New Possibilities in Cooperative Cataloging

Posting to alcts-eforum

Concerning Elaine Sanchez’s post, I think she has summed up the problems very clearly. It still has never been shown that the FRBR user tasks have anything that *our users* want, (in fact, the FRBR displays I have seen tend to frighten even me!) although I will agree that FRBR may give librarians and catalogers a few of the tools that they want. So, the “FRBR user tasks” should probably be renamed the “FRBR librarian tasks”. As an example, I have mentioned several times on other lists that FRBR-type views will not help my patrons find much of anything, and I must confess, they don’t help me find anything I want either. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that librarians need specific views to more clearly understand what is available so that they can do their work.

To get a better understanding of the situation of what *our users* want, I would like to point out a fabulous short video on the Semantic Web that I have just discovered, and I don’t believe anyone has mentioned it on any of the lists I follow. Here, you can watch one of the best discussions of the Semantic Web that I have seen, both pro and con, with interviews of Tim Berners-Lee, Clay Shirkey, and several others. I suggest it to everyone.

I agree with the basic ideas discussed in this video concerning what the reality of the problems and the immense possibilities open to people today, and that these possibilities definitely have very little or nothing to do with the FRBR user tasks, but I do have some disagreements with several points of this video. In particular, about 7:50 into the video, Clay Shirkey discusses the Semantic Web. comparing it to the idea of AI (artificial intelligence) and says:

“Instead of making machines think like people, we can describe the world in terms that machines were good at thinking about. So we would switch from trying to build up brains in silicon [i.e. artifical intelligence–JW] and re-render the actual world as information [i.e. the Semantic Web–JW]. And that gets very quickly to one of the deepest questions in all of western philosophy, which is: does the world make sense, or do we make sense of the world? I don’t think you can unambiguously describe the world; I don’t think you can describe the world or even large subdomains of the world in a way that all observers or even most of the observers will agree with.”

The documentary has other sections similar to this. My own opinion is that Clay Shirkey is right up to a point: there is no single way that everyone will agree with. A simple overview of the history of the classification of the sciences, plus the myriad rules we have had for bibliographic description and organization will convince anyone that he is right. BUT stopping there avoids some important subtleties. One very important method is to have a method that more or less guarantees, in a highly-predictable manner, how to find things and then to know clearly what you are looking at, or in other words, one method should be an expert mode.

We have expert modes everywhere in our world, and we want them. While the layperson needs certain tools, the expert needs other tools. The tools for both should advance. So for example, the toothbrush was an advance over the twig for cleaning your teeth, then came floss, then increasingly better toothpaste, the water pick, and whatever there is new available today. These are tools designed mainly for the layperson, who can do an increasingly better job cleaning his or her teeth because of the ever-evolving tools available. The dentist however, is not stuck with the same tools as the layperson, and although the layperson’s water pick may be a major advance over the best tools that a dentist had 100 years ago, the dentist’s tools have advanced as well. Therefore, the expert’s tools have evolved *alongside* the layperson’s tools. This has happened throughout modern society.

So, it seems to me that an underlying assumption to Clay Shirkey’s argument, or perhaps he is simply not dealing with it, is that in the new information/semantic web world, everyone, from layperson to expert, will be using the same tools, which should be incorrect (I hope).

For some time, I have considered a related point: If you believe that the problem of information retrieval can be solved by devising better and more powerful search algorithms, then it seems to me that this attitude actually betrays a deeper, metaphysical belief: that information resources, at their very fundamental level, are already organized by their very nature, and consequently, if you believe this, the task turns from organizing and describing into finding the correct algorithm that will then discover this deeply-hidden, inherent organization that already exists. Once you achieve this, the resource will then be organized and can be exploited. This assumption seems to be unavoidable for those who believe that algorithms are the solution because the algorithms are searching for something and what else could it be other than this hidden organization?

My own opinion is that computers cannot “think” or “reason” as such; all they can do is perform mathematical operations. Some very clever people have worked these algorithms to such a point that they can take on the appearance of “thinking” and “reasoning”, but we should not be confused, and we should certainly not let these computers do our thinking and reasoning for us. They are only tools after all, just like a hammer or a power drill, and they must be used with some degree of knowledge and skill. For example, “relevance ranking” is not the normal idea of “relevance” but something entirely different, although this is very poorly understood in the popular mind.

Therefore, for those who do not happen to believe that information is inherently arranged (I am one of those), and order must be imposed on an otherwise chaotic mass of materials, the search for the “perfect algorithm” becomes very similar to the search by the medieval alchemists for the “philosopher’s stone”. I do not believe there is a perfect algorithm, even theoretically.

As a consequence, while it will never happen that everyone will agree on the “best” way to find information, this fact is almost irrelevant in my opinion, and it is not even unusual in the real world. We have precisely the same situation with driving a car or working a DVD player. Everyone would probably agree that there are many better ways of accomplishing either of these tasks (operating a DVD player is notoriously complicated, and in light of the oil spill in the Gulf, many people could come up with improvements for cars running on oil). Yet, to get along in the world, everyone is stuck operating DVD players and driving cars. While there is no single way to use and drive a car, there are still many, many more ways *not* to drive a car. Some drivers are experts and others are only more-or-less competent. We want expert drivers, such as drivers of large trucks or ambulances, to utilize their expertise to help everyone. We should not expect them to be “stuck” with the same cars as everyone else. The same possibilities should be ensured for information experts. This involves systems and standards that allow reliable and guaranteed retrieval and understanding.

Of course, this does not mean that “information experts” (i.e. librarians) do not need to change radically, and this video very clearly shows some of the directions they should change, but we should keep in mind that we still need our own special tools, and there is nothing at all strange with it.



One Comment

  1. Anonymous said:

    Jim,<br /><br />This is a very thoughtful post. Thanks for writing it. <br /><br />Makes me think. <br /><br />Regards, <br />Nathan

    June 17, 2010

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