Monday, February 20, 2012

Revolution in our Minds: Seeing the World Anew

Revolution in our Minds:
Seeing the World Anew
James Weinheimer
Kunnskapsorganisasjonsdagene 2012
Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences
Oslo, Norway
2 February 2012

This paper has changed slightly from the original, to provide some additional discussions that I gave during the time of presentation. In essence, it is the same, but slightly different, as befits the purpose of First Thus.

First, I would like to thank Unni Knutsen and the University for giving me this wonderful opportunity to speak in your beautiful city.

I would like to begin my talk with a few photos.

These are photos from the period not long after the Russian Revolution in the early 20th century. They were taken by a Soviet photographer, Alexander Rodchenko. After the revolution, people were excited about building a brand new society, and it was believed that even photography could play an important role. Here is a quote from Rodchenko in 1927:
”Thousands of years of painting have conditioned us to see according to compositional principals that are totally and literally outdated. A revolution must be performed on the people to teach them to see things from every angle and in any kind of light.” Zapisnaia knizhka, Novyi LEF, 1927 
Rodchenko’s photos are the best way to show how he attempted to achieve this revolution. Some of them may not be very attractive, but that was not his purpose. The results are startling since they show familiar sights, including mechanical gears and movie film, in new ways. My opinion is that libraries need something similar to occur not in the minds of the general public, because that is occurring now independently of whatever librarians do, but this revolution must take place within the minds of librarians, especially catalogers.

Therefore, I would like to rephrase Rodchenko’s statement:
 ”Thousands of years of cataloging practices have conditioned us to see according to informational structures that are totally and literally outdated. A revolution must be performed on the librarians to teach them to see things from every angle and in any kind of circumstance.” 
When put in those terms, we can begin to appreciate how provocative Rodchenko's statement was.

While new ideas are needed, new ideas are not enough. We need a new way of seeing the world. Otherwise we may be finding new ways to make products that are obsolete, or to use a description I like: perfecting the irrelevant, that is, forging a better horseshoe or improving the typewriter. It is imperative that we reconsider seriously the old ways of thinking. This will mean examining some notions that may make others, and even ourselves, rather angry because some new ways of seeing may turn out to be in stark contradiction to the old.

One example of how difficult this can be is a question I believe should be of burning importance to librarianship but it may strike some as rather strange: I believe that librarians have to figure out precisely what it is that they really do. What I am questioning is whether the job of librarians is really to select, acquire, receive, catalog, shelve, circulate, conserve, and provide reference help, and do it all efficiently and effectively, or do they actually do something quite different?

I suspect they do something else, but I don’t really know what that something else is and what’s more, I am not even sure how to begin to answer such a question. To help me consider this problem I use the following example. In the old days, many people in the horse and buggy industry really and truly thought that they were in the business of horses and buggies, so when faced with the arrival of automobiles they wracked their brains trying to get better horses and better buggies. Yet, from our vantage point, we can easily see that those people were going in the wrong direction. That is because we see that they were not in the horse and buggy industry, but in the transportation industry. Horses and buggies were only one possibility within the greater field of transportation.

Many of those folks in the horse and buggy industry were simply unable to visualize the new universe they were entering, although they were certainly no dumber than we are and they wanted very much to succeed.

I can envision people a hundred years or so from now, looking back at today’s library world and saying, “They thought they were in the library industry when they were really in the [fill in the blank] industry! How strange they couldn’t see something so obvious.”

Are libraries in the “information industry”? Perhaps in part, but I believe librarians provide something more personal to their communities and perhaps more vital. For me, I suspect when we consider that the library’s job is to select, acquire, receive and so on, we are mixing up management and workflow with what it is we really do. Focusing our attention on improving those duties may be equivalent to trying to get better horses and buggies. And yet, to determine what it is we really do may prove to be exceptionally difficult.

