Jerwood Library Who’s Who: Helen Mason

This continues our Who’s Who series of blog posts where Jerwood Library staff talk about themselves and their work.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your role in the Jerwood Library

Screen Shot 2015-07-23 at 22.16.40I’m Helen Mason and I am responsible for cataloguing and purchasing audio visual materials for the Jerwood Library. I started out as a cataloguer at the British Institute of Recorded Sound – now the British Library Sound Archive –  then moved north to Lincolnshire to manage the County Libraries Music and Drama Library service. After working in Lincoln for more years than I’m prepared to admit to, including moving (literally) the music collection into the re-built Central Library and honing my general and local studies reference library skills, my post finally vanished in yet another major organisational re-structure. Luckily for me, I was fortunate to be appointed to my present role at the Jerwood Library. Some of my spare time these days is spent playing mainly early music, or gardening, but I also managed in to squeeze in a 3-year MA in Music with the Open University.

What is a typical day at work like for you?

It depends what you mean by ‘typical’. If you mean routine, then I would say that one of the advantages of working in a relatively small library is that no day is ‘typical’. At any moment you may be called on to assist colleagues with unexpected tasks outside the core ‘routine’ work, something which happens less often in libraries with bigger teams of staff. So, in my case, I may have been quietly getting on with cataloguing the latest batch of new scores my colleague Oliver has purchased for library stock, when my phone rings and a colleague at the desk requests my assistance to help a student find a piece of music in one of our collected editions, or sort out a knotty copyright query, or discuss a query about a CD or DVD item they require, or quite simply my colleague needs help with a queue of people at the front desk. Back at my desk I may then set about sourcing and ordering the requested CD or DVD, perhaps look further into a printed music enquiry or settle back into working my way through cataloguing the pile of new music.

Then there are some meetings to attend, for example faculty departmental meetings. These offer a welcome opportunity to meet and talk with other members of staff, collect their views of the library service and update them on new library resources. Like my colleagues, therefore, a typical day is a day full of unexpected and enjoyable tasks, fitted around my core cataloguing and audio visual materials ordering.

What’s something you enjoy about your role?


One of the best things about being a cataloguer is making visible the invisible. Consider for a moment the shelves of books, music, CDs and DVDs in the library and if you were unable to check the catalogue or ask a member of staff, how would you locate just that volume which contains the information you need amongst those thousands of items? You could perhaps embark on a tour of the shelves to examine every item? But what if you still don’t find what you are looking for, can you be sure it wasn’t there or did you just miss it? I remember a library colleague recounting an instance when a reader suggested doing just that, saying, ‘you have a look along those shelves and I’ll check along these’.  My colleague gently explained that libraries have a quicker and more efficient way to find the item, viz. the catalogue – the work of an invisible cataloguer.

Are there any hidden or little-known aspects of your work you’d like to share?

You might say that most of my work is both ‘hidden’ and ‘little-known’, as is that of cataloguers world-wide and throughout the ages! Who ever gives a thought to how the information gets into the library catalogue?

It’s fair to say that library cataloguing comes at the advanced end of data entry, in that it is still largely done by real people typing data into structured fields in a database, and can involve a great deal of additional ‘intellectual’ input. Online shopping websites generally rely on images of their products and, as we all know, frequently fail to provide vital information – just how tall, wide and deep is that chest of drawers and will it go up the stairs? Even more annoyingly, they rarely present the same information in a standard format, so you can’t be sure that perfect dresser is really that tall, wide, deep, perhaps those figures mean tall, deep, wide – you need to know!

What do library cataloguers do?

They describe things so that you, the user, can make an informed decision about whether this, rather than that, particular item is the one you need. Simple really! Well, perhaps not so simple. Just the result of careful, systematic and attentive work undertaken by an invisible cataloguer to make the invisible item visible to you in the many ways you may choose to look for it.  Whether you half remember the author’s name or just part of the title, or that it was a piece of music for flute and harp by a French composer, or that it was a book about tuning pianos, or a particular Russian opera score with words in English, or it must be an Urtext edition, the cataloguer has to be sure to include all the bits of information you need to help you find the item on the shelf, to distinguish between similar items, or to select from a range of related items.

It boils down to the cataloguer making literally dozens of important decisions about each item, from basic questions such as: who is the author, how do you spell their name, what are their dates, to, in the case of a book, what is it about, are several authors involved, or is it a compilation of separate essays on a theme?


Printed music poses even more and trickier questions. What exactly is the item being catalogued? Does the library already have it in stock, or is it similar to something which is in stock? Is it a complete piece? What is the ‘correct’ or ‘best-known’ title of the piece? (Think of how many instances of Bach’s Jesu joy of man’s desiring there might be which you would want the catalogue to display together to for you to choose from! Welcome to the fascinating world of the music cataloguer!).

If the item to be catalogued is a vocal piece, are the words in the original language and does it include a translation? Which and how many languages are presented? Who wrote those words and who translated them? If it is an instrumental piece, what instruments are required? Are there parts? If so, are they all there? Is this the original scoring, or is it an arrangement?  Is this the original edition or has someone edited it? Who made the arrangement or edition and will anyone need to search for their names and dates? Is it in fact published, and if so, when, where and by whom? How many pages does the item have, what are its dimensions, are there introductory notes, appendices, critical comments and what language(s) are they in? Does it include illustrations, loose pages, CDs? Is the duration of the piece indicated? Is there information about the first performance? What about the binding? Where is the best place on the library shelves for the item, (i.e. in which class/subject area does it belong)? What is the shelf number? Are there other copies to be added?

Audio visual items introduce the extra dimension of performance for consideration. Which and how many of the performers, producers, directors, conductors will be searched for by the library’s users? What languages, if any, are being used? Does the item include booklets, programme notes, librettos with translations? When and where was the recording made (crucial, if you think about it, for recordings of organ or ‘improvised’ music)?

If the cataloguer has found authoritative answers to all these questions and presented the information in a consistent, systematic way (e.g. names and titles always spelled the same way), the user will easily be able to identify, compare, and select that particular item and find it on the shelf! Job done – hopefully, once and for all!

But you can see how easy it would be to lose things in the library by making mistakes at the cataloguing stage.  A famous recent example is the 40- to 60-part Mass by Alessandro Striggio thought to be lost, but in fact languishing in the Bibliothèque Nationale and unidentified thanks to a series of cataloguing errors over a couple of hundred years. This resulted in it losing not only its title, but its composer and the correct number of parts – it was listed as: “STRUSCO (A.).—Messe à 4 parties”, until researcher Davitt Moroney finally unearthed it in the early 21st century. Just a few wrong decisions and some cumulative cataloguing slips and the music was ‘lost’ for pretty much 400 years – ouch!

Finally, could you tell us something people may not know about you?

As part of the Mock Tudor Band’s performance of arrangement of a song by Paloma Faith to the 4+ million viewers of BBC’s The One Show, I played crumhorn – really! It doesn’t get more surreal than that!


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