Laval Hunsucker wrote:
You make it sound terribly rational and empirical. I don't believe that for a moment. I'd even say that characterizations such as "sometimes mistakes occur" and analogies with something like "to build a space shuttle" amount to ludicrously pretentious hyperbole.
"Ludicrously pretentious hyperbole"? Let us examine. According to Wikipedia (the easiest place to get this type of information), the design of the space shuttle began in the early 1970s and the shuttle consists of approximately 2.5 million parts. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Shuttle
Princeton University's library (the one I know the best) began in the 1760s and currently has 6.9 million books, and 6 million microforms
(http://www.princeton.edu/main/library/) plus, there's a lot more than that when you count the manuscripts, papers, maps, and many other items. This is only one library in the world, and far from either the biggest or the oldest. In the US, libraries have been building a "cooperative machine" since the beginning of the union catalog at LC in 1901. Today, here are the latest statistics from Worldcat http://www.oclc.org/worldcat/statistics/default.htm. Right now, there are 183,028,917 records and 1,566,411,480 holdings. Of course, Worldcat represents only a fraction of what all libraries in the world control.
I don't know how many people have worked on the space shuttle project, but I would guess it is in the tens of thousands. According to the LC report "Study of the North American MARC Records Marketplace" http://www.loc.gov/bibliographic-future/news/MARC_Record_Marketplace_2009-10.pdf there are currently 8000 *original* catalogers in North America. This does not include a much higher number of support staff. How many people this would translate into since 1901, I don't know but doubtless, it would be quite a large number.
There is also extensive documentation that someone must learn before they can add records to our "machine" (i.e. the catalog) to create author, title, subject access points, plus the whole realm of description, plus the classification. Finally, they must know how to encode it in the computerized format, which is quite complex in itself.
In spite of this, so long as you have certain information, the machine works rather well. Not only can it identify an item you want, it can also help you find related materials that you never knew existed. That the system works has been proven by the existence of masses of materials that have been deeply researched before the age of computer technology and people had no choice except to use our tools. Scholars and legislators, students and the general public used our tools for centuries. It was a lot more work back then, but the tools worked nevertheless.
So, is comparing what we do with the space shuttle "ludicrously pretentious hyperbole"? I think I have demonstrated that the point is at least debatable.
Maybe we consider that somehow, the task of the space shuttle is "more important" than our work. This is mistaken as well since our work is as necessary as any other: I hope bakers wash their hands and don't throw garbage in our food; that mechanics and carpenters care about their work. People need information to be decent citizens and to advance their knowledge and careers. We need to keep all of this very much in our minds.
One of the main problems we are facing however, is that many librarians prefer to deny the power and utility of what we have made, and this is why I feel I must speak out when I encounter such statements. These statements do not help either our profession or the public we are supposed to serve. Organizing information (yes, I keep maintaining that) for later retrieval using all kinds of tools and methods is what gives purpose to libraries and librarians. The public wants and needs the skills of librarians but librarians and the tools need to change in fundamental ways to respond to these new needs of the public.
I don't need to go into that yet again.