The simple fact is: from the macro viewpoint today, when it comes to information structures, information needs and so on, no one has the answers. Not our teachers, not Bill Gates, not even Tim Berners-Lee himself. Not Rupert Murdoch or the publishing industry--and I certainly don’t have the answers. People have opinions of varying worth but honestly, at this point in time, we are still fumbling around trying to find the correct questions to ask. Yet, I will say there are some things we do know today and one of them is that the old solutions just don’t do the job any longer.

A situation like this has some distinct advantages. Once you realize these individuals don’t have any better answers than anyone else, then it follows that when you have an equivalent understanding--not necessarily equivalent knowledge, but equivalent understanding--you are equal to these people. Such a revelation is liberating. So continue to learn; listen to these people, keep what is valuable, and throw away what makes no sense to you. Do so with a clear conscience. Because in today’s world, that’s where a lot of it belongs. This includes what I have to say. Of course, be polite and who knows? Those who claim to have the answers may eventually prove to be right. Be ready to change your ideas, but draw your own conclusions! Those others don’t know any better than you do.

It is clear to me that from the social and economic standpoint, if not from the political one as well, we are entering Darwinian times, meaning the survival of the fittest. In fact, I believe we are experiencing what is called “punctuated equilibrium”.

Punctuated equilibrium is one of the theories of evolution that says that during periods of minor change, there are relatively few instances of evolution in a population (such a period is called stasis) and these periods can be rather long, but at a moment of stress for whatever reason, perhaps environmental, or a new predator arrives on the scene, things begin to change much more quickly as individuals try to survive. Such a moment bears a frightening name: a speciation event.

Based on the economic and technological stresses we are experiencing, which show no evidence of going away anytime soon, I believe our society is coming out of a period of relative social and economic stasis, and entering the equivalent of a speciation event. It seems as if people in all kinds of professions are beginning to feel a vague compulsion to evolve somehow. Certainly librarians and catalogers are not immune to those pressures. When we emerge from these times into some more stable future, I am sure that for better or worse, libraries and cataloging will be different from what they have been.

During this period of stress, there will be attempts by librarians to adapt--at least I hope there will be attempts--and the results of their efforts will be labelled “successes” and “failures” but please note that “failure” won’t imply that anyone will have done anything wrong. That is just the essence of trial and error. Since we are all prisoners of time, we cannot be in more than one place at any one time. So for instance, when you are walking from one town to another, find a fork in the road and don’t know which to take, you can choose only one of them.

You can’t take them all--not at the same time. If there are two of you, one can take one road, and the other can take another, but still, each of you will be on a separate path, and what happens when one of you meets an additional fork in the road?

In such a predicament, choosing a road that does not lead to the goal is not a failure. You are human. You were fated either to choose or just give up, go back home, and do nothing. Perhaps if you had been a bird, you could fly up into the air to see where each road went, but we can’t spend our time wishing for wings.

Therefore, at that stage, one choice is just as good as another, so you look further: one road is smooth and level, another is terribly muddy, another goes up the side of a treacherous cliff. If you have no idea which one to take, it would make sense to choose the easiest road. It could turn out that none lead to the goal, or all of them do. And if you happen to choose one that gets you where you want to go, it is not so much “success” as it is sheer luck.

Of course, once people know which road takes you to the next town and you choose another one, that can be considered an error, although you still may not be at fault since it may not have been possible for you to know it. Therefore communication of successes and failures is equally vital. If everyone trying different paths had a cell phone, they could talk to one another and find the road to the next town far more efficiently.

To sum up, in a trial and error scenario, genuine failures must be defined as not trying anything at all, not communicating to others the results of your trial and error attempts, or of course, refusing to admit that you are on the wrong road after it has become clear that it is not going where you want. Almost anyone can point to many examples of each type of these errors.

One last consideration: We all like to believe we know certain things but then something happens in our lives to make us question those nice assumptions. Just imagine, if something momentous happened now, right at this moment, we saw a mushroom cloud. The entire universe for us would become unbalanced, it would look so different so quickly that we would experience vertigo and not know what to do.

My proposition is that this is what is happening now within many areas of the world, and libraries are far from immune. For such a long time, libraries have known only minor changes and have been sheltered in many ways, and then came this crazy thing called an Internet, which they could kind of ignore for awhile, but now the economic situation has suddenly thrust them into a terrible predicament.

