Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Cataloging Matters Podcast no. 9: Standards, Perfection, and Good Enough

Cataloging Podcast no. 9: 
Standards, Perfection, and Good Enough


Hello everyone. My name is Jim Weinheimer and welcome to Cataloging Matters, a series of podcasts about the future of libraries and catalogs, coming to you from the most beautiful, and the most romantic city in the world, Rome, Italy.

In this installment, I want to explore the idea expressed more and more often that catalog records need to be Good Enough. What in the world does that really mean and what are the consequences when and if we accept it? Have people already done so?


Even though the debate is as old as libraries and their catalogs, it seems that more and more often in the library literature and blogs, I run across the idea that the quality of catalog records only needs to be “good enough” but there is little discussion about what this “good enough” actually consists of. If you do a Google search with the keywords “cataloging good enough” the result is quite interesting: at least in the results I get, the term “good enough” is almost always juxtaposed with the term “perfection”. This is shown very nicely in the number 1 result for me (which does not mean it is number 1 for everyone), which is the interesting article “An Essay on Cataloging” by Daniel CannCasciato in Library Philosophy and Practice, November 1, 2010 http://www.faqs.org/periodicals/201011/2249165571.html (There are links to this article and everything I mention from the Transcript)

This article offers some excellent quotes:
'The biggest question we have to ask ourselves,' [Jay] Schafer said, is 'What's good enough?' Is a nearly perfect catalog record worth the cost of achieving that goal?' Or, as a different speaker put it, … "At the root of these processes are two powerful beliefs. One: the cult of perfection. And two: cataloging is about how print books are arranged on the shelf..."
In his article, Daniel goes on to say that the question itself is wrong: that cataloging can now be an ongoing process, i.e. the catalog record is no longer a printed catalog card that disappears into a drawer, but modern catalog records are in a publically accessible database that, if everything is set up correctly, can be accessed later and updated on a cooperative basis, even automatically or semi-automatically. This can happen because modern systems allow people to work together to build resources up gradually to the benefit of all. The author also mentions Michael Gorman:
“To accept the "good enough" rallying cry relegates patrons of today and the future to a lesser status than previous generations, a slight that, as Gorman wrote, might not be noticed for years.”
I would also like to quote from the report “Rethinking How We Provide Bibliographic Services for the University of California” The University of California Libraries, 2005 [available at http://libraries.universityofcalifornia.edu/sopag/BSTF/Final.pdf. p. 25], where, under the section “Automate metadata creation” the authors write:
“We must adapt and recognize that “good enough is good enough”, we can no longer invest in “perfect” bibliographic records for all materials.”
While I honestly sympathize and mostly agree with all of these ideas, there seem to be several assumptions hidden. For those who do not accept the idea of “good enough”, the assumption is that what came before the implementation of “good enough” was “better” and that if we do things substantially differently, the results will be for the worse. Yet, those who argue in favor of “good enough”, normally pair “good enough” against “perfection”. As the first article points out, comparing “good enough” with “perfection” is not the only possibility; I will go on to state that it is not even a normal sort of comparison, and ultimately it is not fair. In fact, “good enough” has nothing at all to do with perfection. Yet, what is this idea of “good enough”?

In this installment of Cataloging Matters, I would like to discuss “good enough” a bit more thoroughly to determine what it can mean and what it does mean in other contexts. Obviously, “good enough” has completely different meanings to the various people quoted before, so what is going on? Does “good enough” really mean nothing in particular, or can it mean something much, much more specific?

It isn’t like the concept of “good enough” does not exist in our society; in fact, it exists everywhere we turn. Our society could not exist without “good enough”. But what does “good enough” really mean in this wider sense?

It turns out that it means exactly what it says: that with the specific item, process, or whatever you are talking about, you can be assured that it will indeed rise to a certain level of quality, or in other words, it literally is “good enough”. “Good enough” in this sense, which is also a more normal sense, means standardization, and standardization in turn means reliability, which provides everyone concerned with levels of quality that all can count on.

Seen in this way, standards are a type of guarantee. “Good enough” or anything that follows minimally-accepted standards does not mean that everyone has no choice but to accept whatever the producer feels like throwing at them; it means exactly the contrary: you don’t have to accept it. In fact, there are many options when goods or services come to people that do not meet the minimal agreed-upon standards, but standards also have nothing to do with some vague ideal of perfection.

