Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Re: A Day Made of Glass

Posting to NGC4LIB

On 17/08/2011 11:33, Bernhard Eversberg wrote:
We need to think in broader and more general terms, obviously, but not too general and too grandiloquent either. Down to earth but off the beaten track into all the accessible territory. But I can't think of an easy catchphrase to sum it all up.
Therefore, to get real now, how about these headlines, for a beginning:

   What should catalogs do?
   -- Produce reliable results
   -- Discriminate what is different
   -- Bring together what belongs together
   -- Present meaningful choices
   -- Locate what users choose
   -- Extensible services
... etc.

While I agree with this, I keep telling myself that I am a librarian, and I ask: is this what the *patrons* really want? For instance, everyone will agree that they want "reliable" results (who would prefer "unreliable results"?) but "reliable" can mean something quite different to each person; about similar vs. different: misunderstandings of what the the patrons consider to be similar vs. what is different are discussed in that "conversation" between the patron and the library catalog I made. These issues you mention seem to refer more to enforceable standards--something I think is absolutely necessary.

But going beyond this, what is it that libraries and librarians provide that nobody else does? As I keep pointing out, one thing that will bring patrons to use the library's tools is if it provides links to "reliable" resources. People are becoming very skeptical of what they read on the web and want some kind of help to sort out--quickly and easily--what is factual truth, what is opinion, what is superstition, and what is an outright falsehood. Of course, this is entering the area of "selection" but it relates to the very purpose of the catalog: without any doubt, the main thing that patrons want is reliable *information*. If they can do that without using the catalog or searching anything, so much the better!

As catalogers, we understand what "reliable results" are as opposed to "reliable information", and how a "reliable result" may *not* necessarily produce "reliable information". This is very difficult for a non-specialist to understand however, and for them, they tend to see the entire matter as a single enterprise: they are focused on getting *reliable information* and many will (and do now) consider the *search* to have failed if it leads them to unreliable *information*.  This is an example of why I think that it is vital to see the entire library as providing single services from the user's point of view, and not from the internal, organizational, hierarchical point of view.

Of course, this means that "library selection" evolves into something more evaluative than it is now, and/or that the metadata record would let searchers know that the information is perhaps obsolete because e.g. there is a later edition, or this author wrote another book on a similar topic, or there are other, later books on this same topic, or something like that.

Another finding of researchers is shown in this wonderful video by Renata Salecl about "The Paradox of Choice" from the RSA, or the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. (These RSAnimate videos are great, by the way!) Although this video becomes too political for strictly library purposes, what I am interested in is that it has been discovered that when people are confronted by too many choices, it makes them *more* anxious, and not less. It also leads to a certain passivity or paralysis in making a choice from everything available. This has certainly been my own experience working with undergraduates and higher-level researchers as well--a search that returns hundreds or thousands of items is actually horrifying to many of them. They want to ignore 99% of the results somehow so that they can concentrate just on what they "need"--this is a very natural feeling--and at the same time, they are always scared that they are missing something that will turn out to be vitally important. Often, there is a feeling that this vitally important bit is 10 or 15 pages buried inside a book that *everybody* just silently knows about *except them*! This will lead to failure on their research, their paper, everyone will be laughing at them, and so on and so on.

I feel exactly the same way and I am sure that lots of other people out there do too. It is very stressful.

Therefore, I have been considering another main idea of what the new catalog should do: to lessen the stress and anxiety on the information seeker. How could this be achieved? By reconsidering the purpose of selection, cataloging, and reference, and how best to interoperate with other projects on the web, such as full-text databases that will allow microdata and other options. I admit this is rather vague at the moment, but if successful, it would definitely provide patrons with a tool they would want.

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