Many of the librarian’s most cherished assumptions are now being summarily ripped away from them. Not only has their professional security vanished in many cases, they are finding that they are not necessarily so beloved by their communities as they always liked to think. They are finding that they are often not regarded as experts in anything of value. They are finding that many of the tools they have created and maintained over many years are considered to be obsolete, and lie almost unused, ridiculed and scorned.

Even their most cherished treasures: the magnificent collections that they have struggled over, in some cases for centuries, and take great pride in, are often being dismissed as semi-useless in today’s digital environment. The main thing these nay-sayers want is to scan everything so that they can force it all to fit onto their computer screens, just like Procrustes forced his victims to fit onto his bed!
Procrustes. British Museum

I’ll confess something awful: I want that too!

In this topsy-turvy world--which very well may become even more unpredictable, adaptability becomes incredibly important. Therefore, I submit it is unwise and even dangerous to say that we really know much of anything. And when it comes to what the public wants from libraries, how they search for information, what they want to do with that information and so on, the ONLY correct response is to say: I don’t know.

I do know some things however. If a field cannot demonstrate its importance to society, that field will wither away and die. That has happened many times: to the village blacksmiths, elevator operators, switchboard operators, typesetters. Computers just five or ten years old are already obsolete!

So, after all of this, I ask how this fits in:



Let’s consider this title as a statement: it means that for bibliographic records to function, they must fulfil the requirements as laid out in the book. Otherwise, the bibliographic records will not function. And when you begin to read the book, you discover that the requirements are themselves based on what are called “user tasks”. What does this mean?

According to FRBR (and I quote):
“The study has two primary objectives. The first is to provide a clearly defined, structured framework for relating the data that are recorded in bibliographic records to the needs of the users of those records.”
So, who are these users? We read further: quote:
“The study assumes that the data included in bibliographic records ... are used by a wide range of users: readers, students, researchers, library staff, publishers, distribution agents, retailers, information brokers, administrators of intellectual property rights, etc.”

And what do these groups want? That is, what are the requirements of these users that will determine whether the bibliographic records are functional?

Well, the famous  
find, identify, select, obtain
     works, expressions, manifestations, items 
     by their
          authors, titles, subjects. 

I realize this is a blatant oversimplification, since, for example, no one wants to obtain an entire work, comprising all the items of all the manifestations of all the expressions of the work of Homer’s Odyssey, so in FRBR there are sections on finding vs. obtaining and so on, each of the specific entities, and everything is supplemented by all kinds of tables. It really is a lot of work, but that’s OK because we know that it is all worthwhile. Once FRBR is implemented and put out for everyone to use, we can rest assured that our bibliographic records will be functional because they will fulfill the requirements of the users.


Where is the evidence that this is what people want? There is overwhelming evidence that the public does not find our catalogs nearly so useful as Google. Google has full-text it’s true, but the public even prefers Amazon, and it doesn’t have nearly as much full-text. Besides that, how do the FRBR user tasks differ in any real ways from what our catalogs have always provided, and that the public has already pretty much rejected? Is it that people today CANNOT find specific items of specific manifestations of specific expressions of the work of Homer’s Odyssey? In fact, they can today, and they could 100 years ago, because FRBR follows, in essence, Cutter’s Rules:

Clearly, there is nothing new with FRBR here, and everyone agrees. Please realize I am not trying to belittle the amount of labor people have put into FRBR, because it is obviously the result of a lot of work by many highly knowledgeable catalogers. I very much respect what they did, but the final result still isn’t anything new. What they did was to take the structures we have had for a long, long time and rework them into an entity-relationship model, where you have entities equal the authors, titles, subjects, works, expressions, etc. and then relate those entities in various ways.

