Posting to NGC4LIB

Alexander Johannesen wrote:

[…] they [users–JW] don’t give a monkey’s bottom about the minutiae of the twilight-zone between AACR2 and ISBD; that stuff is only interesting to people who are several steps removed from both reality and the evolution of information science. It’s nonsense, it’s piffle, it’s caring about where you put the life-guards flags up on the beach when the tsunami hits. This stuff is something nobody needs nor cares about, not anymore, except die-hard catalogers who find some sadistic pleasure in rules and regulation that don’t mean anything to anyone else.

I encounter this type of reaction among non-specialists–which includes many librarians who have never done cataloging by the way–and I find it highly revealing. It would seem to be logical that if there is a general agreement among specialists that certain capabilities within a machine or a system are vital, there would be some level of respect paid to their experience; that although there may be many things that I, as a layman, personally do not understand, I should not conclude that I am in the midst of some type of conspiracy among members of a “modern guild” who are really only trying to retain a dead-hand control over processes and materials. It would be more logical to think that perhaps the knowledge this group has built up over the years and decades and even centuries is a type of collective wisdom that I do not know–and cannot know without a lot of work; that what they know and what they have specialized in over their entire careers should not be dismissed out of hand.

When that specialized group is made up of mechanics, or bakers, or even computer programmers, a certain respect and deference is given to their expertise and experience, but this does not happen with cataloging. Everybody always knows better than a cataloger. To be fair, it has probably always been that way. Witness the scathing attacks Antonio Panizzi had to endure at the British Library in the mid-1800s. In my research at Princeton University, I discovered that the creation and maintenance of the library’s catalog was at first the responsibility of the university’s president, who got tired of it; he delegated it to the faculty, where it deteriorated badly until the entire affair disintegrated altogether in the 1870s with one poor soul literally going insane(!). The faculty finally admitted defeat and inability to deal with it (! although they maintained it was lack of interest), and they hired their first real librarian. I still am in awe of the incredible knowledge and abilities this man displayed, and his boundless ability for hard work. He is probably the greatest practical cataloger I have ever come into contact with.

The Google-type tools today seem to be easy but that is the way they are designed to *appear*. While these tools are incredibly useful and I use them all the time, the cataloger understands that this “easiness” is actually deceptive. So, if you do a search for “mark twain” or “world war i” or the memoirs of a fighter pilot during the invasion of Iraq, or whatever, the search seems to work because you almost always get something that makes you “happy.” This is where it ends for the layman, but for the cataloger, it’s only the beginning. For the cataloger, it is a very serious issue what people mean when they search something like “world war i” or “blacks” or “Dostoyevsky” and then instead of just making the searcher “happy,” to relate that request in a reliable way to what they retrieve. This is not easy.

Research has shown and my 100% experience is that people “trust” the Google result, although it is totally a black box. I cannot know what is really in the “Google collection”; I cannot know the intricacies how Google ranks anything. All that is completely secret, rather like the guilds I mentioned above. Therefore, the Google result cannot be checked for reliability. Things are quite different in a traditional library catalog. The technical issues in this regard are highly involved and I have gone on too long already, but this is a complex matter and cannot be understood in five minutes, I assure you.

The non-specialist has never thought about any of this. When I do a Google search during reference work or in information literacy classes, I pause at the Google result and ask, “What are we looking at?” Nobody I have met has ever thought about what is contained in the Google result or why something is number one. This is an issue of prime importance: the retrieval of information that human beings can rely upon so they are not subject to a torrent of misinformation campaigns, spin and superstition. I think that’s important.

Enough said on that, but this is a very sore point with many catalogers. While we are supposed to respect everybody else, they can all say we don’t know anything at all and dismiss everything we say as backward and useless. Many take offense, although I am more open.


What I just don’t get is that catalogers and librarians know so darn well how their knowledge is needed, how the future needs people who can guide and help us all in through the informolasses, yet there’s no movement towards doing so on a grand scale! You all sit and dick around with quibbles of whether to use MARC or MODS, and talk about how FRBR and RDA fits into your world. I’ll tell you how it fits into *our* world;

I think this is very well-said. Do we need change? Of course. Still, at some level we need to discuss nuts and bolts, and this is where I see the MARC-MODS, FRBR-RDA debate. We need deep and substantive changes and the current efforts are in the wrong direction, I completely agree. Still, I think that the foundational basis of cataloging remains as valid as ever and are definitely not supplied by the Googles and Yahoos and Mendeleys out there, although they may desperately try to convince us that people need nothing else. We need them and they need us.

It may take a few decades for people to realize they need specialized-librarian controls, however, much as it took the Princeton faculty quite some time to finally admit they just couldn’t handle it. We’ll see, but I hope it doesn’t take that long.