse, then Geronimo Stilton gets listed as the author. And children’s librarians rejoice, because finally all the Geronimo Stilton books can be shelved together by author name.

                                                                                         Mr. Stilton even does author signings.

                                                                                         Mr. Stilton even does author signings.

Which brings us back to James T. Kirk. Who, yes, in a proper RDA cataloging record, will be credited as the author of his own autobiography. Seem strange? It really shouldn’t. The purpose of cataloging is to record what is on the item. If the item purports to be penned by James T. Kirk, then James T. Kirk it is. There are other places in the record where it can be clearly noted that James T. Kirk is a fictional character, and that David Goodman, purported editor, probably actually wrote the actual text.

The reason for this is because there are so many edge cases where it gets tricky. If we don’t allow fictional authors, then what about Richard Castle, superstar best-selling author who has written many books except… he doesn’t exist. And the public does not yet know who the actual author of his books are. Richard Castle is the only name we have to go by.

What about pen names? Should J.D. Robb never be given an author credit, because catalogers as “arbiters of truth” all know that J.D. Robb does not exist and is in fact a pen name for Nora Roberts? Not to mention the thousands of nonfiction books that are ghostwritten (think: every celebrity memoir ever) with no mention of the ghostwriter’s name even included or acknowledged anywhere.

What about subject headings? Greg van Eekhout’s latest book is about dragons and magic - both subject headings I just added to the book’s catalog record for my library - but dragons and magic aren’t real. As “arbiters of truth,” should we not include these?

And of course, because everything in life is political, what about things that I as a cataloger consider to be ridiculous, baseless, and downright propaganda? What if Caitlyn Jenner writes a book, but I am a transphobic “truther” cataloger who insists that Caitlyn Jenner does not exist? It would be a great disservice to our public, and a downright lie, to list Bruce Jenner as the author of a book written by Caitlyn. But if we take this “truther” rhetoric to its logical conclusion, this is where we end up - denying people their civil liberties and disregarding the rich diversity and free expression that American democracy is supposed to be founded on. Pushing our political agenda on an unsuspecting public that relies on us to be as impartial as can, and to record what we see. (Even when it’s the latest ridiculous Ann Coulter book, which I have tweeted about in the past.)

Here’s the point: critics contend that listing James T. Kirk as the author of his own autobiography is perpetuating untruths and making things more difficult for future historians and researchers. Except this argument is completely unfounded. Historians are smarter than this. I, an unsuspecting member of the public doing some research on “Driving Heat” can look up the title of the book, see that it was authored by Richard Castle, dig for a little more information, and find out that Richard Castle is not a real person. Do I feel tricked somehow by the cataloger who listed him as the author in the bibliographic record? Of course not. If I never bother to do the research and I walk around thinking Richard Castle is a real living breathing human being who lives in Manhattan with his family (as his author bio states), am I the victim of some terrible hoax? Of course not. There is a time and a place for everything, and a MARC record is not the place for a cataloger to stand on her soapbox and proclaim herself to be the arbiter of truth.

Cataloging is about describing the item based on the facts. It is not our job to be arbiters of truth, nor is it our job to be critics of content (that’s what blogs are for, not MARC records). Your public will decide for themselves whether they consider that item to be propaganda or hoax, a light-hearted bit of fictional fun or a gross disservice to the historical record.