But what about the overall purpose of FRBR? Here, I think Charles Cutter himself can help us. When discussing the title in his rules, Cutter points out that practical matters should take precedence over theoretical ones: p. 16

Even more interesting is this by William Fletcher from Library Journal, March 1905, p. 141+:

We find that over 100 years ago people were questioning the accepted attitudes toward the catalog, so criticisms are anything but new. I have also found the same opinions repeated over and over in the Report of the Royal Commission on the Management of the British Museum (the so-called “Great Debate” of the 1840s), to the effect that while Panizzi’s catalog serves the purposes of the library, and in this way can help the librarians in turn help the readers more efficiently, nevertheless the catalog itself did not actually serve the needs of the public. I’ll return to this later.

I think the attitudes of Cutter and Fletcher are very appropriate however: we should be careful of paying a superstitious veneration toward anything and that includes our catalogs.

It seems to me that if the real tasks that users want were according to FRBR, we would be seeing our catalogs used more often, or at least the public would be rather vocal about not finding what they need in Google. Yet people complain far more loudly about library catalogs than about Google, that is when they don’t ignore library catalogs completely. Also, the public does indeed voice complaints about Google but these complaints can’t be interpreted as having anything to do with the FRBR user tasks. So, it seems only logical to ask if people really want the FRBR user tasks so badly, then why do so few use library catalogs and turn to other tools so happily?

My own opinion is because people don’t need the FRBR user tasks. Perhaps in the view of the public, the Functional Requirements are really the DYSfunctional Requirements.

We must raise these kinds of questions and then do serious research into them. If we do not, then we may be guilty of perfecting the irrelevant, and paying a superstitious veneration toward the catalog and FRBR.

So, what do I think that people want? How does the public relate to our records? Do the problems they experience have to do with punctuation, transcription practices or media terminology? I don’t think so. My own experience shows that their problems relate to the nature of the catalog itself.

This is where we must be open and honest with ourselves. We cannot ask ourselves about any of this: this judgment can only come from the majority of our users, or non-librarians. Personally, I know too much and that makes my opinion irrelevant. So, I have tried to recreate how a library user may relate to the library catalog, and I have tried to illustrate this using something different: wine lists we see at restaurants.

Here is a typical wine list of the type we all see at a restaurant. I know a little about wines, but I want to stress it’s a little. Still, I certainly like a good wine with my meal, and this is the kind of list that I absolutely hate. It is a list of the names of wines arranged by place: Italy, California, Other. The information the restaurant provides means absolutely nothing to me and does not help me to make a selection. In fact, it seems purposely designed to make me feel stupid and inadequate. Since there is no information here that is of any use to me, my real concern when looking at this kind of a wine list is that I don’t want the others with me, or even the waiter himself, to think I am overly stupid or stingy with my money. But I also don’t want to break my pocketbook. So I concentrate on the only meaningful bit of information I see: the price.

Here is an example of another kind of wine list. Someone has added short descriptions.

Maybe this is a little better than the previous list for me, but it still means almost nothing. “Highly expressive nose with a mouth-smacking finish” or “Lively and lengthy on the palate with a great body”. All this just sounds silly and it doesn’t help much at all. I still find myself concentrating on the price.

To be honest, I want something entirely different. Neither of these lists gives me any information that really helps me make a meaningful choice. Let me explain. After living in Italy, I have found that for me, food and drink are linked to the social situation.

Is it getting together for a loud and fun time with a bunch of friends?

Is it to be a business dinner?

Or a deep philosophical discussion with an old friend where we solve the ills of the world together?

Maybe I have a very important appointment with the perfect steak.

Or, it’s a special moment with that special someone.

At least to me, it is obvious that I want different wines for each of these occasions. The first menu we saw is completely useless for that, the second one not much better and besides, I came to the restaurant to enjoy myself with my friends, not to sit with my nose buried inside some boring tome filled with incomprehensible jargon while everyone else is having a good time!

So, what do I want? I want to be able to tell an expert about the dinner and explain what I want, so that he or she can make the choice for me. And, if they choose a lousy wine or they spend too much of my money, I will kick them very hard in a place they won’t like! So, I expect the waiters or maître d' to help.

