Re: [ACAT] Modern library cataloging does not see the forest because of the trees; WAS: Various other threads

Posting to Autocat

On 28/04/2012 14:42, Williams, Ann wrote:

This may sound odd, maybe heretical, but are patrons really that invested in our OPACs and bibliographic records? The journal databases play a much larger role in research and we have no say on the quality of those records. I would like accuracy, of course, more contents and subjects, maybe at the chapter level on the records, and I know series are important for fiction collections, but I’m not sure what changes other than full-text searching would make the patrons excited. Publisher’s records are way too skimpy though. Looking at how fixed fields can be fine-tuned for qualifying/limiting searches would be more useful than punctuation and abbreviation changes. Is your catalog use likely to be growing? Is your book circulation? How many Shakespeare and Austen searching do users to make worrying about all the different manifestations worth while? I can’t even recall any time name authority records made a difference for a patron I assisted (although the whole when to add death dates debate has been fun over the years). I’ve rarely had a patron say they can’t find material on a given subject, and when this happens, it’s usually a typo on their part (and we have spelling suggestion software now in our OPAC). Are you all seeing something different in circulation or reference?

These are great questions. I would like to bring up a recent interview on AlterNet with Noam Chomsky, who is a highly controversial figure, but in spite of that, he is nevertheless a widely recognized scholar. In an interview about the Occupy movement, there is one point where he gives a few ideas of his own about the internet, comparing it to the Library of Congress. I’ll quote him here because his comments are very interesting:

“N.C. [Noam Chomsky]: …On the other hand, the Internet is kind of like walking into the Library of Congress in a sense. Everything is there, but you have to know what you’re looking for. If you don’t know what you’re looking for you might as well not have the library. Like you can’t decide you want to become a biologist — it’s not enough to walk into Harvard’s biology library. You have to have a framework of understanding, a conception of what’s important and what isn’t important; what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense. Not a rigid one that never gets modified, but at least some kind of framework.

Unfortunately that’s pretty rare. In the absence of activist movements that draw in a very substantial part of the population for interaction. Interchange — the kinds of things that went on in the Occupy community for example — in the absence of that most people are kind of at sea when they face the internet. So yes, they can find things of value and significance, but you have to know to look for them and you have to have a framework of analysis and perception that allows you to weed that out from a lot of the junk that surrounds it.

JH [Joshua Holland, interviewer]: Separating the wheat from the chaff.

NC: Basically. That does require an organized activism. That’s the kind of thing you have to do with other people. You have to be able to try ideas and get reactions. You have to sharpen your perceptions. That really doesn’t take place without substantial organization. Now, there is interchange over the Internet, but it tends to be on the superficial side.

JH: That may be an understatement looking at the comments on our Web site.”

I think his views are highly perceptive. In the past when someone walked into a library, they were absolutely overwhelmed with all of the possibilities open to them. They were expected to go to the reference librarian (or even better, the ever-watchful reference librarian would see their consternation and make the first move), who could help guide them. Reference librarians used the very important tool of the reference interview, where the librarian figured out (much of it silently) what this person wanted, if this person was a scholar, a child, a high school student, an interested citizen, and so on, to help move them toward some materials that this particular person may want. In this sense, the reference librarian would guide those who need it, to where they could find that “framework” Chomsky mentions. Simply sending people to the library catalog was never an answer, or if it was, it was only a preliminary one to let people see more or less what was available on a topic (or by an author), decide more clearly what they wanted, and return to the reference librarian for some more help. The role of the reference librarian was absolutely essential, as Chomsky implies above although he would probably say that faculty involvement was even more important. The librarians, although perhaps not so much experts on specific topics, were (are) the experts on the contents of the *collection* and how to use it.

My own opinion of library reference was always like the system of doctors. The first were nurses who could treat some things (the library information desk), but the nurse should always know when to refer people to the general practitioner (reference librarian), who in turn should always know when to refer someone to the specialist (all kinds of specialized librarians). The specialist librarians may in turn refer people to specialist scholars.

Unfortunately, reference questions have been declining and reference services have not been successful on the web. Yet, people need just as much help as ever, but everyone now interacts directly with the information and are left pretty much confused. People need help just as much as ever but are finding it less. Library-created tools such as our catalogs, were–and still are–expert systems, designed for people who know how they function. Of course untrained people get inferior results when they use our tools! How could they possibly use them effectively?

Why will it be any better in the semantic web, which will be a relative free-for-all?

I repeat that there are almost innumerable ways where librarians can provide substantial help, but we need to rethink what it is we do.



One Comment

  1. Jill said:

    Thanks for this post!

    December 28, 2012

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