MLA News

Official News from the Music Library Association

MLA Technical Reports No. 34 Released: Music Description and Access by Jean Harden

The latest installment in the MLA Technical Reports series, Music Description and Access: Solving the Puzzle of Cataloging by Jean Harden, was published in late 2017. To learn more, please visit the publisher’s website.

The following includes excerpts from the book’s introduction, kindly furnished by the author and with the permission of A-R Editions.


Why I wrote this book

by Jean Harden
Jean Harden

Teaching how to catalog music has been part of my job in libraries ever since the early 1990s. Mary Wallace Davidson took a chance on this new library-school graduate and hired me for a position at the Sibley Music Library that required not only cataloging but also training and managing a staff (with considerable and invaluable guidance from Laura Snyder, one of the music catalogers there). This was in the last few years of the big music retrospective-conversion push funded by the federal government. We not only had to catalog but had to do it fast. The quotas were high! As it turned out, Mary’s guess that I would be able to handle this turned out to be right. I loved the work, my staff seemed to be happy with me—and we always met our quotas.

After the project ended, I moved to the University of North Texas (UNT), which is noted for its College of Music and its excellent music library. Immediately after starting work, I began to look for ways to incorporate this “training” mindset into my new position. Over the years the music cataloging unit has incorporated more and more student assistants (and assorted others at various times), in addition to professional catalogers, and training them all in their cataloging duties came to be my responsibility. Since UNT has a library school, I have also had the opportunity to teach cataloging classes and music cataloging courses almost since arriving here, as well as having the perfect setting for recruiting new library-school students from among those student assistants who had other majors when they began. Most of my student assistants and music cataloging students have gone on to become catalog librarians at institutions across the country, a fact that keeps me on my toes. If what I teach is going to become widely used, my pronouncements need to be founded on fact, not how I wish things were.

Now available from A-R Editions

Mark McKnight, the Head Music Librarian at UNT and until recently the series editor for the Music Library Association Technical Reports, set about a few years ago to persuade me to write a book on Resource Description and Access (RDA). He knew that teaching music catalogers of all ranks about this new standard was something I did every day and that, as a member of the RDA Steering Committee’s Music Working Group, I think about RDA daily and am often aware of changes long before they become official. Being so immersed in the work on revising RDA, I am acutely aware that it is a moving target, though. I resisted for a long time the idea of writing about it but finally decided that some such book was needed, even though it would need to be liberally laced with warnings about the constant state of change.

This book is primarily a textbook on music cataloging. It sets forth the principal method I have developed over the years for teaching both in the classroom and on the job. Any teacher knows that not all students learn the same way, however. What works well for one person may make no sense to another. Although I have more than one approach in my toolbox, the one used here always underlies whatever specifics I may employ in guiding new recruits to learn how to catalog music.

This is not only a textbook. For practicing catalogers, it will serve as a handbook and reference source. The examples, tables, glossary, and index are intended to provide ready access to illustrations and explanations aimed toward specific quandaries encountered in daily work. Although not every possible dilemma could be mentioned in a book of reasonable length, the paragraphs surrounding each example model a way of thinking through an issue that will lead toward a reasoned solution of a newly encountered difficulty.

Not everything held in a music library is appropriately handled by the processes outlined in the main part of the book. The final chapter, by Maristella Feustle, treats describing and providing access to music special collections, using both archival and rare-music-cataloging standards.