But let’s face it: there is a part of me that secretly feels ashamed since I think that I really should know more about wines than I do and I don’t like admitting my failings. So, if there were a menu of some sort arranged by social situation, preferably automated, that would give me the information I need to help me to make my own choice, I would like that perhaps even better.

The reason I have gone into such depth here is because I believe it demonstrates how our catalogs look to the public. Does the public want to do this

or this

and this?

Personally, I like to search catalogs, but I am different. For me, searching catalogs is the same as working with primary sources.

By now, it should come as no surprise that I believe the overwhelming majority of the public does not want to find, identify, select, obtain: works, expressions, manifestations, items by their authors, titles, subjects. Sure, some people want to do that once in awhile, but primarily they want something else, and consequently, the library catalog is not what people want. I realize this may be a rather offensive or at least, deeply disturbing, statement for some librarians. I can understand that if you take away FRBR, you in effect eliminate the very essence of what the library catalog has been designed to provide for over a hundred years at least! I mean, what would catalogers do... what would libraries do, since there would be nothing to replace the catalog!

In answer, I reply that matters are not so dire, since I also maintain--paradoxically--that the FRBR tasks really are important, but we must acknowledge they are important primarily to librarians, and not to the public. We should not get the two mixed up. What do I mean? Our catalogs are like the first wine list we saw, the one that I said I hate since it is more or less useless to me as an average customer who knows very little about wine. Yet, I realize that that same wine list is absolutely critical for the waiters and for the restaurant. They need to know what wines they have and do not have, how much they cost, when they need to reorder, and so on.

Exactly the same happens for library catalogs: they provide a critical inventory for the library, plus, it allows expert searchers who understand how the catalog works, especially those who understand the genuine power of authority control and how the headings function!--to find resources that would otherwise remain hidden, just as wine experts can use the first wine list to get precisely the vintage they want.

So, we can begin to see a couple of the basic errors I believe FRBR has made. One error was to assume that the traditional library catalog fulfilled the needs of the public, and another error was to lump all the users together.

Who are those users again?
The study assumes that the data included in bibliographic records ... are used by a wide range of users: readers, students, researchers, library staff, publishers, distribution agents, retailers, information brokers, administrators of intellectual property rights, etc.From FRBR

Wow! That’s quite a list! And the et cetera in this sentence is simply incredible!

To be fair, during the time of the printed book and card catalogs when cataloging theory really began to take shape, lumping all users of the catalog together was unavoidable because there could only be a single catalog for everyone. Maybe you could have a children’s catalog or lists for a few special collections but those had to be extremely limited. With print technology, everybody had to look at exactly the same bibliographic records arranged in exactly the same way. You couldn’t provide individualized catalogs and specific views for different groups or for individuals. Although the librarians always claimed that the public’s needs came first, that was never really true because of course the library’s needs took priority, so it turned out that the public had to adapt their work to the library’s. A lot of people didn’t like that but most understood the necessity to do so.

Today however, there can be all different kinds of views of the catalog with the records arranged in various ways, and there are several methods to accomplish it, so there really can be different catalogs for different groups and different people. This actually simplifies matters a lot since one of those modes can be the “expert mode” needed for librarians to manage the collection, to do their reference work and so on. This mode can work much as what we have today. There is no longer a need to force the public to use the same views and capabilities librarians need. Once this is accepted we, along with everyone else, can implement improvements on all kinds of different views based on what we discover the public wants.

So, what do people want from libraries? Again, we need to find out, but for one, I do not think the public wants the library catalog; at least, not the entire catalog. People do want bits and pieces of it however. This is not a new revelation and was made quite clear as far back as the 1840s during the inquiry at the British Library. Lately, I’ve been going through the inquiry rather closely and I am finding quite a bit that may be relevant to us today. Just for one example, the royal commissioners asked scholars whether they would buy personal copies of the British Museum library catalog after it was printed, which would run into many, many, many thick volumes and be outrageously expensive. All of the scholars said no, they would not, but they would be very interested in buying what they called “subsidiary catalogues” or “special catalogues”. These were catalogs of special collections or on specific topics, for instance a special collection in the library on English history, or the books on science that the library owned, and so on.

