the joy of advanced cataloging

Posting to RadCat

On 11/20/2014 2:33 PM, Snow, Karen wrote:

I love Mann’s essay as well. It’s a good thing that I have all of my beginning cataloging students read that very essay and write a discussion post about it! As part of that assignment, I have them complete a search in I-Share that is similar to the one Mann talks about in “Peloponnesian War…” and discuss their search results. I tell them to pretend that they are college students looking for works on the therapeutic use of storytelling and they must search I-Share using a combination of “storytelling” “therapy” “therapeutic” “story telling” etc….). Then they must find the authorized LCSH for the topic and search again using it (“Narrative therapy”). Even those students who currently work in libraries say that the article and exercise are very eye-opening.

Even though I have had my debates with Thomas Mann, I do like much of his writing, and that includes this essay of his. But I question precisely where the problem is. Mann shows how complicated and difficult it is to use a catalog, but he goes on to lay out very clearly that if you use it right, it can do a lot for you. I wholeheartedly agree with him, but I’m afraid that it is becoming almost irrelevant for most people. Why?

Because the way catalogs work is based on methods that almost nobody does anymore. The methods are just too alien to 21st-century people: browsing by alphabetical order–truly obsolete in the era of keyword, relevance, sql, lucene, “intuitive search” and so on, but most especially–and weirdly for people today: in a catalog, people are not supposed to search for the information they want, but rather, they are supposed to search for how someone else (aka “the cataloger”) has decided to describe the information they want. That’s completely different and it is what Mann’s article on the Peloponnesian War is actually all about: finding terms that would never have occurred to the searcher in a thousand years, and using those terms to find the information they want.

I think it all made much more sense 25 years ago, when everyone was handling physical cards arranged in a card catalog, and where you couldn’t just take the cards out and rearrange them as you would like. To do something like that would have been *inconceivable*, but in our catalogs today, we do it all the time! So, back then it was pretty clear that you had to find the right grouping(s) that somebody else had already arranged, e.g. Mann’s example of someone who wants to know about tributes during the Peloponnesian War needs the heading “Finance, Public–Greece–Athens.” Who in the world could ever think of that?

Although the need to do so was rather clear back then, I believe that this way of thinking is too strange an idea for people to grasp today. When we try to teach young people to do this, we look like trudging old dinosaurs.

I think it is obvious that the catalog needs to change how it functions and Mann’s article is an excellent example of that (although I don’t believe that is what he intended). In my opinion, catalog-ing and catalog records do not need to change all that much though, because for catalogs to work even in the new environments, records must still be based on the over-riding rule of consistency. If you dump consistency, whatever is left might be called a listing, an inventory, an account, and so on, but it cannot be called a catalog.

And yet, if we expect that if a member of the public wants information, then it is their job to learn to follow Mann’s odyssey as laid out in his paper on searching the Peloponnesian War, then it’s game over! People won’t stand for that today and will turn (or have already turned) to other tools.

That’s why I asked in my earlier message: “Does it [advanced cataloging] mean cataloging within the current library-focused world of AACR2/RDA/LCSH/LCC/LCNAF/MARC21/FRBR or does it mean something else?” I know *lots* of people who would say that working with those tools is anything but advanced. I want to emphasize that I disagree with such a notion, but it is clear to me that the catalog must work much differently than it does now.

No matter how different the future catalog may work, the catalog records will still need to be consistent although–unfortunately–that seems to be changing.

For these reasons, I would say that in an advanced cataloging class it would be absolutely important to show how important consistency is, and how difficult it is to achieve, both in theory and in practice. But if you drop consistency, you must see the consequences very clearly. Also, people should become aware how various developments are threatening that consistency and what can be done about it. (I discussed this in my latest podcast, Metadata Creation–down and dirty. I just had to get in that plug!