So, if a manager in charge of a public water plant says that the water quality meets the standards, or in other words, is “good enough”, that manager means something very specific and is saying nothing negative at all. Here “good enough” is not some insider code for “nobody cares” or that whoever wants to use the water from this plant should be aware and are expected either to hold their noses and take their chances, or to filter out whatever yuck goes through the pipes and throw in chlorine tablets before they drink it. It means that the water that goes out of the plant literally is guaranteed to be “good enough” for people to use reliably and safely, as determined by experts in the field.

Why? Because the management at the water plant in essence guarantees that the water conforms to highly specific technical standards. For example, in the transcript you can find a link to the standards about water quality issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency http://water.epa.gov/drink/contaminants/index.cfm. I won’t quote anything from these standards because I don’t even know how to pronounce most of the words! Still, if the water quality does not conform to these standards, it is considered a highly serious matter. While the actual quality of the water may rise and fall from day to day or hour to hour, there is a limit below which the water quality cannot be allowed to fall.

It also doesn’t mean that all the experts agree with all the standards. Nor do the non-experts all agree. Both of these groups--the experts and non-experts--have all sorts of motivations for their opinions, from professional to ethical to monetary to political to who knows what else. As a result, some of the minimal levels may be highly contentious. Right now, there is a lot of discussion in the press about the safe levels of radioactivity in the drinking water and food produced in Japan. Some experts maintain that there “is no safe level” since DNA can mutate with any level of radioactivity. http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/features/2011/04/20114219250664111.html On the other hand, the U.S. conservative pundit Ann Coulter said that there is a growing body of evidence that radiation in excess of what the government says are the maximum amounts we should be exposed to, are actually good for us and can reduce cases of cancer. http://www.rawstory.com/rawreplay/2011/03/ann-coulter-tells-oreilly-radiation-is-good-for-you/ Although both sides seem rather extreme to me, I am no expert and realize that there is probably a difference of opinion, and in view of the Japanese crisis, these differences may flare up again. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that those responsible for running nuclear plants should just stop caring about the amount of radioactivity being released and give up trying to follow the current standards that are in place. If they did, I hope they would be punished, and punished very severely.

There are different methods of enforcement and punishment when standards are not followed, for example, if the quality of the water falls too low. The managers of that water plant I mentioned will be very interested in keeping the water quality “good enough” because otherwise, they may wind up fired or find themselves in prison for several years!

Modern society would disintegrate without this level of reliability. I am sure we all want to be able to light our stoves without them blowing up in our faces, to drive our cars without the steering wheels coming off in our hands, or to open a can of corn and not find ourselves in the hospital for the next few weeks with ptomaine poisoning. If any of those things happened to us, we would want to see whoever was responsible punished in some way because the product obviously was not “good enough”.

The number and types of standards are truly amazing. Just considering the standards from one organization: ISO, there are over 18,000 standards! http://www.iso.org/iso/iso_catalogue.htm. But there are lots of standards organizations, e.g. Wikipedia lists hundreds but there are many more http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Standards_organizations.

In the library literature however, the words “good enough” have meant something quite different from this use, depending on who is discussing them. For the traditional cataloger (including myself, I confess), “good enough” in librarian-speak actually means “inferior and not good enough”, i.e. precisely the opposite of what it proclaims to be, while for others who are often more administrative or IT based, it seems to mean, “I really don’t care.”

To be honest, I can’t fault those who don’t care. After all, the moment you do care, you automatically find yourself surrounded by an almost impenetrable thicket of hair-raising technical information and jargon that in just a few minutes will force all but the most stalwart screaming from the room. Imagine for a moment that you really cared about the standards for water quality from the EPA I mentioned earlier. How much time would it take you to learn enough just so that you could begin to understand what those standards describe? Then, how much more would you have to learn to have an informed opinion about how good the standards are?

Who wants to get involved in all of that? Yet, if our society cares about the quality of our water, somebody has to get involved, and that is the price of expertise. This is because the final product must be reliable for everyone concerned but the general public should not have to immerse themselves in the details. So, while I expect the welds in the buildings I enter to be “good enough” so that bits don’t start breaking off and falling on my head, and I want the welders themselves to be able to work safely with their equipment, I have absolutely no interest in reading their standards.

