Re: [NGC4LIB] Cataloging Matters Podcast #12

Posting to NGC4LIB

On 11/08/2011 23:51, Jonathan Rochkind wrote:

But this historical idea of a bibliography hand-crafted by an expert on a particular topic — it is highly unrealistic to think that such a bibliography can be created for every possible topic a user may be interested in. In the 21st century (heck, even in the 20th century), the point of the field of ‘information retrieval’, building systems to answer user queries, is trying to make a system that can start from a large corpus, and assemble what we could call a ‘bibliography’, a subset of that corpus matching the user’s query. Matching on full text if we have it, matching on controlled vocabulary if we have it, etc. Of course, this assembled subset is not going to be as good as a human expert created bibliography. It’s really disrespectful to call it a ‘bibliography’ at all, except by analogy. But the idea that there will be human expert maintained bibliographies created and kept up to date for every possible research topic a user may be interested in — is simply a weird luddite fantasy.

I don’t know if what I was actually suggesting was to create an infinite number of bibliographies by hand. I am suggesting a way to generate bibliographies, i.e. something more useful for the public, from our catalogs. Does each have to be “hand crafted”? No, not necessarily, but some could be. But I am sure there are ways of searching call numbers, and subject headings, etc. that is far beyond the capabilities of almost anyone, into something that would be useful for our patrons, instead of expecting each patron to become some kind of expert searcher on his or her own. Such an expectation seems to me to be the *real* Luddite fantasy. A very quick and dirty way of doing something like a bibliography would be to automatically limit by call number ranges, e.g. I would like to search only the books classed under “chess” or classed under the English Civil War. As we all know, such a call number range would not be perfect and would miss materials in other areas and subject headings. Expert queries could bring those in and this is a task that users cannot be expected to do.

If this is “disrespectful”, then that is unfortunate for those who feel disrespected, but it is necessary. If it is disrespectful to the concept of “bibliography” itself, then too bad–the concept can learn to deal with it. When we are considering new ideas, we must be willing to throw out all our previous beliefs to at least give the new ideas a beginning, otherwise everything ends up stillborn. If we can agree on a few facts:

  • a) that the information that is really and truly available to people goes far beyond any local library, and 
  • b) be realistic enough to admit that few people will learn how to use a catalog to its fullest potential, plus 
  • c) the public will almost never ask for help but will just turn to Google, a business tool which will continue to make people happier and happier (without necessarily providing better or more reliable information), 

this seems to be defining a downward spiral for traditional libraries.

How can we create something that people want? One way would seem to be by helping to clear away the irrelevant materials to a person’s search for them, or in other words, by creating a bibliography. For the searcher, it has to be done sooner or later if you are going to get a decent result. If librarians/experts don’t provide substantial help, they are just foisting that job onto the shoulders of those who have much less knowledge and experience to do it: our patrons. And this is one reason why they don’t like our catalogs.

As Ross points out, there is the possibility of semantic searching which promises to be incredibly powerful. And people need to know what would exist in the journal databases, open archives, and the open web. Bringing these materials together would require a lot of innovative thinking along with collaboration. But it would be something that our users would want and use, that would be available nowhere else. As Ross mentioned, Mendeley could be an important part of this.