Friday, April 27, 2012

Modern library cataloging does not see the forest because of the trees; WAS: Various other threads

Posting to Autocat

After reading many of these postings concerning the new methods, the OCLC discussion paper and so on, the main questions that occur to me are: Exactly who are we creating these records for? And secondly, who is supposed to create these records? I don't know about anybody else on this list, but for me--and I have worked in different catalogs using varying rules under all kinds of different formats--the very least of my problems when cataloging anything were the formats or the punctuation. Sure, you had things to learn, but those were the easy parts. The hard parts were deciding what information was important to input and what could be ignored, where to input it, and how to do it. In some catalogs I have worked on, punctuation and abbreviations were not even an issue while the format was so simple you could learn it in just a few moments. The actual cataloging was still tough, though. So I am asking this sincerely: who really cares? In those cases when I worked in different catalogs, I neither missed those concerns nor felt particularly relieved.

I personally believe that if we made a rule that stated that there would be no more punctuation at all: no periods, no commas, no hyphens or anything at all, none of the public would really say anything, except of course, the librarians. To be honest, I would probably be among those who raised the loudest complaints, but I realize punctuation matters very little to the patrons. Mentioning this will probably hurt the feelings of many catalogers, but the simple fact is: very few patrons actually spend their time mulling over our records. For them, the records are only pointers to what they really want (the information resources), and the moment they find what they want, off they go and they forget everything the catalogers have done: all of the headings, all of the descriptions, all of the abbreviations, everything ceases to exist. Well, such is life.

In spite of all of the arguments to the contrary, it is clear to me the records that catalogers make are primarily for *librarians* so that they can manage the collections they are responsible for, and manage it efficiently. There is absolutely nothing at all wrong with this but while the members of the public are free to use the tools we make, we should not kid ourselves that our tools are aimed at their needs. If our tools really were aimed at the public, they would be quite different.

How do we know this? From the Google-type searching and their interfaces. In contrast to library tools, the Google-type tools are really and truly aimed at the public and *not* for the purpose of Google ... [et al.] to manage their own "collections." Those agencies don't really care about their "collections" since their metadata--as with most business-related metadata--is wiped clean periodically and rebuilt from scratch. (What the Google-type businesses want to keep is not their information on their "collection" but their information on you and me--that is what they sell and keeps them in business) If a resource disappears in Google, it is no problem for them, except they need to clean out the URL that no longer works. Also, since their metadata is created automatically, they can create hundreds of millions of their "metadata records" in, quite literally, the twinkling of an eye, compared to the care of what we create.

In contrast to the Google-type databases, libraries really do care about their collections, and the major advantage a library catalog has over its Google competitors lay in its *consistency*. It is through this consistency that it leads searchers (or is supposed to lead them) to a reliable understanding of what the record describes--e.g. everybody is supposed to count the pages the same way so that all will have a reliable idea of the extent of an item--and the catalog allows searchers to retrieve materials reliably, so that they can reliably find "everything" authored by IBM including all of its subdivisions. To achieve this latter part however, you need a supplementary file of cross-references, something that is completely lacking in the Google-type databases, which has none of these capabilities.

Finally, although in the millions, the number of library-created records is almost infinitesimal when compared to the non-library-created records and especially with metadata that is automatically generated. As a consequence, if library records are added into all of that, they will be like a single drop into the ocean. This is the reality of the metadata universe that the public will search, and what they search today.

So, who are we creating these library records for? And who (or what) will create the records? Will professional library catalogers create those records? I can only hope so. But professional library catalogers must see the larger picture if their records are to be useful and appreciated by the public at large. Should we aim for a system that allows the public to find what they want, how they want, or are they doomed to traditional library methods as shown with FRBR?

As I have said before, I believe that the library catalog, and the library as a whole, actually supplies something different from what we have always been taught, and with the new information environment it is this "something different" that the public will really want. But it remains to discover what this "something different" is and to make the case for it, which if achieved, would be much more profitable than implementing the slightly-modified cataloging rules being discussed in RDA, or even taking our records out of our catalogs and placing them where they can be more easily found, such as in the so-called Semantic Web. I have never seen how either one will make any real difference. As an example of what people want, what I found striking in the OCLC research paper "The Use of Eye-Tracking to Evaluate the Effects of Format..." by Michael Prasse, was that when people used Worldcat, one of their main complaints was that it was too difficult to purchase the books online! p. 17-18

Of course, that is not really the idea of a library as opposed to a bookstore, but I think it is a great example of how much people have changed and what they want.

To me, discovering this "something different" that libraries and their catalogs really do is the real task ahead. Until we face it, there can be little progress.

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