I think the public would still like those “subsidiary catalogs” today. This is essentially what people are asking for when they ask one of those normal reference questions: “Where are your books on Leonardo?” or “Where are your mysteries?” A catalog that provided this kind of information wouldn’t be for selling but for using. How could this work?

We could start to create queries for “special collections”, based at first on simple limits to call number ranges, thereby recreating shelf browsing to a point. Currently, catalogs that have virtual browsing give a list that reproduces browsing the shelf item by item, but the searcher should be able do a keyword search limited to specific areas of the classification, e.g. a search for archaeological methodology within the LC class numbers of CC73-CC81. Once a search has these primary limits, keyword searches could become much more focussed than they are now.

Here is an example page I have created. It is very ugly. I made it ugly on purpose since I want to demonstrate only how it functions.
A search for text using this page automatically limits the search to the specific call number range CC73-CC81 in the catalog at the Library of Congress.

This is an example of how a highly complex search, far beyond the capabilities of the average person, could be made much simpler and very useful for the searcher. Related subject headings could be added to this query because any librarian knows that only browsing a call number alone will miss many similar materials classed in different areas.

Such a tool that did most of the hard work of searching for the user could also be mashed up with other tools, such as dbpedia in all kinds of ways. Anyway, I believe it is clear that nobody except librarians and developers want entire catalogs, but if made easy to use and clearly explained, I believe the public could find specific parts of them very, very useful. We can see that there are all different ways this could be done.

I also decided to add a similar functionality to Google Books. You cannot search Google Books by call number, but you can through subject headings. People can imagine that if you were able to put all the searches together: subject headings, call numbers and full-text keywords in Google Books, you could search a highly selected batch of digitized books by keyword. As an aside, I want to demonstrate what Google thinks of library metadata.

Here is a typical example of what someone sees when they enter a book on Google. This example uses the page I created, searches Google Books with the subject heading Archaeology--Methodology, and the keyword I entered was "England". Where is the library metadata? To find it is not easy. First, the person needs to know how to scroll down to find the click "About this book"

And then after clicking on this page, the searcher has to scroll to the very bottom of the About this book page, past all kinds of other information, before they get the bibliographic information.

This is where you can see the heading "Archaeology--Methodology" with "England" as a general keyword search, and why this page was retrieved. [Incidentally, while I was in Norway, the subject headings for this record did not display]

Therefore, Google has decided to place the library metadata at the very bottom of a page that is difficult even to find! Clearly, Google does not consider our metadata to be of the greatest importance.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I decided to carry out an experiment on myself: to follow Rodchenko’s advice that we saw at the very beginning, and to try to break my mind out of the traditional patterns of thinking. I did this by attempting something I thought would be easy: I tried to imagine what the catalog record would look like in the future--not a complicated record, just a simple record for a monograph. I did not try to imagine how the entire catalog would function, just what a single, simple record would look like.

I tried very hard, but it turned out... I couldn't do it. I started out trying to imagine linked data, and although I understand that it tries to separate the data from the presentation, sooner or later the data for a resource has to come together and be displayed somehow.

I could not imagine anything other than variations on the book catalog display (which is essentially the same as the FRBR display), the card display or today’s labelled display. That’s all I could do.

I could easily imagine these records projected onto walls or as holograms in space. I even imagined records being printed out on those three-dimensional printers. It was simple to imagine packing extra functions onto the record, to buy, to download, to listen, or whatever, just like throwing all kinds of garnishes onto a hamburger, but that wasn't what I was getting at. The record itself was still there, looking pretty much as it always has. It just had extra "stuff" hanging off of it, or it was in weird places.

My lack of imagination offered me an interesting insight into my own limitations, especially when I compared myself to the talents of someone like Rodchenko. But OK, I couldn't do it! I admitted it and chose a different tack: I started thinking that I should try to take advantage of my defect. Perhaps my inability to visualize anything was actually a sign that the record of the future won't be something that you can see. It may not be separate and clearly defined like it has always been. Maybe it will work behind the scenes quietly in an embedded way, somewhat like the Google Books metadata record that we saw, but in ways far more hidden and subtle. How could something like that work?

