Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

A Cataloging Sweatshop?

Maybe I’m just growing complacent in my old age, but this seems to be my week for not understanding what all the fuss is about. Is there something annoying going on in a library?

I’ll let you decide for yourself. Let me give you the general picture before filling in the details.

A Kind Reader sent a link to an invitation to participate in a “cataloging party” at a library. At the cataloging party, librarians and library school students are invited to come to the library, enjoy coffee and pizza and help with a large amount of cataloging that has to be done for a migration project.

Kind Reader considers it a “cataloging sweatshop,” and comments, “I think I found another reason why libraries no longer hire librarians or don’t replace them once they have retired.”

To compound the offense, the same librarian in charge of the cataloging party recently bragged at a conference about doing part of this migration project through volunteer labor, saving $3,000 on consultants or vendor fees.

If we look at this a certain way, it could be pretty annoying. If public libraries were routinely run by volunteers because they didn’t want to hire librarians, that would probably be a bad way to do things. Volunteers in libraries can be great, but they’re a way to supplement librarians, not replace them.

On the other hand….

The library in question is the library at the Toronto Botanical Garden. Here’s the invitation to the cataloging party. Here’s the brag about saving $3,000.

Reading the brag, we find out that “The Toronto Botanical Garden (TBG) is an educational non-profit organization whose mission is to connect people, plants and the natural world through education, inspiration and leadership,” and that, “With a small core staff, the TBG self-generates over 95% of its operating income and is run chiefly by volunteers, as is the Weston Family Library.”

How many of you work in libraries that are part of organizations having to raise 95% of their own funding? Almost no one working in public or school libraries or libraries in public institutions of higher education. Your funding might still be bad, but much more than 5% of it comes from taxes.

Private colleges and universities need to raise a lot of their money each year, but a lot of those have endowments that help out. Plus they charge a lot more in tuition than I assume the TBG charges for entry. In fact, as far as I can tell, visiting the gardens and the library is free, and what money they make is from offering lectures and classes.

So while I understand the frustration of libraries not hiring librarians when they need them, and could perhaps even afford them, especially from librarians who need work when libraries are eliminating professional librarians for poorly paid staff or volunteers, I’m willing to cut this library some slack.

It sounds to me like the entire enterprise is trying to do good deeds without any significant guaranteed sources of funding. I’ve visited lots of small museums over the years that have so little money they would have to close if they weren’t staffed mainly by volunteers, so the choice isn’t paying people or hoarding cash, but getting volunteers or closing down.

This is the model of lot of educational nonprofits, but it’s not typically the model of libraries, which maybe explains the initial annoyance.



  1. When I was in library school, there were similar spring break cataloging blitzes at area public schools. While your example may not be worthy of outrage, I think it’s comparable to the understaffed situation of many many many public school libraries that get by with volunteers. That seems unfair to students, but then, many things about public schools these days seem unfair to students.

  2. With all this whining about fairness, no wonder nothing ever gets done.

    Life isn’t fair, so let’s just try to what is best in every situation. Quite frankly, that “Kind Reader” needs to be sent to a real sweatshop.

  3. Michael Collins says:


    Saw an ad on Amanda French’s twitter feed about getting folks together to catalogue a historical collection. From memory, the title pages were online and people could pop in online and help out. Perhaps the way of the future.


  4. Zack Osborne says:

    Hi there,
    I’m the librarian hosting what this “Kind Reader” describes as a “cataloging sweatshop”, and I wanted to add my two cents, but first of all, thank you Annoyed Librarian for drawing attention to this event, and my library.
    You know what’s actually annoying? That my library’s budget is less than $3,000 per year. I’m the only paid library staff, and my salary is funded by external grants that are sought after on an annual basis.
    Of course I would love to hire another librarian or library technician to perform cataloguing on a daily basis, and obviously it would be ideal to pay everyone for the time and effort they provide. Nobody here is trying to rip people off or take away jobs; we simply cannot afford any other staffing model. My private library and its parent organization are able to keep their doors open thanks to the charity and time of over 200 active volunteers who believe in its mission, services, and impact on the community. I’m really glad Annoyed Librarian drew attention to the fact that my organization raises more than 95% of its operating budget, and that its situation relies upon “getting volunteers or closing down”, because that’s what’s up.
    And you know what else? A large majority of the volunteers who work in my library are retired librarians, technicians, or teacher librarians who want to stay involved in library work because they love it. We also host field placement students pursuing their library science degrees or library technician diplomas.
    From my perspective, the cataloguing “flash mob” event couldn’t be further from a sweatshop (which, I also think is pretty insensitive). I received more than 60 responses from employed and unemployed professionals, new graduates and current students in the information and library fields. The excitement and enthusiasm surrounding the event, and its potential outcome is faaaar from annoying.

    Thanks again,

  5. Zack-
    I think what you are doing is great! It is a good opportunity for students like me to put library experience on their resume, even if it is volunteer work! Keep on trucking and fighting the good fight!

  6. me too says:

    Zack, you gotta know catalogers: they don’t think anyone should come near anything THEY do because none of us could possible understand all the ramifications of “getting it wrong.” I’ve been led to believe that the Hubble Telescope might fall out of the sky if anonone other than a professional cataloger had the temerity to do their job. Apparently it IS rocket science.

  7. Cataloging is definitely an art, but it sounds like for the purpose of this library “Close enough is good enough” which there is nothing wrong with that depending on the library and the collection. With a very limited budget, you have to pick and choose your battles and it sounds like Zack has chosen whats best for his library and patrons.

  8. Please – annoyed librarian – where do I sign up for the “sweatshop”? I’m an unemployed librarian in Australia. And, I would gladly be a volunteer cataloguer. But I live in Australia. I love cataloguing – but do you think I can get a job here doing it? No. Meantime, I write a blog: 50 Shades of Unemployment.
    Cheers, Carmen

  9. Gail Hussey says:

    Zack I loved it. Raises the profile of libraries, the people who work in them and the value of the work. It caught attention. These are the kinds of activities that build environments for successful funding.
    Yay for you not choosing the other popular options – throwing hands in air, closing the doors, complaining etc., all guarenteed to create the opposite response.
    Keep on rocking your library!

  10. I’m pretty sure that by calling it a sweatshop your Kind Reader has just insulted every intelligent person who volunteered their time to what they saw as a worthy cause by intimating that these people aren’t clever enough to recognise a dupe when they see it.

    There’s nothing at all wrong with crowd-sourcing if you give what you promise in exchange for what you ask for. No-one was duped. No-one was taken advantage of. All your Kind Reader has done is bring to light what a great job Zack is doing.

  11. I note that this is for a project, not an ongoing program. It might be rather difficult and expensive to hire a librarian for one week, or whatever.

    And if I understand the project, it seems to be for carrying metadata over from one catalog to another? So the analysis and classification are already done?

  12. Gabbar Singh says:

    Call it what you like, it’s still an example of libraries and librarians being marginalized by a culture that rewards only profit. Volunteerism is fine and noble, but it acts against the sustainability of agencies that rely on the public trust by reducing resilience. An operation that just gets by on voluntary labor is sunk the first time it needs to repair a roof or a broken toilet. It is absolutely necessary to insist that libraries be treated as necessary, beneficial and WORTH ONGOING FUNDING.

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