May 25, 2018

Rick J. Block | LJ Teaching Award Winner 2008

An adjunct who takes education of LIS students far beyond the classroom

Despite his “day job” and a heavy schedule of classroom teaching, Rick J. Block finds time and intense energy to be the mentor, internship supervisor, and individual advisor to the students who fill every available seat in his classes at two LIS programs. In addition to his position as head of special collections and metadata cataloging at theColumbia University Libraries, Block teaches at the Palmer School of Library & Information Science at Long Island University, Brookville, NY, and at the School of Information and Library Science at Pratt Institute in New York City. Block’s teaching load is usually a large one, as his courses are among the most popular in both programs. In fact, last year he was given an Adjunct Faculty Recognition Award by his colleagues at Palmer. For his incredibly effective and popular teaching and mentoring, Rick Block is the recipient of the 2008 LJ Teaching Award, sponsored by ProQuest, which underwrites the $5000 prize.

Converts to cataloging

Block is famous among students and faculty for converting or convincing many of his students to seek careers in cataloging, metadata, and the broad areas of knowledge organization. “That is my pride,” he says. “I convert several students every semester.”

One such convert, Jackie Parascandola, a student in the Pratt program and an intern with Block at Columbia, tells the story. “Professor Block is more than just a cataloging professor. He is a true ambassador for librarianship,” she says. “He talks about the community of librarians and the sharing of information, resources, and assistance to others in the profession. He teaches this attitude by example.”

She goes on to praise his availability with office hours before class, where appointments come in handy because so many students want his guidance, and time after class as well, despite a full day at work topped by the two-and-half-hour session. “Many times as I left class, students were lined up to talk with him,” continues Parascandola. “Despite his obvious fatigue, he patiently and enthusiastically helped students with questions about assignments, their job searches, and even to critique their CVs. There is no question why his sections are the first to close out. He is a terrific teacher—in and out of the classroom.”

Block’s courses any semester can include Knowledge Organization, Technical Services, Metadata, Advanced Cataloging and Classification, and Introduction to Library and Information Science. He loves teaching and the students as much as they love him. He finds the mentoring the most rewarding part.

“The students are better than ever now, both at Pratt and Palmer,” Block says. “I think they are smarter and younger. Some come right from their undergraduate studies, which used to be unheard of. I have some who come from Wall Street, I have nurses…even had a police officer from the NYPD. It is really great to be able to work with such people.”

Currently, Block employs five interns from the two programs; sometimes there are as many as seven. Some are lucky enough to go on to permanent positions at Columbia.

Passion for the profession

Block’s love for his work, his teaching, and his mentoring is obvious when you talk to him. His faculty colleagues see it, too. “Rick Block is the most respected and beloved adjunct member of our faculty,” says Palmer dean Mary L. Westermann-Cicio. “His classes are always full and overflowing.”

“Rick is totally dedicated to the field, and that has a deep effect on his students,” says Tula Giannini, dean of the Pratt program. “When they take Rick’s classes, they develop a passion for the broader field of knowledge organization and for library cataloging and classification. His personal care and connection to the students is phenomenal. He sees each as an individual…. He is very much their mentor. These are fantastic qualities in a teacher.” His teaching, she adds, is creative, bringing the latest developments into his courses.

The excitement in knowledge organization that Block has fostered convinced Pratt to add another faculty member in his field. Block has converted Giannini, who told LJ, “In many ways, knowledge organization is really at the heart of the LIS professions.”

Another Pratt student, Morgen Stevens-Garmon, gets at Block’s effect on even the students who are not bound to be catalogers themselves. “Block is really in love with cataloging, and still he’s easy to be around and easy to learn from,” she says. “He is such an enthusiast! I even had a moment when I thought I could work at that stuff!”

Teaching cataloging

From his own library school experience, Block remembers cataloging classes where “we went through all the rules, page by page.” He doesn’t teach the subject that way.

“I discuss the theory in class, show examples, and then give students very practical homework assignments like searching the library catalog, searching OCLC, but urge them to do it with a critical eye so they understand what we discuss in class,” says Block. The introductory program is more of an overview of principles. Closer study of all the rules comes in advanced cataloging courses.

“Cataloging is a cyclical thing; its popularity always has ups and downs. I think we’re in an up phase now. People realize that while you can digitize everything, you need the metadata first. The quotation ‘Metadata is cataloging done by men’ has been attributed to Michael Gorman [former dean of Library Services, California State University, Fresno]. We give it this fancy name ‘metadata,’ and everybody wants to do it,” says Block, with his infectious enthusiasm for the subject. The principles, he adds, remain the same, whether in a print or digital world.

The quality of cataloging

Block also contributes to the profession at large, presenting his ideas at conferences and in print. Unlike some of his colleagues, he believes the MARC record has a future. He points out the example that Columbia has invested a great deal in it, even in its electronic displays. “We have millions of records in MARC,” says Block, “so I don’t think it will go away.”

Block is blunt in his assessment of that hot topic in library cataloging circles, the Resource Description and Access (RDA) document that is slated by some to replace or update AACR2 (Anglo-American Cataloging Rules, Second Edition). Although he realizes that the Library of Congress and the American Library Association (ALA) have a lot invested in the new code, he says, “I think it is a disaster. I’m hoping it is never implemented.”

Block disagrees with colleagues who say outsourced catalog records from vendors are lacking in quality. He admits that sometimes “the stuff we get from OCLC” doesn’t always have the quality he would like, but, in general, he feels the quality is fine.

“I’m a traditional cataloger like those critics are, but I understand that we can’t continue to do things the way we used to,” Block asserts. “Sometimes good enough is good enough,” he says. “The whole idea of shared cataloging is that someone has cataloged an item once, and you trust that they cataloged it right. At Columbia, we follow that thinking. We do very little review of records from OCLC.”

Roots in Madison

As Block tells it, he was “a refugee from the doctoral program in political science” at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (UW-M). He stopped at a master’s in that field, then someone suggested library school. The political science department at Madison was rigorous and tough, Block reports, but the library school was “different.” He wasn’t convinced at first, but in his second semester Block had John Boll, “a great professor who inspired me.”

Other influences on Block were Jane Robbins, the dean at UW-M; his boss at Brandeis University, Carolyn Gray; and his current boss (“the best boss I’ve ever had”), Columbia’s Bob Wolven. His “hero” is Gorman, the former president of ALA and the author of AACR2.

“I love teaching,” Block says. “As I tell my students, I love my day job and…my night job…. It is so great to be rewarded for something you love doing.”

Author Information
John N. Berry III is Editor-at-Large, LJ


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