Merlin Cataloging Overview


At the last Merlin Meeting of 2014, the Consortium reviewed some of the Merlin cataloging procedures.  Because the practice of cataloging can be complex at times and the rules surrounding cataloging do not remain static but change as data in the growing world is requested or searched in new ways, I decided maybe what everyone needs is a documented overview of what we have in place for Merlin libraries and generally how records are maintained. 

Much if not all of what will be related below has come from the NWLS website.  NWLS has maintained information related to Merlin (governance, budgeting, products, meeting information, training materials, etc) on the NWLS website for at least eight years.  Some of this information (especially training materials) is password protected.  The username/password information for these areas should be common knowledge for Directors and all support staff at libraries.  Much of this has derived through an evolution of sorts and NWLS has tried to address changes and update the procedures, guidelines, and standards when these changes occur or are adopted by the Merlin Consortium.  Basically, we believe it is relatively current and up-to-date.  If anyone has forgotten or misplaced it, here are the username and password to the deeper areas of the NWLS website:  username = nwls and password = si3rr@.  Library staff members are encouraged to check these areas frequently for changes or updates to information.

Cooperative versus Centralized Cataloging

There are two schools of cataloging methodology: cooperative cataloging and centralized cataloging.  Individual libraries contributing cataloging records and items into a shared database and following sets of rules for such cataloging are doing so in a cooperative manner.  The practice of one or two specific libraries managing the cataloging records so others can attach to them is known as centralized cataloging.  Libraries in Merlin follow the cooperative cataloging method.

More background information related to this can be found on the NWLS website following this link:

Please ignore the italicized parts if you do not like editorializing.

I will be honest here: I do not care for cooperative cataloging.  I hate that it fosters the potential for duplicated records, for diluted record quality, and for greater drain on resources by attempting to keep 28 catalogers at an acceptable experience and education level when our catalogers work in varied environments.  Consider that eleven of our Merlin directors are the catalogers at their library and perform other responsibilities of a director as well.  Many others have support staff that catalog but they also work the circulation desk, or perform ILL or some other tasks, or work part-time.  Cataloging can be a particularly complicated library function as it is, but when you throw into the mix staff who are already spread thin and unable to specialize in an area that begs for it, then the quality of records and database is reduced.   It is the nature of the beast.   Centralized cataloging reduces or eliminates the problems that can cause poor quality in the database upfront.  I love, love, love centralized cataloging!  But, alas, whenever I have mentioned that maybe we should move to centralized cataloging it has not been well received.

While I dislike cooperative cataloging, I also acknowledge it has been the preferred method for our Consortium and I believe we (the collective) are doing the best we can under the circumstances.  I also don’t foresee any movement or increase of funds that centralized cataloging requires so I don’t belabor the issue.

Merlin Cooperative Cataloging

Given that we follow cooperative cataloging, what we have set up for catalogers are general principles for cataloging in Merlin.  Each one is given below with a brief description.

Match and Attach: First, catalogers search the Merlin catalog (by ISBN, title, or author) for a record already in Merlin and if a record is found, attach an item record based on a template matching the kind of record cataloged.

Check Remote (z39.50):  When an item is not found in Merlin, the cataloger is asked to use the databases in the Remote (z39.50) area of the software to pull in a new record and attach their item record.  I have tried to provide varied database options to help increase the hit rate on our remote searches.  Getting records this way is a free service but sometimes a cataloger may need to question the quality of the records maintained at other library databases. 

Because a number of libraries asked what it would take to get OCLC records again, I investigated two bibliographic service vendors (OCLC and SkyRiver) last year.  I provided information related to the costs (roughly OCLC = $17,600 and SkyRiver = $34,500), but received no other feedback from libraries (because I suspect it comes down to money and we are already strapped for cash at our libraries as it is).  So we continue to work with the free databases in Remote.

Copy a Near Match in Merlin: Sometimes if you have a record that is almost the same thing as the one in your hand and you do not wish to search Remote (z39.50) you can copy an existing bibliographic record, edit it to what you have in hand, save it, and attach an item to it.  This is actually how the new year of a magazine record is expected to be made.  This may also be helpful for Playaways and Blu-Ray DVDs – catalogers just need to be careful about what editing (fields changed) is performed in these circumstances.


Training materials for cataloging following the three processes is available in both print (PDF) and in video formats on the NWLS website following this link and you’ll need to use the username/password given above to log in:

Original Cataloging: Prior to the Sierra migration libraries had a little more latitude and access to create short records or even try their hand at original cataloging.  However, with the reduction of resources (people) at NWLS to manage the temporary records and records to be checked, I removed much of this ability for libraries.  What I did instead was to direct catalogers to send me their work for original cataloging.  To me, this reduces the number of times the material is touched for cataloging.

We still have the maintenance programs here at NWLS where we semi-annually (1) check for short/temporary records and overlay them with full MARC, and (2) verify member-library created original records to meet quality standards.  There is still an awful lot of local creation of records I see, but NWLS does the best it can with limited resources to manage these materials.  In the scheme of things these short/temporary records make up maybe .4% (yes, point 4 percent) of the entire database (175 or so of 419,000 records), so a relatively minute amount.