This led me to imagine CIP

in books, and that all of the CIPs were not just printed, but actually worked to bring the books together by the headings and call numbers used there, so when you opened a specific book that you found through a general keyword search, all of the books with related headings in similar CIPs were automatically brought together.

I imagined all this taking place mechanically with invisible wires hanging off the headings in the CIP and all of the books being sorted and resorted physically in a seething mass as you would open the book. That was kind of terrifying. Therefore I decided that it would have to take place behind a curtain or something, so that the person opening the book is completely unaware of what is actually going on. I wound up imagining the library in the Harry Potter movies with all the books flying around. In this scenario, we would be talking about CIP on steroids since it would actually perform a powerful function behind the scenes.

Of course, almost nobody except catalogers today knows about CIP, much less cares about it, and everything could remain that way in the future. Nobody seems to mind not seeing the Google Books metadata records. The public could thereby get the function of the catalog records without the need to interact with them directly.

So, perhaps the way the catalog record of the future will look to the public will be that the records won’t appear at all and only the metadata creators will know that the records even exist! This could happen right now by the way, using what is called “microdata,” but I won’t go into any of that.

If something similar to this embedded, functioning, bibliographic record that no one would ever see were implemented, the very notion of a metadata record describing some separate resource that you then must obtain separately may increasingly be considered too abstract for the public to deal with. In fact, in my own experience, this appears to be happening already with some of the younger people I have worked with, who display serious conceptual problems towards the library catalog and its relationship to the collection.

Now, do I like such a scenario? Absolutely not! In many ways, I find it terribly limiting to the searchers and insulting to libraries and their catalogs. But my personal feelings mean nothing. It is part of the
“...revolution [that] must be performed on the librarians to teach them to see things from every angle and in any kind of circumstance.”
That includes me.

Of course, it may very well turn out that I am completely wrong.

I am not H.G. Wells predicting future technologies! All of this can be done right now. In many cases, the software is free or very inexpensive. The main problem is finding the will to do it and to organize it. Trial and error means success and failure. There will be false roads, such as I believe is happening with FRBR and RDA. They are the equivalent of making better horses and buggies and I seriously fear, will have the same results. There is nothing wrong with taking a false road, but people must admit that they are on a road that does not go where they want and then do something different. In any case, the very serious problems facing libraries are not with the cataloging rules, and the technology today allows us to do almost everything we want... and much more that we don’t yet even realize we want.

I have no doubt that our cataloging rules will need to change, and someday, when we know more about how people search and use information, and we are on a more solid footing, the situation will be ripe for revolution in our rules. At the moment however, we are still trying to figure out the questions to ask! A lot can still be done: there are a huge number of ways to improve the catalog so that it will make a real difference for the public without the catalogers experiencing such expense and disruption in their work. I already gave one suggestion about “subsidiary catalogs” but here is another: the LC subject headings provide conceptual access to resources, something found nowhere else, but they were designed in the print era. When transferred to computers and especially when keyword searching appeared, the subjects ceased to perform the function as they should. We should come up with new ways to make the subjects work again in the new environment, without expecting catalogers to recatalog everything.

Try. And fail. And try again. And fail better. That’s how it should be and how the fittest survive. Attempts such as these that are aimed at improving how the catalog functions would be the equivalent to taking the smooth, easy road instead of the slippery one up the side of a cliff. Maybe we will need to take that difficult road someday, but let’s at least try some easier ones first.

To conclude, although we are facing tremendous challenges, I think it really is a great time to be in librarianship. Never was the opportunity for genuinely equal participation in the world so great as it is now. The Arab Spring, the Indignados and the Occupy Movements can teach all of us a lot.

Do not forget that YOU--each and every one of you--is an agent of change, if you choose to step down that path.

Thank you for your attention.


