The continuing crusade to devalue cataloging

Posting to RadCat

I was co-author with Julie Moore of that chapter in the book. Here are my own remarks about Deanna Marcum’s article “Library Leadership for the Digital Age”

I have been fortunate enough to meet and spend some time with Deanna Marcum at a conference in Oslo a few years ago, where we both spoke. I agree with some of what she says, but I disagree with more.

I agree that there are major problems with the public using our catalogs. That should be obvious enough to everybody. Still, I will go on to state that people have always had problems using our catalogs, and this can be traced back to (at least) Antonio Panizzi and the deluge of complaints that met his catalog, finally culminating in nothing less than a Royal Investigation (no small thing!). People listed multiple complaints in that Investigation, and although he may have “won” the argument (to put it in crude terms, he wasn’t fired from his post) it didn’t mean that people stopped having the same, serious problems they had complained about when using his catalog.

With the introduction of computing and keyword, many advantages appeared, but the old problems became even worse. Subject headings had always been the butt of many jokes, even among catalogers themselves, but in the keyword environment, they melted down completely. I have tried to demonstrate how subject headings simply don’t work, even for someone like me who understands how subjects work better than any user could ever hope to. ( I think we have to admit that not only are the subjects broken, but the entire authority apparatus is broken as well, mainly because users never even see it when they do keyword searches. For instance, how is somebody supposed to know that if they want to look for writings of “Mark Twain” they have to look under multiple forms of his name? You can’t find out that information through keyword, and you can’t do it at all in tools such as Worldcat.

One additional point that I think is extremely important is the very human desire to take the easiest path. This must be seen in relative terms however: if you don’t have alternatives, any path seems normal. As an example, I just returned from a short trip to Pompeii, and ancient Roman steps are much higher than what we are used to. Given the choice, I much prefer modern steps. I suspect many Romans would have preferred modern steps as well, but they didn’t have the choice, so they saw no problem. If builders today started making steps a Roman height, people would scream bloody murder.

Comparing this to catalogs, when the only option was a card catalog that had author, title and subject cards arranged in alphabetical order (with many exceptions!), it wasn’t seen as much of a burden. Of course, people grumbled about it, just as they grumble about anything, but the instant a simpler option appeared, the public stampeded out the door. Expecting them to use catalogs “correctly” today is like expecting people to go up Roman-sized steps. They just won’t do it if they have any option at all. People have those options today. These are facts and none should be surprising.

Another part where I agree with Deanna Marcum is about how the collection has changed. Digital materials available at the click of a button have changed what is meant by a “local collection.” Information is not one bit better or worse just because it has been printed in a book or journal article than if it is available at the click of a button. The reliability of any information source is completely independent of its format. There are massive amounts of incorrect information in our physical collections. (“Chariots of the Gods?”) Also, if an item is digital, it doesn’t matter to the user if the file is located on a server a few feet away, or if that file is on a server belonging to Elsevier that your library subscribes to, or is on the other side of the world in an open-access server. For the user, what matters is that all of them are equally accessible. This has tremendous consequences for library selection.

Where I disagree with Deanna Marcum is what to do about this situation. Some consider (and she seems to be one) that our library catalogs are “broken beyond repair”; that for information discovery we have already lost our users to the Googles, and it is a waste of time and resources to try to get them back (“In the digital environment, our users are more likely to find digital resources through a Google search than they are through searching the library’s catalog.”) but this seems rather hopeless to me. Although we must admit that the catalog is indeed, broken, I do not think that it is broken beyond repair. On the contrary, I think the catalog can be fixed–but unfortunately, catalogers are busy doing something quite different.

Instead of trying to make the catalog work in a modern environment, catalogers are spending their time with RDA and FRBR, assuming that this in itself will improve the situation for the users, although there has been no genuine evidence for it. In any case, the same problems for the users will remain: the authority structures will still be hidden and/or terribly confusing; the catalog itself will still not be any easier for the public to use and will arguably become even more complicated. Adding in linked data, the basic idea seems to be that our catalogs will be included into some other, much larger “discovery tool” that no one has really discussed in any ways other than vague postulations, and the only final product I can imagine is something far more complex than anything we have seen. Plus, the problems of our authority structures I mentioned above will not be solved merely by changing “textual strings” into URIs. Much more will be needed.

Finally, to make matters worse, any practical implementation of any of this will have to wait decades, and the “information-consuming” public will have completely passed over the horizon by then. We don’t even know what’s going to happen 5 years from now. By that time, we will be so far behind that it really will be hopeless.

All this goes to part of the title of Marcum’s article: “library leadership”. To be honest, I haven’t seen much encouragement in this way either, although it isn’t limited to librarianship and seems to be a genuine malaise in modern society. (I am referring to modern political leaders of almost any country, each of which seems to be experiencing its own crisis in leadership)

What’s the solution? Trying to teach everybody how they “should” search catalogs has proven that it simply doesn’t work. We need to change how our catalogs function by going from dictionary catalogs (i.e. browsing alphabetical lists of words, which nobody does today) to something much more modern. I think best would be trying a whole number of very small, measurable steps forward. For instance, how could we make sure that users will find “see also” references for personal authors and corporate bodies? Those references are absolutely vital for users and catalogers go to a lot of trouble to make them. This should be relatively easy to solve. How many ways could it be solved? Other problems could be dealt with later as we learned from this what worked and what didn’t work.

But we need library leaders to see these as problems that need solutions, figure out a plan and get the funding. Unfortunately, library leaders probably agree with Deanna Marcum that “… our users really want—specialized and individualized help when they can’t find what they want in a Google search, access to more electronic journals and databases, on-line reference services, and access to new types of scholarly information—data sets, blog posts, and multimedia resources”–a completely different scenario that devalues not only cataloging, but the entire library project.