On Order records are a little different  in that library staff are asked to create a short record if there is not a record found in Sierra (via Merlin or Remote).  It is the expectation that the library that creates that short record will eventually update that short record with a full MARC record.  This should be accomplished by checking the Remote databases within 3-6 months after initial creation of the short record and overlay that record if a full-MARC is found.  If not, the cataloging can be sent to NWLS for original record creation.  NWLS does not perform any kind of checks of On Order records other than create lists of old ones (beyond a year created) for libraries to update.

Standards and Best Practices

In order to maintain integrity for the database in a cooperative cataloging environment, the Consortium has adopted many cataloging standards.  Some are focused on bibliographic records and others refer to item records.  The standards Merlin has in place for cataloging can be found on the NWLS website at this link and you’ll need to use the username/password given above to log in:

Many times when a recommendation for a cataloging rule has not been adopted as a standard by the Consortium it has been turned into a best practice.  Merlin has best practices for the following cataloging and processing functions: consistent call number prefixes, barcode placement, notice of new items release date restrictions, and dealing with multi-volume film sets (like TV series).  Cataloging best practices can be found on the NWLS website at this link and you’ll need to use the username/password given above to log in:

Other NWLS Maintenance Tasks

Following is an extensive list of maintenance functions performed by NWLS:


  • Check for bad Category Codes
  • Check for bad barcodes
  • Delete orphan bibs (bibs with no items attached)
  • Merge duplicate bib records
  • Move ILL Status to X
  • Provide authority maintenance (send records to Marcive for updating / delete orphan authority records / scope authority records / delete duplicate authority records)


  • Create a master list of Missing/Claims Returned/Lost & Paid items for libraries to update
  • Delete old self-registration records
  • Update Mat Type codes


  • Add volume fields to magazine records
  • Send lists of old On Order records for libraries to update


  • Check original cataloging records made by librarians
  • Create list of short/temporary records to overlay
  • Correct old trapped In-Transit records


  • Create lists and purge long overdue items
  • Add Nonfiction note to records
  • Update Bib Levels in records
  • Check original cataloging records made by librarians
  • Create list of short/temporary records to overlay
  • Delete old ILL records
  • Zero Internal Use counts
  • Move YTDcirc counts to LYcirc numbers

As Needed

  • Add OverDrive records to Merlin

Confusion Caused by RDA

Explanation: While NWLS and Merlin catalogers were working in 2013 to develop the rules and guidelines for implementing RDA into Merlin, Marcive was also deciding as a company to offer RDA level updates to records that were being sent to them.  Below is a timeline of what happened in the fall/winter of 2013 regarding new cataloging decisions/rules.  In looking at it I hope we can all see and agree where the confusion started.

  • Marcive informs NWLS that they can perform updates to RDA level standards for outsourced records on August 15, 2013.  No detail was given then on what these updates would be.
  • The Merlin Cataloging Policy regarding implementing/maintaining RDA records in Merlin is adopted by the Merlin Consortium on August 22, 2013.
  • NWLS begins receiving RDA updated records from Marcive in weekly authority maintenance on August 29, 2013.
  • NWLS distributes cataloging kits around September 3, 2013.  The kit contained a sheet describing the work Marcive was performing to update the records (because we finally had details on that work).
  • At the November 14, 2013 Merlin meeting (held at NWLS), Mike Sheehan reminded librarians that some of the work Marcive performs means catalogers will not have to follow the Merlin Cataloging Policy as strictly as expected and the “update” sheet in the kit explains this.
  • Also on November 14, 2013 Mike Sheehan sent out an email to catalogers letting them know that we no longer needed to follow the “title in all capitalization” rule since it confuses those creating ILL records which use all capitalization.

Revised Cataloging Kit:  The Merlin Cataloging Policy was adopted by the Merlin Consortium but it contains some conflicting information since Marcive updates have rendered a few bulleted areas moot.  Marcive’s ability to enhance AACR2 level records to RDA standards makes it seem unnecessary for Merlin catalogers to worry about following bullets 5 and 6 of the Merlin Cataloging Policy. Yet there are still those some bullets as well as previous Merlin standards that catalogers should use.

In order to reduce or eliminate the confusion created by all this, what I have put together is a revised cataloging kit.  I advise catalogers to toss everything out of the cataloging kit I distributed in the fall of 2013 except for the following documents:

  • Sierra Cataloging Full Manual
  • Using GMD Macros
  • Record Standards (Bib)
  • Record Standards (Item)

These new documents should be added to the cataloging kit:

  •  Updated Merlin Cataloging Policy (with highlighted text)
  •  New Cataloging Cheat Sheet

Cataloging Course

A lot of the procedural stuff discussed above is specific to cataloging in Merlin.  If catalogers wish to have a more general idea of the general concepts and areas of Technical Services in libraries, they can take a six-week course I created that discusses these more general topics.  What we do in Merlin is greatly influenced by changes in the greater cataloging world and this web course covers these broad background areas.

General information about the course can be found on the NWLS website at this link and you’ll need to use the username/password given above to log in:  The course is not available 24/7 but I open it up after there has been enough interest from attendees wishing to take it.


I hope everyone better understands that what is performed for cataloging begins with what method we catalog (cooperative) and creating rules and standards to keep the database quality high in our shared catalog environment.  I have also tried to incorporate information (web course) that allows catalogers to see what issues and events are happening in the cataloging world and how they impact what we do at a more local level.

I’ll leave you all with this one last statement: I am willing to revisit any of this at any time.


Thank you,

Mike Sheehan, Asst. Director