Tuesday, August 21, 2012

"Modernization" (Was: Closing doors on Canada’s history)

Posting to Autocat

On 19/08/2012 02:41, Anne LePage (via Marc Truitt) forwarded:
Over the summer several federal libraries closed their doors for good. While most of us remain focused on what's happening at Library and Archives Canada, we can't overlook the fall out from library closures at HRSDC or Transport Canada or Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Or the cuts to libraries like Statistics Canada and Industry Canada.

The following article from iPolitics demonstrates that for some members of the public, this is not a dead issue either. The tepid response from our elected officials to letters of concern and outrage regarding these cuts should not deter us from pressing forward. I--like many of you-- personally and professionally, rely on these libraries and the services provided by the librarians and library staff. It is important that we as individuals add our voices to those of our associations or professional organizations.

Closing doors on Canada's history
These developments have concerned me. I have read (what I believe to be) the main documents at http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/about-us/modernization/Pages/default.aspx, and although I have not read everything, they do use some "hot" terms, e.g. cathedral and bazaar, "digital age" and so on, but I had trouble understanding what appears to be happening because I had still not come across anything that would justify any of those actions, that is: cutting staff by 20% and expecting the creators, donors and users create the metadata, and so on.

But then I realized that the justification was clear and appeared before my very eyes: the heading "Modernization".

It seems that in the worldview of the "non-library-cataloger", especially that of the administrators, the idea of "modernization" means to get away from what catalogers have always made. For many, it is a simple fact that our library catalogs have been broken for a long time. Each person can convince him or herself of this in just a few moments by using our clunky library catalogs and giving up in despair, and compare them to the many alternatives available that the mass of people prefer--not only "relevance" type ranking but the social tools that take advantage of the so-called "wisdom of the crowd". (See, e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wisdom_of_the_crowd) It seems very logical to conclude that libraries need to modernize their product, and this would take advantage of the "bazaar" and "crowdsourcing".

Of course, the word "modernization" is not a neutral term but has positive connotations attached, especially today. After all, only Luddites could be against "modernization". In reality however, it would be just as correct to use the more neutral word "change" instead of "modernization" in this case because there is no real idea what would be the consequences of cutting staff and taking away professionals in metadata creation. After all, in the past there was a totally different view of the "crowd" as shown in various works, but most clearly in a famous book: MacKay's "Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds" http://archive.org/search.php?query=madness%20of%20crowds%20mackay where he discusses certain illogical episodes in human history, such as the Crusades, the Tulipomania, the South Sea Bubble and other well known disasters. Recent history has shown that modern people are just as susceptible to this sort of thinking as we were in the past, but to discuss these topics would be treading dangerously close on "political matters"!

So, it is vital always to keep in mind that the words used in documents are often designed to silently guide you to certain conclusions. The term "modernization" is an example of that. Can what the LAC lays out really be termed "modernization" or is it something else? Librarians must change of course, and in my opinion, the clearest places for change are in abandoning their old workflows and changing their focus from their own, local collections to what is really and truly available to the public--not just what the library stores and/or pays for. Catalogers must also accept this popular idea of "modernization" of their catalogs, or in other words, that in the eyes of the public, the tool they are making is obsolete. That hurts, but must be accepted nevertheless before any progress can be made.

Therefore, how can what catalogers create be "modernized"? By crowdsourcing? What a strange thought.

By RDA? Clearly no.

By FRBR? Can FRBR be labelled as "modernization"? At least I for one don't think so and would hate to have to argue the "pro" side in a debate.

By linked data? Perhaps. But that could very well turn out to be similar to the Conquistador Coronado searching for the "Seven cities of gold" and still needs to be demonstrated.

How can the product of what catalogers create be "modernized"? I have tried to come up with a few ideas that could possibly work out in some fashion, but there are doubtless many many more.

So, while I agree that libraries and their catalogs need to be "modernized" I do not believe that the answers lie in cutting staff and letting the bulk of the people create catalogs. That cannot be called "modernization".

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