Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Copernicus, Cataloging, and the Chairs on the Titanic, Part 1 [Long Post]

Posting to NGC4LIB

Alexander Johannesen wrote:
<snip>
Well, I've just been told by the tone police that my mail was too harsh for those tender librarian ears (I'm boggling over that one to be honest, but who's to argue with authority ...), so this will probably be my last email, at least in a while ;
</snip>

I, for one, hope you will reconsider. I have been the recipient of a few of your salvos but things have worked out. We really need voices that are sincere and informed.

Anyway, I think we more or less agree, except that you think selection is just too overwhelming a task, while I think that updating our current methods and changing our "Weltanschauung" (no equivalent in English for that) to include all related fields, would increase our total productivity in an exponential way. I would like to see what my colleagues and I are capable of. As I said in a previous post somewhere, the traditional task of selection was one of *inclusion* i.e. I include this specific item into my collection because my users will find it worthwhile. In the new environment, I think selection will become one of *exclusion* i.e. saying that this stuff is not worthwhile to my users.

The concept of "my users" also needs to be seen in another way, i.e. not only those in my own institution, but to grow and include constituencies literally all over the world. So, if the correct system were built, when I select an item, I would select it for *the entire world* and when it was cataloged, it would be cataloged for *the entire world*. Could this be done? Technically yes. On this list, I think we know this. To do it socially is a completely different matter. By the way, do not underestimate the huge advance the technology represents within just the last 20 or so years. I personally think many of the social obstacles in the way of realizing something like this is based on the fact that people have not caught up socially with the technology and they really do not understand the capabilities.

All of this would have a profound impact on our theories and not least of all, our organizational units, which answer to our local bureaucracies.

I only want to add however:

<snip>
I'm sorry, but by that definition there is no selection. A selection is always a selection from a bigger pool, and as such there *is* filtering, censorship, style / subject / picture police, academic intolerance, short-sightedness, ignorance, stupidity, all depending on who and what.

> I think this shows the difference rather clearly between
> the attitudes of a librarian and those of a faculty member!

Yes, in this anecdotal story where there is a clear villain. :) I hate to tell you this, but librarians are people, too. I've heard a story of a librarian at a general public library who didn't like glossy pages, and as such no books with glossy pages ("dang new fashionable waste of paper, impossible to read!") were ever selected for this library. I'm sure there's many, many stories lurking around in library corridors.
</snip>

Of course, there are lots of stories like this. But it must be stated forthrightly that these people are not doing their jobs correctly. The reasons may range from simply poor training to out-and-out censorship and bigotry. Yet, this shouldn't be surprising: we have been witness to some rather unethical behavior in the business community in the last few years; there are lawyers and doctors and mechanics and--yes--even computer experts (Bill Gates?) who do their jobs incorrectly. :-)

Still, it has always been my opinion that the main part of a library that determines its worth is its selection. You can have libraries with tiny budgets that are very well selected, and wealthy libraries with very poor selection, filled with materials that people will never use. Sometimes there may be a major collection that eventually ceases to be of any use (I am thinking of some 19th-century libraries that specialized in "phrenology"). Plus, someone may have the best, most consistent catalog ever created, and it remains useless if it describes materials nobody wants.

<snip>
I don't think you can do it. And it breaks my heart.
</snip>

How can selection be done? I don't know, but I at least have some ideas. I would love to see my field put out its finest effort before it decides that it is better to ride out into the sunset. But I may agree with you here. I don't know if the field can change that much.

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