  1. Thank you for such a thought provoking paper! I am not a cataloger but am the Head of Technical Services. This paper really hit home to what we're dealing with at my library. I am recommending it to everyone because I think it is exactly what libraries need to start thinking about, what users really want.

  2. Thank you for this! I will take a bit of it and push it further down the pipe:

  3. Thanks so much both of you! Please consider share any comments you may have (somehow!) since it would help all of us so much during such a difficult moment.

  4. I believe the keyword is involvement in the environment which is creating value - you name it, being different from country to country.
    Involvement means continuous adaptation of the skill set to what is being readily available (software, methods, means of exploration).
    Abandoning laziness and taken the path of active involvement in projects, idea development, data management, electronic infrastructure... taking (programming courses){ producing-> usefulTools = effort()}

    Here something very hot:

    And two of my favourites:

  5. Hello James,

    I love the section about CIP but I do feel a bit let down that you weren't more explicit about what you envision microdata to be. But, I know, maybe your audience wasn't ready for it! In any case, I would like to throw in my two-cent's worth about what an opportunity we're missing - at this crucial time - by not moving the CIP data fully into the electronic realm. Let me explain... While national agencies producing CIP data do include electronic publications within their mandate and workflow, they essentially return a "print" book entry to publishers for them to "print" on the verso of the title page of their e-publication. This data can be read by human eyes, and transformed into a MARC record if necessary (by - sigh! - re-keying it), but it is no more than a visual adornment that publishers believe give their publication some semblance of legitimacy. Now imagine if the CIP data could be included in the e-publication as an intrinsic part of it, not as text but as true metadata (microdata?) fully manipulable by not only our ILSs but also by e-reading devices (e.g. Kindle, Kobo) and document management systems (e.g. Adobe Digital Editions). I see so many possibilities here, not just in terms of providing an authoritative bibliographic description for these items, but by putting in place all the elements required to create in the virtual world the relationships between documents that we have been building all along in the physical world in terms of subject grouping (using controlled vocabularies) and, more importantly in my view, by assigning classification numbers (Dewey, LC and others) which are independent of language altogether. Which brings me to say that, in the future, cataloguers need to think less of themselves as describers and more as organizers/classifiers of information, which is a role we curiously undervalue given that we are way ahead of the competition.

  6. Wow! I hadn't thought of using CIP like this. It seems as if it could be a great resource for a publisher/author to do all kinds of other tasks.

    I also agree that the importance of description will probably diminish in the future and I only hope that classification/subject assignment will take its place. This area potentially offers one of the most exciting areas for development for librarians and would have the greatest impact on our public.

    Thanks for the comment!

  7. Jim,

    You did another paper recently in S. America somewhere... Could you provide a link to that here as well?


  8. I believe the future lies in making our metadata linked data that machines can manipulate behind the scenes to make whatever connections the user wants to make. Bibliographic records would be created on the fly from their component parts which could be linked together such as in your call number example. RDA is supposed to facilitate the transition to linked data but right now it is very much just cosmetic improvements because the MARC format isn't designed to present information in a way that allows linked data. When LC finishes creating the successor to the MARC format is when the game will truly change and when RDA will prove whether it's useful.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I have actually done a podcast on linked data and while I say there is nothing wrong with going there, we should not believe that all, or any, of our problems will be solved merely by going into linked data. Besides, if the purpose is to go into linked data, it can be done with our bibliographic structures as they stand now (as many others have done already) and have no need of the FRBR structure.

      Naturally, the format will have to change from our ISO2709 version to some kind of RDF or XML version, but that is not all that difficult.

      Neither RDA nor FRBR is needed if the purpose is to implement linked data.

  9. Is there a way to get this in a more printer-friendly format for those of us who can't read long articles online?

  10. Thanks for mentioning that since I haven't been aware it's a problem. If you go to and enter the URL of this page, it will give you a nicely formatted page you can print.

    There is supposed to be a widget to allow this with just a button click, but I can't get it to go right now.

    Again, thanks for pointing this out.

  11. Thanks James! I didn't know about Very useful, and now bookmarked for future use.