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

Posting to NGC4LIB

I feel like giving a more conservative view:

One of the main points that is taken for granted is that it is simply not possible to “catalog” the worthwhile materials on the Internet. There is too much and is beyond everyone’s capabilities. I have never seen any research attached to this assertion but I have never really believed it. I think it is much more a matter of: it is considered to be too “inefficient” or “costly” to do it and in many ways; and I suspect this idea is fostered by the technicians out there so that everyone will quietly assume that any solutions can only come from them.

The fact is, every year there is a fabulous number of books mass-produced, i.e. hand-produced and more importantly, hand-controlled, right now, see Unesco numbers added up:

Note that these are “titles” and not “copies” which would be much higher. I don’t know what the average print run is, but probably at least in the hundreds, with some books such as Harry Potter, going over the top. The final result is really huge.

To get control of all of those millions (I assume it is only millions) of books *every year* going all over the world to land on book store shelves, library shelves, people’s homes, or wherever, demands a huge amount of labor, each person being paid a greater or lesser amount. Some of those involved, with names like Murdoch or Berlusconi, make sums of money that are quite literally incomprehensible, and while lots of people get substantially less (librarians like me) I am sure it still adds up to quite a bit in the aggregate. Lots of labor is needed to create the books physically (think of the pay checks of only those people who are the paper makers, and the others who move it all around), labor to write and edit and print and bind… and then the labor in libraries… And of course it doesn’t stop there. Now, imagine that we were in the 1480s or so, not long after the introduction of printing. Could anybody have imagined that the world would have devoted such resources to controlling such an outrageous output? Especially if lots of that output consisted of diet books or how to massage your pet? Probably not, but it turned out that our society felt it really was that important to control these materials and decided to devote the resources.

So, if it wanted, could society control over the worthwhile materials on the web? Of course it could–there shouldn’t be any doubt, just as it has for the huge world of printed materials. (Please be aware that this does not include blog posts and movies of little kids burping. Libraries and publishers have been selecting against these sorts of things for a long, long time already) But, society would have to put a lot of people to work, redeploy many who are already working, and in general change lots of what we do today. This has happened lots of times in the past, though and it should not be unthinkable that it could happen again.

But after Copernicus’ discoveries were put out in the world, nothing really changed in the everyday life for a long time and some things never changed at all (people still had to get up in the morning, get a job, fall in love, etc.), so today, some tasks related to information are changing radically even as I write this, but other tasks, i.e. the traditional tasks of librarianship: selection, description, organization will always need to be done.

The question of the change is: who will do it? Will society settle for this being done automatically by non-human computers, or will it be done by some sort of crowd-sourcing, or will the public decides it needs something more if it is to function and advance?

My own opinion is that the powers that be will want it to be done in the cheapest way possible, so all of this will be decided on how badly or how well things turn out with automatic selection, description and organization (i.e. Google-type solutions) and crowd-sourcing (essentially free labor from untrained persons). Will it all turn out so bad and/or incoherent that people will demand more? Or will people want more serious control?

At this point, it’s much too soon to tell. I suspect that incoherence will be the result but it may take quite some time for the average person to realize what is wrong and then to be able to do something about it. (All this has also happened before. History is interesting that way) And while I agree that what we are going through is similar to Copernicus and the heliocentric solar system, we still cannot know what will be seen as important and what can be thrown overboard.