Thursday, July 22, 2010

RE: RDA and the Library Discovery Experience (Was: What to stop doing)

Posting to Autocat

On Wed, 21 Jul 2010 18:00:46 -0700, Daniel CannCasciato wrote:

>James Weinheimer wrote in part:
>
>" It's amazing that I vociferously state over and over again that *I do not know* what users are doing today, and I refuse to even make a guess as to how these people are interoperating with the information out there. "
>
>and that's the crux of our disagreement. We do know quite a lot about what our patrons are doing. There's all sorts of literature out there indicating not just what they do in searching, but also in interacting with data and each other. So I can't accept that we do not know. Of course we know.

I guess we will just have to agree to disagree. The reason I maintain we do not know what people are doing in this new information environment is that it is changing constantly. There are floods of new networks and information tools introduced constantly. What we may think we know today could be quite different in only two or three years, if not sooner. It is almost impossible to keep up with it all. These new tools are changing how people interact with the information: how they become aware of it (instead of actively seeking it out and finding it), and what they want from it (instead of identify, select, obtain).

Pretending to *know* what people are doing does not seem to me to be a wise course today. To play an important role in all of this, I believe we must keep our minds as open as possible, and this includes our attitudes toward user behavior. For only one example, when the books in Google Book Search become available (not "if", because eventually they will), libraries could wind up looking like those old ghost towns in the West. Will having zillions of worthwhile books--certainly enough to earn a B.A. or even a master's--available at the click of a button have an impact on user behavior? Undoubtedly. We must accept that our users will be quite different then. If we accept this, it only makes sense to assume that they were different 20 years ago.

My concern is: there are all of these networks and tools and we must assume they will become more and more popular. Libraries and their catalog records play *zero* role in them or next to nothing. This is a deeply ominous direction. In any case, librarians will have little impact on how user needs evolve and we need to focus our attention on areas where we can actually have an impact: our records and how they can be accessed.

<snip>
He also wrote: " In fact, I have run across several students who don't even understand what a search by author, title, or subject even means!"

Hey, many of us don't have a clue about electricity but volts, amperes, and grounded or ungrounded have spectacular meaning. So they don't understand author or title. They can learn it. Should they? I believe so.
</snip>

I believe they should learn it too; in fact, there are lots of things I intensely dislike about this new information society, and "lack of information skills" is one of them, but we must accept that not knowing author, title, subject is one of the areas where user needs have changed from 20 years ago and is evidence that FRBR is incorrect.

Not that this is anything new. Talk to reference librarians or read the literature from the past and you will find that the public has always had trouble with these things. There were huge debates over whether to have a unified catalog or a split catalog (all cards in one sequence, or separate author and subject catalogs). This had major consequences for access. Or they would get questions such as "Why does this card have Dostoyevsky's name typed in black at the top, while this other card has it in red?"

Try training members of the public yourself and you will notice a tremendous, unspoken hurdle: user expectations. I think this is something new. People will not automatically accept whatever you say. It's also a *lot* harder to teach this stuff than you may imagine and I suspect it was easier in a print environment to teach people how to use the catalog. But more importantly today, people are always mentally comparing what you are telling them with their favorable experiences in Google and many, if not most, just won't believe you. You must convince them that what you are teaching is *not* ancient history, and that Google *really can't* do
something, that it all really matters and so on. This is what I have found to be truly difficult.

Even in those rare cases when you manage to convince them intellectually somehow, then comes the practical part of demonstrating it and you are stuck with these clunky OPACs, which are nothing more than digitized card catalogs. Very difficult to be convincing.

I think the real problem is that people do not have the slightest understanding of what is controlled vocabulary, how to use it, or how powerful it can be when it is used correctly. In other words, I see the problem as: How do we get the power of the catalog (which is basically, the use of controlled vocabulary) onto the web in a way that is useful to people who are essentially untrained? The current ways do not work and FRBR/RDA do not help.

I think there are ways of doing it, but any steps forward will be based on trial and error. The Semantic Web offers us a rare opportunity, but we must take that opportunity. There are some tools out there where I think we could have a major impact, e.g. dbpedia and https://subj3ct.com/.

In any case, trial and error means that progress can only be made incrementally so we must be understanding and patient when someone shares an attempt and it works only in 30% or 40% of the cases or so. That must be seen as a success, but only a step along a long path.

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