Librarianship has revolved around the necessity of cataloging ever since Dewey founded the profession’s first graduate school. “Library economy” a la Dewey meant cataloging and the ancillary skills needed to create and maintain a library.
This was essential in an age where every library was a kingdom of its own and every library needed to do “original cataloging” of everything it added to its collection.
Things changed. Libraries were able to purchase pre-printed catalog cards from the Library of Congress after the turn of the century (and from H. W. Wilson beginning in the 1930s). This meant that not every library needed to catalog its own material … or at least not all of it.
This took away the “grunt work” part of most cataloging and replaced it with the “professional part”: assigning call numbers and subject headings. The grunt work that remained consisted of typing subject headings and such on a pre-printed card.
(Lord knows I did enough of this at my home town library before I received my MLS degree, little appreciating that in the one-person libraries I worked at soon after getting the degree I’d be doing the same thing.)
Of course, things changed again. Libraries are now able to obtain their bibliographic records from “bibliographic utilities” such as OCLC – basically a “shared cataloging” function involving thousands of contributing, and sharing, libraries.
I once did a back-of-the-envelope calculation of how many catalogers were needed in American libraries (with the largish assumption that such were competent and the work would not have to be reviewed – and often redone – at every library).
There were 172,000 titles published in the U.S. as of 2005 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Books_published_per_country_per_year). Assuming that a good cataloger could do one an hour (I know, a ridiculously low number when so many are fiction, but I allow that some non-fiction titles represent real problems), that’s eight per day and 384 per year (giving a four week vacation).
Do the math, and that amounts to 448 professional librarians being sufficient to catalog and classify every book published in the United States.
So … why should cataloging remain the most important focus of professional library education?