Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Re: [ACAT] Let's have a "debate"

Posting to Autocat

On 14/08/2012 19:40, john g marr wrote:
I'm having a mean day today, so here's a suggestion. You've all seen real debates on PBS (don't miss the Doha debate series, if you can get it) or elsewhere, right? No matter how absurd the positions taken, each side has to present arguments. Here's what I propose: let's set up a debate on this proposition: Resolved: Cataloging is irrelevant and a waste of public funding.

Now, you all know there really are people who would be willing to take either side (or even substitute "Libraries are" for "Cataloging is"). The idea is to develop all possible arguments for both sides anyone could think of and any practical refutations of those arguments (ad infinitum).

Any takers? Would you be willing to debate this in public? Why not (*that* may be the real question).
I would actually agree with the resolution, IF (please read on!) the current trends in cataloging continue. I think it is clear that our catalogs are very complicated--people have almost no idea how to search anything and need training (now called information literacy), and while people may remember more or less of their training, the very fact is that the library catalog is very much an "expert system" i.e. a tool designed and made for experts to use--not amateurs. If you do not have this expertise, library catalogs will be more or less incomprehensible to you.

Since our library catalogs were designed for another era and for a completely different technological environment, the final product has become foreign to people today. For instance, when you physically walked into a library and saw the cards, it was fairly clear that the cards represented some level of access into the books on the shelves. Since the cards were arranged pretty much in alphabetical order (dictionary catalog), even someone with very little training could find writings by Thomas Jefferson, but it became more difficult to find information about "badgers" if the library did not have a book with at least 20% of its contents devoted to badgers. In such a case, to be able to find the information in the library about badgers (or even to know that there was nothing about badgers in the library) became much more complicated and reference librarians were absolutely essential for the public to be able to use the catalog. Finally, while people realized that there were other libraries with information that was useful to them, e.g. great libraries in Chicago or London, specialized libraries in New York City or Washington, people didn't really care that much and were mostly satisfied with what was available on the shelves of their own libraries.

None of these very basic assumptions, which were built into the design and purpose of the original library catalogs, are valid today. I won't go into the specifics here because I have listed them over and over again.

Since I have seen no essentially different trends in cataloging (RDA and FRBR only pretend to change anything for the public), the only real new goal of cataloging is to get into the Linked Data world and in itself, that is not, in any way, a solution for anything. To believe it is a solution is naive. We can implement full RDA and FRBR and people will still be working with modern versions of our card catalogs. To throw all of that into Linked Data will only add to the general chaos.

Does this mean that "Cataloging is irrelevant and a waste of public funding"? As long as libraries exist, they will always need their own inventory tools and the library catalog secures that, but for the public it is a different matter. First of all, librarians must consider the information available to the users and that includes what is on the web--not just what is in our own collections--otherwise, libraries and their catalogs probably will be consigned to the trash bin. Deservedly so, in my opinion, because they will refuse to take into account the everyday changes in their patron's lives. Also, librarians need to find more modern purposes for their catalog records, once again always taking the users' needs into account (which, sorry to say, our predecessors didn't do except to assume that a reference librarian would be there to help people use the tool the library created for its own needs--something else that is gone today since reference services are also in crisis and experience has shown that people almost never ask for help on the web). We should not assume that the public approaches the catalog as they did before, firstly, because they can't, and in addition, they have many other, very attractive options that did not exist back in the 1800s when our catalogs were designed.

Of course, such a revolutionary attitude in the worldview of the public has already happened, but if this same change in worldview of the librarian were to occur, then something genuinely useful could perhaps be created for the public with the unique metadata that we have. In that case, we could conclude that "Cataloging is not irrelevant and not a waste of public funding".

But until that happens, I fear that the resolution is true.

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