Posting to Autocat
I recently read Jeffrey Beall’s review of Eric Hellman’s talk, “Library data: why bother?” that he gave at ALA http://metadata.posterous.com/review-of-eric-hellmans-talk-at-ala-annual-20 and I finally managed to find the actual slides so that I can get my own impression of his controversial talk. The slides are at: http://www.facebook.com/l.php?u=http%3A%2F%2Fbit.ly%2FipVVoH&h=4AQDVSolC. I suggest people look at these slides as a good example of how catalogs are viewed by many highly influential “information experts”.
Jeffrey Beall did not like the talk, “Hellman’s talk was among the most arrogant and flippant I had ever attended at an ALA conference. His talk was supposed to be about linked data, but he exploited his position as speaker to unwarrantedly trash libraries, library standards, and librarians.” I sympathize with his anger, but I think it is vital today to accept that many non-librarians–and even librarians–share Eric Hellman’s conclusion that the library and its catalogs are becoming obsolete, if they have not already been obsolete for some time. Lots of people agree with Hellman that the replacement is/will be full-text searching and they put their faith in SEO, that is, “Search Engine Optimization”. Especially in today’s economic climate, there is a lot of pressure on administrators to reconsider everything that their organization is doing to maximize their options and if someone could convince administrators that they had a “magic machine” some, if not many, would snap at it.
I think Hellman brings up a point that is highly important where he says: “We don’t need surrogates”, which I take to mean that we do not need separate catalog records. Although he doesn’t say it in so many words, I believe Hellman is saying that if metadata has a use, it is to *improve* the SEO by inserting more specific dates, some type of description, perhaps even some authorized forms, by using metadata or microdata, but the emphasis of searching should be on SEO.
Whether it turns out that these methods would work or not–my own mind remains open on this suggestion–Hellman’s declaration that “we don’t need surrogates” is a feeling that I have witnessed myself. Most people do not like to use the catalog and use it only when they have to so that they can get into the books, etc. that they want. Often, they search a book they know they want just so that they can get into the stacks and browse. In any case, they would much prefer to browse the shelves and, in spite of a lot of my protesting that shelf browsing is OK but one of the least efficient methods of searching, many patrons still resolutely refuse to use the catalog. I don’t think this is anything new; after all: the information people want is in the books and serials and maps and in the other parts of our collections, not in the catalog. I remember how I rarely used the catalog myself before I understood exactly what it was and how it was structured. As I remember, I would look up an author’s name with the sole idea of getting into the stacks and browsing the shelves where I assumed all the books were that I would need sat together.
It also turns out that people do not realize that Google is based on metadata. The Google search result has a short summary of each resource, where you see the URL and a bit of the keyword you searched in its context (this is “data about data”), and if you select a time frame in the left-hand column, e.g. “Past month”, you miraculously see the dates of the pages, or when you click on “Timeline”, “Reading level” and so on, it becomes clear that there is some kind of metadata being utilized behind the scenes. There is undoubtedly a lot more metadata that we don’t see, so these are of course, metadata records.
Still, people do not relate to these records in the same way as they do with our catalog records and see it as working directly with the digitized resources.
Of course, I think that library catalog records (or “surrogates”) are still very important for information retrieval, but it is clear that the *functionality of our catalogs* need to be rethought completely. Nevertheless, we should no longer think that this attitude is simply taken for granted any longer by the powers-that-be. Such statements must be proven today, often to people who are less than sympathetic. Many love full-text searching, they are familiar with it and find it far more useful than our tools that are conceptually difficult and definitely more complex. Maybe it should not be that way, but the fact that the traditional methods are being seriously questioned is simply a fact of life today.