Re: [RDA-L] Descriptive Cataloging

Posting to RDA-L

On 12/11/2012 04:54 PM, Cindy Wolff wrote:

James I really enjoyed your “conversations” article and your commentary below. I especially like the statement in the article, “…as people begin to see problems with the vagaries of keyword access, they may begin to appreciate the control allowed through our name and subject authority work.”

I also have hope that subject access can be addressed and fixed. There are other controlled vocabularies in addition to LCSH and many agencies use the controlled vocabulary that is right for them. I also agree that we need to stress the idea of quality and consistency of work that is done by professional catalogers rather than the idea that we can be replaced by clerks simply doing “data entry” or “data loading”. As you said, the catalog is used by researchers and in-house librarians for a number of purposes and we only get out as much good as we put in. We aren’t building a retail catalog, we are maintaining a research tool. Thank you for this.

Thank you so much for the kind words. I feel that what library catalogs have to offer that is unique is our headings, and especially our subject access with all of the cross-references. (There is also the issue of expert-selected resources–something that more and more are calling for–but this is another point) Karen Coyle recently gave a talk “Think Different” that I think was correct, where she suggested that the public doesn’t so much need our bibliographic records–at least not our complete records. Karen focused on the item records but in a discussion on the NGC4LIB list, I learned that she thinks this is just a first step and there is a lot more that library catalogs can offer. That is good.

I think more than anything else, library catalogs provide a type of conceptual access, especially subject access, that exists nowhere else, unless you happen to believe that the algorithms provided by the IT experts provide something that is “good enough”, a statement that I believe would crumble at the first blow of a truly critical analysis.

The algorithmic access and subject analysis should complement one another–but I don’t know if anyone is researching that.

I would like to emphasize the part about “clerks” and change that word to “untrained inputters” or something of that sort. I have met non-professionals, or support staff, or whatever the term is today, who are absolutely great at their jobs. They proved to me that you do not need an MLIS to do more than adequate cataloging and subject analysis–in fact, the MLIS is a non-sequitur in my experience. What is important is to keep up with the subjects (more or less), keep up with the general news (more or less) and so on, but especially, to understand some basic principles, to create useful subject access.

To understand these matters is not like understanding particle physics–it is really not that hard, but it is also something that is not readily apparent to the average person and demands a certain amount of training. Along with standards.

Therefore, to have “clerks/untrained experts/crowdsourcing” (which I put all together) create this kind of access will lead to a ready-made disaster that is elementary to predict. Unfortunately, our methods of subject access, and authority control generally, stem from the 19th century and have become alien to today’s public. These problems will not in any way be solved by using URIs or entering the linked data universe. The problems are of a more fundamental nature. So if it is decided that because of costs, either algorithms or subject analysis must be jettisoned, I think we all know which one will be thrown overboard.

Unfortunately also, the cataloging community has never seemed to take the breakdown of subject access seriously and is concentrating its energies on the dubious advances promised with RDA, which has never shown that it gives what the public needs. It is a theory that has never been put through the mill; it is definitely more complex for the catalogers without providing anything new for the public except inconsistency and decreased access; but it is seen as a juggernaut that cannot be stopped.