RE: Elementary errors (Was: Rule of three–gone??)

Posting to Autocat

On Thu, 9 Sep 2010 16:02:14 +0000, Laluzerne, Anthony wrote:

>I think what Jim is trying to say (and Jim, correct me if I am wrong) is that the majority of searchers don’t distinguish Google from our catalogs, or even care that they are different products. And, this will increase exponentially as the number of intermediaries (librarians, namely) to point out those differences are becoming fewer and fewer because more information is accessible without the aid of an intermediary (checking the web at 1 am in your pajamas).

Yes, this is exactly what I mean. Thank you. And as others have pointed out, the library catalog is being used less and less for people to find information. Already, it is of little use for the hard sciences and technology; it is being less and less used for the social sciences such as business; the humanities still use it, but it seems dubious to hitch up to them because they appear to be in trouble themselves (see the article in the Chronicle: “Can the Humanities Survive the 21st Century?” Plus, I shall state (once again) that the only place where library use is up is with ILL, and the moment the Google Books become generally available, people will not need ILL nearly as much, and the last “success” will plummet.

Research has also shown, and my own experience completely concurs, that the average person rates their searching abilities as either “very good” or “expert”. I suggest that catalogers sit down with someone (most preferably an undergraduate student) to *watch* and *listen* (i.e. don’t tell them what to do and how to do it) to what they do when they are searching for information. How do they search? How do they react? What do they take for granted? What do they like and what do they dislike?

The way I look at it, catalogers have their theories, codified in the 1840s, defended “under fire” during the Royal Commission, and pretty much accepted after that. Whether those theories were right or wrong, or true or false, is a matter for historians to decide. The fact is that the basic underpinnings of what we do is still based on what was figured out back then. Deciding that those guys figured things out for “all time” is akin to saying that Aristotle said it all on physics or Ptolemy on astronomy, or Marx on labor history, that all modern literature is just a rehashing of what Shakespeare wrote. We need to figure things out for ourselves, today, utilizing the power of the tools we have at our disposal, and what our predecessors, although they were very good, could never have imagined. As an example of the limit of their imagination, I suggest Cutter’s “The Buffalo Public Library in 1983” (written in 1883) and available at:

In this regard, there is a very interesting paper “The Pragmatic Basis of Catalog Codes: Has the User Been Ignored?” by Jon R. Hufford I agree with this essay, but I will point out that the testimony to the Royal Commission was all about user needs and how the users felt their needs were not being met, but after the Royal Commission, it seemed to be all cut and dried.

In the first edition of Cutter’s rules (1876), he discusses the users: (p. 526-527) and lists the questions they ask that the catalog can answer. The remainder flows logically from this, but I ask: isn’t it time to genuinely reconsider all of this? He says, “There are two sets of probable inquiries, the first asking what books the library contains; the second relating to the character of the books.” He then provides some sample questions. Are these the kinds of questions we receive today? Are these really the types of “probable inquiries”? Can a cataloger decide if this is correct, or a reference librarian? Also, notice in all of his questions from users the word “book” is repeated. Note also that he says, “what … *the library contains*“. Many assumptions underlie these important statements of Cutter.

Again, I state categorically that catalogers *cannot know* what the users want because they are not the ones in contact with the users. Catalogers have another, very important, job. The reference librarians and selectors, who actually deal with the public are the ones who have an idea what they want, and some catalogers wear these different hats, but these people have an idea what the user needs are not from their cataloging duties, but from their public duties.

It is vital for us at this time to be humble, to watch and listen and learn. I have to admit that I don’t even know what my own needs are as a user, and I’ve probably thought about it as much as anybody out there. All I know is that they are changing, as new plugins come out (Zotero, Diigo, etc.), as new services come out (e.g. Mendeley, Connotea), plus all of the open archives that make outrageous amounts of material available, (e.g. Mr. Hufford’s article above, plus zillions of other useful things) but many times, not so easy to find. All of these new tools and types of access have made tremendous changes to the way I use, access, become aware of, information and not the least important, what I expect from it. Catalogers should be vital parts of this. How? I don’t know, but it will be different from how it is today.

I can’t believe I am the only one who has seen real changes in how I relate to information.