But I sure want the welders themselves to know the standards very well and more importantly, to follow them to the letter. If it turns out that a company does a bad job at welding and their welds break, I actually want that company punished in some way because if there is no enforcement, then it means that companies and welders can do anything they feel like and consequently, whether or not a weld is secure would become a matter of sheer luck. While I have a lot of respect for welders and builders and electricians and mechanics, I do not think it is wise for society to rely solely on their “higher ethical sense of professional responsibility” for the quality of their work. I am sure that many welders indeed have a very high ethical sense; I am just as sure that many others do not. This is why standards exist in the first place: to replace personal trust with genuine, enforceable guarantees. If everyone could see that welders could get away with inferior work and do just as well as the competent welders, the result would be to teach the competent welders that their “higher ethical sense” is useless. If we take away the enforcement, some very important standards that each and every one of us relies on every single day, would all become jokes.

In the case of welding, would I prefer those welds to be “perfect”? Sure, but I don’t even know what a perfect weld would look like, and in any case, I think most of us will settle for welds that are “good enough”, that is, so long as they really are good enough.

Therefore, it seems obvious that if libraries want the general public to use their catalogs and catalog records, they must provide some level of reliability. The words “good enough” must therefore mean something just as precise as they do in other professions and should not be compared with some unreachable “perfection”.

Now, I would like to change tack and ask: does this mean that the records catalogers have been creating for the last few decades should be considered as the minimal standard, or in other words, defines what is “good enough”? In addition, the information universe is changing radically, and when practically everything is digitized, which may happen much sooner than we think, what does this portend for the very purpose of the catalog itself, a tool that is becoming less and less understandable to our patrons? The controlled terminology, although people tend to like it when they understand it, is less understood, and in any case, people have to fight with it to make it work since it was designed for a completely different environment. As a result, if people do indeed come across controlled terminology that is useful to them, they do it more by happenstance than anything else. Therefore, isn’t it logical to conclude that it would better serve the needs of the patrons if we were to move the resources away from creating a semi-obsolete catalog record and toward digitizing our resources?

I think this is what is really behind the administrative/IT plaint of “good enough” and I admit it’s a very good question. This is where I think the discussion becomes genuinely interesting.

There is no doubt that what catalogers create must change; it must change not out of some sort of “inherent need” for change, but as adaptations to the fundamental changes taking place in the information environment. If we were living in 1965, there would be no need for any real changes except for normal managerial efficiencies, as occurred with the adoption of ISBD. The pace of change in libraries was much slower back then, and if a specific change took a few years, maybe it was unfortunate, but it was still OK. This was because the only way to get at information during those days was through the catalog, and if people couldn’t find things because of backlogs or whatever, although there might be a little huffing and puffing from a couple of researchers, it was not that big of a problem since people had no choice except to wait until the library got around to it.

This has been completely turned around today since there are other, very attractive choices for our patrons through Google, Yahoo, and many other databases where they can easily find and use some wonderful websites that are not in the library’s catalog. I am sure this must be very confusing for the public and I can imagine they could easily conclude: I just found this wonderful resource on the web using Yahoo and there is no record in the library’s catalog for it. If no record at all in the catalog is “good enough” for these excellent sites, then there seems to be no reason for catalog records for anything digital at all. Besides, using a library catalog today is just plain weird. Conclusion: resources should be devoted to digitizing what is not already digitized; then we would have a real, lasting solution, while creating catalog records is just continuing the practices of the past.

Such thinking is very logical and is accepted by many.

Are there standards in libraries currently? Of course: there are standards for the construction and wiring of the library building; for shelving and how much weight a floor can handle. There are standards for binding, for storage and disposal of chemicals used in conservation departments; standards for accounting and on and on. But these are different from the bibliographic standards those same libraries claim to follow. How are they different? In quite a number of ways, actually.

I have tried to demonstrate that normal standards create a series of technically-defined minimal levels of quality that experts consider to be “good enough”. Of course, there is nothing to prevent any organization from devising products or processes that are almost totally different from all other similar products, so long as what they create meets those minimum levels, or they may rise far above any or all of the minimal levels, but the standards remain in place as guarantees both for the producer and the consumer; the producers can be assured that their products represent a quality product and/or can work with other items, so a producer of television sets does not have to produce electrical cords, but can buy them reliably and safely; while the consumer can rest easily knowing they are buying a reliable product.

