McGill University

Free up time to work on special collections

Before and after photos of McGill University Library's student space

"Using OCLC Contract Cataloging, we were able to clear out hundreds of thousands of backlogged items for a reasonable price."

Joseph Hafner
Associate Dean of Collection Services, McGill University

McGill University Library's backlogged material filled several rooms in the main library, branch libraries and an annex. The backlog included items in non-English languages, rare and fragile book collections and items from before the library switched to Library of Congress classification system in 1969. As the Associate Dean of Collection Services, Joseph Hafner, explained, "we were having trouble keeping up with our new cataloging, let alone these collections."

To help handle the non-English works, the library was fortunate to have an Urdu-speaking cataloger on staff who could process their collection of several thousand Urdu titles. Due to his other responsibilities, however, he could only catalog about two Urdu titles a week. "On our path," Joseph said, "it was going to take at least another 150 years!" Then, because of the economic downturn, staff who retired were not replaced. "We lost about a quarter of our staff," Joseph added. "We couldn't keep doing things the way we had always done them."

Joseph estimated that the library may have had to hire and train 20 full-time, career employees to clear out the backlog on their own because of the multiple languages and types of materials. Instead, Joseph and his staff reached out for help to OCLC Contract Cataloging. "We realized that for a really reasonable price, we were able to have this work done someplace else."

They started by sending a stack of catalog cards for a rare book collection that had not yet been added to the online catalog. "After that went well," Joseph said, "we started sending the physical items from some other collections that didn’t have records yet."

"Some of the staff thought that someone else wouldn't take the care that we do here. But the folks at OCLC have been great to work with over the years, and if something did go wrong, they fixed it."

Using a combination of OCLC, library staff and student assistance, "we were able to work through everything in our backlog and cleared out the backlog areas," he continued. One of those areas opened up a large common space for students. Another became the new digitization lab to support digitizing the newly cataloged rare books and sharing the public-access titles with Hathi Trust.

McGill then re-evaluated processes for cataloging new material. They found ordering shelf-ready books from multiple vendors to be labor intensive and time consuming. "We started asking our foreign-language vendors—from Europe, China and the Middle East—to ship our orders directly to OCLC," Joseph explained. Now, OCLC emails the scanned package invoice to McGill, who pays it while OCLC gets started with the cataloging. This process has lowered processing time from about six months to less than a month.

"We've had a great reaction, especially from the staff," Joseph continued. "Now the branches know that if they order something, it's not going to disappear here. We have a goal of getting items onto the shelf at the branches within 48 hours." The library has also re-trained some catalogers to work on electronic resources, a large collection of art prints and the remaining rare books that can't be shipped. "The staff feel like they have more rewarding work here now that they aren't doing some of the more mundane, every day stuff that's coming in."

Since working with OCLC Contract Cataloging, the McGill library has made more than 200,000 rare books available through the catalog and at the branch libraries, expanded the library's common area, opened a digitization lab, dramatically improved turnaround time to process new materials and offered cataloging staff members more fulfilling and interesting work. As Joseph puts it, "it's been a really good outcome for us."

Map showing location of McGill University

Library at a glance

  • Collection includes more than two million print books and an equal number of electronic books
  • The McGill library system includes one main library and 14 branch libraries
  • The rare book and special collection library includes items such as Babylonian tablets, Olympic memorabilia, South Asian manuscripts, cook books and puppets

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