[Editor’s note:  The following was written by Linda Bartley and Bill Anderson for the 1st edition of the CONSER Cataloging Manual in 1993.  Despite minor updates and corrections, the message remains relevant.]

Serials are an essential and integral component of every major research library collection because the information they contain reflects the most current developments in all fields of activity.  The basic nature of the serials publishing process insures that their "sequential products" are distributed in a timely fashion; timeliness is fundamental to their relevance.  It logically follows that efficient processing of these materials is key to providing the necessary timely access to them.

Cataloging rules set only three basic criteria for a serial publication:  1) it is issued in discrete parts; 2) generally, each part carries a number or date that uniquely identifies it; 3) the publication has no predetermined conclusion (see Module 2).  Within these basic requirements one finds material that differs as widely as one can imagine.  Many government documents are issued serially and contain unique information that only such an agency could develop (e.g., CIA reports).  On the other extreme one finds more ephemeral material that is generated by individuals with desktop publishing capabilities (e.g., family-specific genealogical information).  From annual reports to car repair manuals, the serials cataloger typically handles a great variety of material that presents numerous challenges and also leads to an exposure to a wide body of knowledge.

Recent history only reinforces the significance of serial publications.  The price explosion of scholarly journals in the 1980s forced libraries to reevaluate their collections and to economize.  The public outcry that followed reductions in serials’ subscriptions only underscored the basic value of the literature.  Some libraries were compelled to cooperate more with other libraries in their region, to identify their singular and collective strengths, and to focus their acquisitions policies accordingly.

During recent years we have seen several new technologies dramatically affect the serials publishing industry.  Various types of electronic publications and formats have presented new challenges to serials cataloging.  The same technologies offer new capabilities to researchers that were barely imagined years ago.  Some serial titles are now available exclusively online or in CD-ROM and these serials often defy our understanding of the basic characteristics of serials.  As publishers continue to use emerging technologies we find our field of librarianship confronted with providing the best and most timely access to these materials.

See also:

Module 1.  Introduction to Serials Cataloging