William & Mary

Senior cataloger has put 50 years in the books

  • Kathryn Blue sits at her desk
    50 years on the job  Kathryn Blue relaxes at her desk inside Swem Library.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Kathryn Blue has a large collection of books at home. They sit on shelves and in bookcases. They are in no particular order.

How can that be? The woman who has spent the last half-century cataloging virtually anything and everything contained in William & Mary’s Earl Gregg Swem Library draws the line on such behavior when she turns the key to her front door?

She smiles and shrugs.

“There are catalog librarians who have their music collection all arranged in a certain order,” Blue said. “I don’t. I have a lot of books back home, but they are not arranged in any order.”

No matter. The university presents awards for one’s service, ability and longevity. In each area, Blue has been exemplary. On June 13 at Sadler Center’s Commonwealth Auditorium, William & Mary will honor Blue for 50 years on a job that has seen so many rapid, radical changes that she says it’s been like undertaking a new position every couple of years. She is one of dozens of W&M employees who will be honored at the reception for reaching milestones in their years of service to the university or state.

“Kathryn has spent her professional career caring for our collections and ensuring that people can find them,” said Carrie L. Cooper, dean of university libraries. “It is our good fortune that she still enjoys her work, and spending time at Swem Library.”

Blue was hired after earning a Master of Arts in library science at the University of Wisconsin, where she specialized in cataloging, she said, because William & Mary had just initiated its Russian language program and had acquired “a whole bunch of books” to support the curriculum.

“They needed someone who could read Russian,” she said. “That's why they hired me.”

What the university received was someone who also had studied German and French in college and had a solid working knowledge of each. She also was capable of using Chinese-English and Japanese-English dictionaries. Well, if not capable, not intimidated to use them. They provided her with the biggest challenge of a career loaded with them.

“When they started doing Chinese and Japanese, I had to figure out how to use a dictionary to read the characters and figure out what the book titles and authors were and create catalog record,” she said.

Blue addressed the assignment nonchalantly. But you try sitting for hours on end, inspecting every character of a language you know nothing about and cross-referencing everything you see in an attempt to create names and words.

At one point, Blue was charged with cataloging the university’s rare book collection, handling much of the work herself before supervising others “artfully,” Cooper said in regard to the students, staff and young professionals she has encountered.

Blue also has played a key role in the university’s transition through an alphabet-soup listing of catalog systems that date back to “the dawn of automation,” she said.

There was the Ohio College Library Center, or OCLC, in which index cards were created by computer, sparing a human from having to type up cards. That system came to W&M in 1975. Ten years later, there was the Virginia Tech Library Catalog, or VTLC, William & Mary’s first automated in-house system. SIRSI was more developed than VTLC. Currently, the university employs the Ex-Libris system.

“Each,” she said, “is more sophisticated than the one before it.”

Blue is too modest to put it in such terms, but there’s an art and an instinct to properly cataloging a book.

“First, you have to determine what the book is, who was its creator and what is its content,” she said. “You have to do a subject analysis of the content because you're going to have to create for the library subject terms to index it by so that people can search the terms. You have to be very attuned to details and also standards to try to make our records comprehensible anywhere, for anybody.

“Now, everything is available online. We've got to adhere to standards for new databases and new cataloging systems. You have to familiarize yourself with the newest developments because things are changing rapidly. It's constant, educational and you have to keep paying attention to how things are changing and how you can implement them here in this library.”

Blue is a bicycling enthusiast whose co-workers remember pedaling to work earlier in her career at the university. She and a friend organize bike trips along places like the Great Allegheny Passage, which follows now-unused railroad tracks from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland. She’s also biked through many European countries.

Blue retired from fulltime work in 2011, though she immediately agreed to returning in a part-time capacity because of a personnel shortage and a large collection of foreign language books that needed to be cataloged.

So, might she retire?

“I might consider it,” she said, though not convincingly. “Working here gives me my mad money. This is what I travel on.”