Friday, February 17, 2012

Re: The good enough record

Posting to Autocat

On 16/02/2012 20:31, Amy Turner wrote:
James Weinheimer wrote: If the lousy quality of some bibliographic records were to be transferred into an equivalent lousy quality in cans of corn, it would require an immediate recall of all the cans along with public service announcements, investigations and perhaps prosecutions. Library-bibliographic standards have never wanted to adhere to such standards as those in the food industry.

Interesting metaphor. However, I know of no documented deaths due to bad cataloging. Also, though we all have our preferences in food, and can discuss how much we are willing to pay for x can of corn vs. y can of corn, just imagine asking someone on the street to put a monetray value on bibliographic record A vs. bibliographic record B, or even ILS C vs. ILS D.

IMHO, a big reason that cataloging standards are not enforced is that they are so strict that it is impossible to apply them with any consistency outside of a bureucratic well-staffed organization like the Library of Congress (and it isn't easy there, particularly with staff cuts). For example, on the PCC mailing list, an appeal is out to the powers that be to rule on the question of capitalization in series statements in the pattern:
[word meaning series] [what you might think was the title of the series]

OK, once we get the definitive answer on this, how are we going to be sure that the rule is followed in all records, past, present and future in OCLC or whatever other database we are talking about? The short answer is that we won't, and that records in OCLC will adhere to a wide range of standards, and we're back to the question of what is good enough.

Here's another question. You take a group of catalogers (stereotypically known for attention to detail) and collectively they create a database. They then collectively complain about the quality of that database, and train their lower level staff to evaluate records created by higher level staff at other institutions. What is wrong with this picture?

Excellent points and I agree with them.

While I doubt whether there have been too many deaths caused by bad cataloging, although there probably have been some shortened life spans among catalogers due to heightened blood pressure(!), I would hope that poor cataloging has had some adverse effects on our patrons, primarily either by lowered productivity because libraries have had to spend time upgrading poor records, or when the libraries have decided to let the lousy records go through, there have been some impacts on users who are either not finding materials, or it takes a much greater amount of their time to find the materials they need.

I can only mention from my own historical researches back at Princeton, that the head librarian in the 1910s and 1920s, Ernest Richardson, had a "catalog of the future", which (for brevity's sake here) reduced access to only main entry and call number. (Of course, he had his research "proving" that nobody needed anything more than that) It took a few years but the faculty staged a revolt and Richardson was ousted. A normal card catalog was then (re)introduced after that. Later, there were other times in the catalog when non-Roman books (because they were less "important") received *only* a main entry card, with no subjects. At other times, to reduce the size of the card catalog, thousands of subject cards were removed.

It is difficult to measure that kind of loss of access, but when I learned this and I would browse those cards, I realized I wasn't seeing nearly what I should have been seeing. I called those areas "white holes" because the cards in the catalog were (mostly) kind of white, but I couldn't see the cards that were not there, although they should have been. These areas therefore acted like black holes in space in that you cannot see them because all the light is trapped. Therefore: White holes.

I have hesitated to mention one of my podcasts on standards and good enough since I have already announced it, but I feel compelled to do so again here: "Cataloging Matters Podcast no. 9: Standards, Perfection, and Good Enough"

1 comment:

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