Posting to Autocat
On 27/07/2012 16:25, Frank Newton wrote:
James, I don’t agree with your statement “The subject heading strings, and the left-handed text browse mechanisms have become as obsolete in the online environment as a stone axe has in our modern world.” Subject headings are not a technological tool like an axe. They are a language, like French, or Old Church Slavonic, or Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, or Scots Gaelic, or Basic English, or Haitian Creole (or Haitian if that is a better name for it), or Cantonese.
But the solution to the “X” factor is — teaching. Both the proper use of Library of Congress subject headings by searchers and researchers, and the proper _appreciation_ of Library of Congress subject headings, have to be _taught_. First to catalogers, then to reference librarians, then to library users in all their many categories.
Teaching people how to use the subject strings doesn’t work and never has. The system itself must be completely and totally rethought because people will absolutely not do left-anchored text searches and browse alphabetically through lists. I quoted a quote of a “Mr. Line” in one of my podcasts (all I could find): http://blog.jweinheimer.net/2010/11/the-functional-requirements-for-bibliographic-records-a-personal-journey-part-4.html from a paper in 1983 entitled “Thoughts of a non-user, non-educator”. He was quoted as saying that the term user education is, “meaningless, inaccurate, pretentious and patronising and that if only librarians would spend the time and effort to ensure that their libraries are more user friendly then they wouldn’t have to spend so much time doing user education.”
In my podcast, I discuss this and compare it to more normal library ideas, but I really think Mr. Line is right. This is because the library catalog is a tool for experts, and as anybody knows, if you don’t use an expert tool regularly, you forget it. So, here is a student in an information literacy workshop that lasts for either a couple of hours, or maybe even a semester, and while they might wind up learning how to use the headings, they most probably have forgotten it in just a few years (or months, or weeks or seconds) and they turn to something that is easier such as Google. Expecting the world to change everything they do to use our catalogs may have worked before the web when there was a single choice to get information: the library, or go without. But today there are many tools out there, each competing wildly for the public’s attention. If one is very difficult and complicated and strange, while another is simple, cool, and gives pretty good results, it’s a no-brainer which will win.
What is the reality of how users experience subject headings? This is how I witnessed my patrons experience the headings over and over (sorry to refer to another of my own postings, but that’s what happens. Besides you can see the whole discussion thread if you want) http://article.gmane.org/gmane.education.libraries.autocat/3962/match=weinheimer+fascism+bologna
Many could, and do, conclude that the subject headings are useless but that is incorrect because when properly used they furnish levels of access not available through any other tools. But expecting the world to change just because catalogers cannot reconceive how the subject headings could work in a new environment (and it’s not so new anymore) is the path to oblivion. If catalogers cannot reconceive how the subject headings could work online, perhaps information architects could, or even library science students, that is, once they understand their potential power.