Copernicus, Cataloging, and the Chairs on the Titanic, Part 1 [Long Post]

Posting to NGC4LIB

Stephen Paling wrote:

I want the option of ignoring that kind of searching [that is, authors and subjects–JW]. The ease of Google and its lack of fields is hugely helpful in my professional life. For example, I’m using a lot of nonparametric statistics in my current research. But when I want to find out about a specific procedure, a catalog is nearly useless.

I don’t understand this. While I do completely understand that you want to be able to find information in all kinds of different ways, nevertheless, do these new requirements mean that people *no longer want* to find information by subjects and/or authors? (I am not discussing titles here) So, when you say that you “want the option of ignoring that kind of searching” I don’t understand what you mean, and it certainly flies in the face of all of my experience. The people I have worked with want to find the “set of all information/knowledge/documents/whatever” about all kinds of topics, e.g. the possibility of pressing legal action in train disasters in Russia (as only one example). This can be found in the catalog now–within certain known limitations (20% or more of the text, plus adequate staffing to have the time to do it, plus well-trained catalogers) by looking under “Railroad accidents–Law and legislation–Russia (Federation)–Criminal provisions.”

I think getting this sort of information may be able to help people in very substantial ways and people want to be able to do this just as much as ever. That people want to do it hasn’t changed at all.

What has changed is that the traditional methods for *finding these sets* has fallen apart completely, e.g. for those looking for materials related to the set “Railroad accidents–Law and legislation–Russia (Federation)–Criminal provisions” these terms would probably never enter their minds. The method to find such a heading worked after a fashion in the card catalog; perhaps the traditional methods were never all that good, but that would be a separate topic for library historians. In any case, no one would ever voluntarily come up with such terms and the only way realistic way of finding that kind of subject was by browsing the subject headings; and we must confess that *nobody does that anymore.* Period. But just because the methods of finding these sets does not mean that people no longer want information in this way, e.g. the works of Confucius, or Hundred Years’ War, 1339-1453–Prisoners and prisons, or to know that if you are interested in topics under “Hundred Years’ War, 1339-145–Campaigns–France” you may also be interested in other sets you may never have even thought of:
Agincourt, Battle of, Agincourt, France, 1415.
Bulgneville, Battle of, France, 1431
Calais (France)–History–Siege, 1346-1347
Crecy, Battle of, Crecy-en-Ponthieu, France, 1346.
Orleans (France)–History–Siege, 1428-1429.
Poitiers, Battle of, France, 1356.

Google *cannot do this.* And my own opinion is that people still want the information organized under the above topics just as much as ever. And I further submit that when people search either in catalogs or in Google, e.g. WWII Rome, they believe they are getting the set of all materials on that topic when they *definitely are not*, that the order magically provides them the resources that are the most “relevant” to their needs, which is *definitely not true* (“relevance ranking” means something completely different and strange, and can be manipulated in all sorts of ways), that the results they get can be “trusted”, and so on and so on. I use Google several times every day, but nobody I know has understood any of this until I explain it to them. Therefore, I also believe these misunderstandings are potentially dangerous for society.

I don’t believe this is bashing Google, it is a simple statement of fact.

So this is my reply to the part of your second post where you mention:
“But library-assigned subject headings? Only 31%. And classification numbers? Only 14%.” The implementation of the traditional methods is so poor in our catalogs that this does not surprise me. But as I attempted to demonstrate above, I believe it is erroneous to conclude that nobody wants the sets of resources found under those headings. Certainly libraries and their catalogs need a lot of changes, but one of the most important is to make the sets we arrange much easier to find for the untrained, or semi-untrained. We need about a zillion more cross-references and clearly-written notes in the authority files.

If you want and need information on the methods used in a document, that is fine, but the traditional catalog is not the tool you should use. Yet, just because it does not fulfill that kind of need (one for which it was never designed) it does not follow that it does not, or could not, fulfill the functions for which it was designed. Perhaps by using different partners and more robust formats, we could create something that could do it all.

Although everything must change in how these items are searched and displayed to our users, changing in these directions would be far more fruitful for everyone concerned than chasing after RDA and FRBR.