Tuesday, December 15, 2009

FW: Open Reply to Thomas Mann



Thank you so much for your very thoughtful replies. I appreciate and enjoy Thomas Mann's analyses but when I see what I consider to be problems, I feel I must reply. Whether I am right or wrong is for each person to decide.

I want to start with your final item:

5) One last point: we should recognize that Mann's statement is really just about the Library of Congress. He's really only making an appeal for cataloging not being cut there. It's quite a savvy piece, because he's found a way to pit James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, against Deanna Marcum, since some of her statements conflict with Billington's. I think we will all benefit if Mann's argument is successful, but some of the points you made about costs are probably quite true. Probably lots of libraries will have to save money and may have to cut cataloging in some ways. But if LC doesn't do the same, we'll all be in a lot better shape!

I tried to deal with this at the beginning of my open reply. Now that the web is here to stay for better or worse, and the numerous resources found there makes it rapidly becoming one of the great research "libraries" in the world, and since this "web library" is immediately accessible to everyone, this makes it a completely different entity from anything we have had before, totally different from the libraries at Columbia University, LC, Illinois, Princeton, Harvard, etc., each with its own respective experts. There is and can be, no comparable "Internet/Web Librarian" where we can send our patrons. Today, no collection that has access to the web can consider itself as "separate." Nevertheless, such a realization is absolutely terrifying since in this scenario, our responsibilities expand at an alarming rate.

Before I continue, let me reiterate that I firmly believe that human-created, high-quality cataloging is absolutely essential since keyword on its own is obviously not adequate, and Mr. Mann provides excellent examples of this. But aside from considering the question, "What constitutes high-quality cataloging today?" (which is a huge question) we can also say that in today's information environment these human-made records, high-quality or not, are just as inadequate. Any child can demonstrate this easily with keyword picking up "bits and pieces" that go unnoticed in traditional tools. And when you continue the previous line of thinking and say that the materials on the web are also part of "the library's collection" there are untold consequences for selection (we all know the web badly needs selection!), cataloging, reference and not least of all, catalog maintenance.

Just as "no man is an island," no library collection can be seen as separate, either. This makes a huge difference in the work of every single librarian, and sadly, lowers the value of the traditional catalog as well. Somehow the catalog must change to find web materials more uniformly. This is a huge undertaking and, I think, demands other methods. The materials on the shelves of our libraries cannot be considered separately from materials on the web. They are all of equal worth and that means reference librarians will be expected to know (and are expected to know right now) the materials on the web just as well as they know the materials on their shelves, but there are no tools for the web that are in any way comparable as those we have for printed materials. That is what is terrifying.

1) "Books on the floor will necessarily be out of any classified arrangement, at least for a time."

Actually, that may not be true. In the late 90's, Indiana University ran out of room in its main research collection and had to put many books in "overflow carts." They were arranged in call number order, near the stacks with related numbers. That may be what he means by "books on the floor." I'd be surprised if LC just piled them on the floor without arrangement.

I agree to a point. Although these materials may be on book trucks close by (or at some institutions I have seen, on window sills, overflow shelves located elsewhere, *or* sometimes on the floor), the basic idea is still the same since the ability to browse through a single classification is still broken because you have to look in multiple places.

But Mann has never said anything against modern tools. The point is that until everything is digitized, you may not be able to find some kinds of detailed information without looking at physical pages, and the only way to find them is by looking at stacks classified for the general topic one is concerned with.

Even when (or if) everything is digitized, keyword access will be inadequate. As has been pointed out by others, isolated keywords are often useless or even misleading if you can't see the context in which they occur. And dealing with physical books helps you to put them in context.


4) That strikes me as an exaggeration. But what does "adequate" mean here? Mann is telling us we need professional-cataloger-made metadata, but he also says researchers need the help of reference librarians. Both of those kinds of help, together, have a good chance of being adequate. He says keyword searches and other strategies will also help. But if that metadata isn't provided, there's a good chance researchers and librarians will have a lot more trouble finding what they need. We will be cutting our budgets while raising the cost of research for our patrons.

"... if that metadata isn't provided, there's a good chance researchers and librarians will have a lot more trouble finding what they need," while I personally agree, I think this is a statement we must prove today.

For instance, apart from the question of how well they work, we must simply confess that with every passing year our traditional finding tools are becoming more and more strange to our patrons who grew up with Google. This doesn't (necessarily) mean that our patrons are stupid and don't want to learn, but that our primary task is to make tools that fit into their world. We have to do this efficiently, reliably, with a certain level of the "cool factor," and I think, quickly. I don't believe the library community is succeeding in doing this. There have been some notable attempts in the last few years, but we are far behind many others in the information field.

But keep in mind that when you create a cataloging record and add an analytic, such as "700 12 $a [Author name]. $t [Title]," you are making that physical item "virtual" in a sense. You're letting the researcher know that another work is included in the physical volume, possibly by another author and on an unrelated subject. So in electronic catalogs, the difference between electronic and print resources isn't as great as you're making it sound. And Mann has never advocated browsing shelves without using the catalog.

I completely agree (as I think I did in my open reply as well) to say that this demonstrates the problem with browsing. Otherwise, I'm not sure I understand your point. Yes, people who use the catalog are aware of the analytic, but it is out of the physical browsing arrangement e.g. in my example, someone who is interested in what Xenophon said about horses, must find it under what Ovid said about love.

To be honest, I am really frightened that if we in the library profession goes on and on about how important is the physical use of materials on the shelves of our libraries, such as browsing and so on, we automatically lose the debate on the future library which, I think we all know, must become more and more virtual. The future virtual library must be seen as an unambiguously good thing and things are changing so rapidly, it all may happen much sooner than we can imagine.

If physical browsing is considered to be totally indispensable for information retrieval (personally, I doubt it very seriously since I think it fulfills psychological needs much more than informational needs) then we absolutely must build tools that somehow allow "virtual browsing," because there will be increasingly more and more materials that cannot be browsed physically. I don't think this would be worth the effort since I believe that is not what our people really want or need.

I find it interesting that throughout my various replies to Thomas Mann, people have found the most fault with my statements on browsing, which are certainly nothing new and whose problems have been known from the beginning of libraries. Compare the comments on my blog at:


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