Library-bibliographic standards are quite different however: they seek to create records that are as identical as possible; in essence library bibliographic standards seek to define a template that defines what final product will be. True, there are different bibliographic levels, e.g. full, core, minimal, conser and so on, but even here, each level is in essence, a template, defined by what they will and will not contain.

How could a standard from the normal world, based on guaranteed minimums, work in the bibliographic world? What would such a standard look like? To imagine one, we can consider the current AACR2 rule of three for authors, which in short, says to create entries for the first three authors of a resource and if there are four or more, make an entry only for the first one. This is very specific. Compare this with the proposed RDA rule that says to make an entry only for the first author, and then curiously enough, then RDA singles out translators, and illustrators of children’s books! The rest are up to “cataloger’s judgement”.

If we relate this to the earlier discussion about normal standards, we can see that this RDA rule defines a minimum level of quality and that a book with three authors and an editor only needs an entry for the first author to be fully compliant with RDA. In effect, the RDA standard says that one author is “good enough”. It is difficult to figure out what else such a rule means. Relying on “catalogers’ judgement” is the same as relying on the “higher ethical sense of professional responsibility” of mechanics and welders. It doesn’t work in the real world; why should it work in the library world?

To make this more like regular standards, the rule could rather say something like, “make entries for at least the first three authors of any resource”. This would allow for a better minimal level of quality, while allowing for all different kinds of variations and additions that any organization would want to add.

How would the idea of minimal levels work in other areas of the record? With subjects, perhaps we could guarantee a certain number of headings for certain types of materials. With description, I would think that ISBD offers lots of areas for minimum levels. Setting up real standards takes work, discussion and compromise. I confess that right now I’m not really sure on many of the specifics, but I have no doubt it can be done since there are standards in place for all kinds of processes, and what’s more: it must be done. In today’s shared information environment, if library rules become more like normal standards and focus on creating minimal levels of quality instead of defining everything that goes in and is left out of a record, I believe the tasks catalogers are facing and their solutions will become clearer.

Therefore, neither AACR2’s maxims of “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not”, which strive to create records that are as similar as possible and where any deviation is seen as a flaw, nor RDA’s rather naive assumption that if you leave as much as possible to a notoriously fickle “cataloger’s judgment”, offer a real solution. Normal standards would allow matters to become simultaneously more flexible, while allowing for a level of genuine reliability.

The other major difference of normal standards vs. library bibliographic standards is something less pleasant to discuss: the matter of enforcement. Obviously, few people will agree that catalogers should be led off to jail for messing up a publication date or doing superficial subject analysis (OK. I’ll admit that there have been a few times when I saw the thoroughly lousy copy records of some libraries and I thought..., but I won’t go there!) Still, there are options that other professions use: for example, there is the process of certification and the need to renew that certification. Certification can be applied in a few ways: to the product, i.e. where each bibliographic record would get some kind of label of guarantee that it reaches specific standards, or there can be professional certification, where individuals are certified and their certification is not forever, but needs to be renewed.

Of course, this would mean a radical change from what exists today. A lot would need to happen before something like this could take place, including getting support from our institutions to help catalogers get and maintain their certification. Still, if we are to change from the empty library concept of “good enough”, which has meanings that range anywhere from ”uncaring” to “not at all good enough”, toward the more normal idea of standardization that “good enough” really is good enough, something has to change, and minimum levels of reliability need to be guaranteed in some way for our records.

Finally, if standards are to succeed, they have to be realistic, that is, they cannot be based on wishes. A standard that would mandate all automobiles get a minimum of 250 miles to the gallon would be currently impossible, so standards must be based on what is genuinely achievable.

In this sense, I suspect that even AACR2 may not provide a realistic standard since there have been so many complaints and problems of record quality (I am a highly vocal critic), the difficulty of training and so on. Of course, RDA is not any simpler than AACR2 so if RDA is accepted, exactly the same difficulties will remain.

