Posting to Autocat
On 28/06/2011 20:43, MULLEN Allen wrote:
If I observe a shift on Autocat (or NGC4LIB, for that matter) so that a significant plurality of discussions for new directions in library-based discovery originates from a perspective of investigation and appreciation for the value of user interactivity and their contributions to the process of our services, the dichotomy will falter in my mind, just as it already does in your own. Until then, I observe study after study demonstrating dismal results for catalog use across public, community college, and university libraries, full of direct evidence for abysmally high failure rates. These studies span decades and don’t show any significant trend toward improvement. Therefore, at the risk of curtailing the service of the catalog to highly experienced users (and catalog creators) such as most members of this list, I will continue to recognize the contributions of traditional metadata services but also recognize their inadequacies and prefer success for most users over traditional approaches.
This is correct. Everybody has always repeated the mantra that the catalog is for the users, e.g. Cutter’s “the convenience of the user should be preferred to the ease of the cataloguer,” (I think it’s in his “Rules”, but I cannot find the exact quote at the moment) but he broke that rule himself once in awhile, although he readily admits it when he does. In spite of this declaration, the public has complained about the catalog from the beginnings because it is so complicated and often, they complained that it did not do what they wanted. I have been going through the debates at the Royal Commission with Panizzi and other documents, and it is really enlightening to read their complaints in light of today.
The major problem has always been that there are so many different kinds of searchers, so many different types of needs, but there has always been only a *single tool* for everyone to search, from cataloger to layman. It appears to me that the arguments made by Panizzi reflect a different mindset from what we have today, or I will even say, the European mindset vs. the U.S. where in Europe there were (are) primarily closed stacks and in the U.S., primarily open stacks. For Panizzi, I think it is evident that the catalog was primarily a tool for the librarians, or perhaps it is more exact to phrase it that the catalog was the most important tool for librarians to help the readers in the library.
His arguments (that I have read so far) seem to hover around this stated desire of his to help the readers in the British Museum get the materials they wanted as quickly and efficiently as possible, and this had important implications. In his closed stacks, it meant that the public must utilize librarians. Therefore, the service that librarians are to provide to the public are always a central part of his discussions. This seemingly simple argument has major implications for the functions of the catalog, which wound up placing a lot of responsibility on those searchers, and they did not appreciate that *at all*, but nevertheless he created what was essentially an efficient inventory tool that needed an expert to navigate, but of course, that is what reference librarians were for if someone had problems. Once people knew what they wanted, his library could provide the item very efficiently. Or, at least that is what he claimed.
So, this is how I am beginning to see it: for various reasons, many of them bureaucratic, we have created a tool with a history from at least the 1840s that almost every member of the public has had major troubles with. Librarians continue to need a really good and powerful inventory tool–we need it, there can be no doubt about that–but our users have had little need for such a tool, and the more we try to convince them that they are wrong and *they really do need it*, the more they resist and turn away. To use it even semi-efficiently, people have to learn and know quite a bit but the number of reference questions are far down, and online catalog reference simply doesn’t work. This has been happening for a long time and the difference is: people had no alternatives back then: they could either use what Panizzi built them or go without; whereas today, there are *very attractive* alternatives for the public that could not be imagined back in the 1840s.
Someone could conclude from this that the catalog is obsolete, at least it is for the public, but the discussion doesn’t end here. In my experience, the public often assumes that what they are getting through Google … [et al.] actually provides authority control, that is, when they search Dostoyevsky, they think they are looking at “the set of resources about Dostoyevsky” when the librarian knows they are not. Or when they search “war on terrorism” that they are getting everything about that. People rarely search *text* but normally search *concepts*: of people, things, places and so on. They make the completely incorrect assumption that when Google returns 6 million hits, they must be getting “everything” since they have never thought about the difference between searching “text” vs. “concepts” and they have no idea whatsoever of the complexity of such a task. We see the same fallacy in the library all the time when somebody asks: where are your books on immigration? Or where are your books on art? The only answer is: all over the place. Look in the catalog!
It turns out that explaining and understanding the fallacy of this way of thinking is very difficult to do, because people are resistant: many desperately want to “trust” the results in Google and do not like even to think about these kinds of problems. When pressed, many respond that 6 million hits is already plenty to work with, but the fallacy in their assumptions still remain: if certain results are not in the result, it doesn’t matter if that set is 12 million or 20 million.
In my own opinion, it is obvious that the inventory aspects of catalogs must continue for our purposes but they should be hidden from the public users. This is one reason why it becomes more and more obvious that the FRBR user tasks are actually the FRBR librarian tasks. The fact is, people want to spend the least amount of time with the catalog as possible because they want the resources themselves. There is no longer a need for everyone to use exactly the same tool, as they did back in the 1800s but there are all kinds of options available for everyone involved, including us. The “omnipresent librarian” is no longer a reality, nor was it all that much appreciated, even back in Panizzi’s day.
Some words of Cutter may be appropriate. He gave a report to ALA in 1885, and he reproduced it in his “Rules”. Although he was speaking about transliteration, his comments apply more generally:
“In determining the principles of transliteration it must be remembered that a catalogue is not a learned treatise intended for special scholars. It is simply a key to open the doors of knowledge to a partly ignorant and partly learned public, and it is very important that such a key should turn easily. A good catalogue therefore, will be a compromise between the claims of learning and logic on the one hand, and of ignorance, error and custom on the other.”
http://www.archive.org/stream/rulesforadictio08cuttgoog#page/n117/mode/1up p. 108.