How have libraries dealt with the problems of records that fall below the accepted level of quality? With the incredibly inefficient method of spending time upgrading the records locally and complaining among themselves. Yet, nothing happens to the offenders and they just keep making the same sub-standard records that everyone is supposed to upgrade. It turns out that anybody can make records, from a student with an hour’s training to a paraprofessional to a master cataloger of 20 years experience. Unfortunately, this has resulted in a tremendous number of substandard records needing upgrading. Years of this practice, and now the economic crisis, have forced many libraries to just give up and accept anything they get. Obviously, this is not good for record quality, and the standards we claim to follow become a joke.

One final point: for standards to make any difference, they also have to be aimed at products that people really want. If somebody created detailed standards for the creation of feather pens or wagon wheels, they would have absolutely no importance today.

If libraries are to come up with enforceable standards, they must be aimed at something that people want and need. And now comes the huge question where there is very little agreement: what is the public doing in this new information universe? Does the public find our bibliographical records today useful? If yes, that’s great, but if no, what parts of the record are the most useful and how can they be improved?

In short, it should be clear from what I have said, that I think that the issue of library bibliographic standards is a problem with a very long history that has been mostly ignored, and it is not possible to ignore it any longer. It doesn’t matter if we accept RDA or not, if we decide to stay with AACR2 or even go back to AACR1 or take Cutter’s or Panizzi’s rules. None of it makes any difference if record creators are always able to ignore any standards that exist. In my own opinion, some kind of certification will be necessary sooner or later if there is to be any hope that library catalogers, and their records, will be taken seriously.

It is truly unfortunate though, that these concerns are coming to a head now, when we are facing the serious economic crisis plus the need to fit ourselves into the greater metadata universe. Big changes are coming (as if we haven’t gone through enough change already!) but I feel that something has got to give: either we take the issues of real, genuine, useful, enforceable standards seriously, and just as seriously as they are taken in other professions, or our standards may be headed for the trash can.

Even this does not end the discussion however. There is also the question of creating standards for an “expert system”, that is, a system not primarily for use by untrained people, but for experts. Experts of all kinds need standards for their own tools as well. For example, there was a recent article in the Globe and Mail about the New York publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin, “Mike Shatzkin in Montreal: Libraries don't make sense anymore” http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/books/in-other-words/mike-shatzkin-in-montreal-libraries-dont-make-sense-anymore/article1974860/ Mr. Shatzkin maintains that although libraries make no sense in the future, “there will be an ongoing need for librarians, however; their skills will continue to be in demand, as will those of editors.” Of course, librarians are no different from any other profession: in order to be effective, they need specialized tools. A dentist armed only with a toothbrush, toothpaste and a pair of pliers would not be very effective as a dentist. Librarians are just as reliant on their specialized tools, that allow them to “do their miracles” of finding information and resources that the untrained cannot. When a librarian is stuck only with the Google interface, with no controlled vocabulary or structures, they are just as helpless as anyone else... almost.

I would like to discuss this, but I have gone on long enough. Perhaps in a future installment, I will talk about the need to create an expert system not aimed for the general public, but by “information experts” of all kinds.

It has been a bit of time since my previous podcast. There are two reasons for this: I have had some health problems that are now pretty much over, but more significant is the fact that I am no longer Director of the Library at the American University of Rome. I resigned that position to take advantage of some other opportunities. Right now, I have been taken on with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations as an information specialist, attached to FAOStat in the Statistics Division. After that we’ll see what happens. In any case, I have lots of ideas!

I have decided to close this segment with Palestrina’s Agnus Dei, or Lamb of God. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina worked here in Rome, primarily at St. Peter’s during the 16th century. This is a wonderful example of Renaissance polyphonic choir music. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Pp0XUU6Rmk

Incidentally, I can’t resist saying that I think it’s too bad that the Google Books-Publisher agreement fell through, yet I still realize that all of those books will be made available sooner or later; all that has changed is that now we know it will be later. These are the sorts of technological innovations that cannot be stopped forever.

That’s it for now. Thank you for listening to Cataloging Matters with Jim Weinheimer, coming to you from Rome, Italy, the most beautiful and the most romantic city in the world

[See also: The Truth about Standards (European Committee for Standardization) http://www.cen.eu/cen/NTS/Truth/Pages/default.aspx].


  1. Jim,

    Very good stuff. Enjoyed this a lot. Bummed to hear that you are no longer full-time in the library world...

    Best regards,
    Nathan in Minnesota

  2. Well reasoned, and a perspective that we need. I just quoted you.


    Amy Turner