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Where’s the threat

Aug - 29 - 2007
Nicole C. Engard

I’m not completely sure how to respond to Martha Yee’s article entitled “Will The Response Of The Library Profession To The Internet Be Self-Immolation?“, but I do want to respond.

While reading the article I found myself nodding and then saying “yeah, but…” I think that Martha is right in many ways, but that she also misses something. Martha says:

All librarians, not just catalogers, should take a look at the Calhoun report (Calhoun, Karen. The Changing Nature of the Catalog and its Integration with Other Discovery Tools (http://www.loc.gov/catdir/calhoun-report-final.pdf) and follow the progress of the Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control (www.loc.gov/bibliographic-future/). There you will find the argument that we should cede our information organization responsibilities to the publishing industry and other content providers. All this because some research studies show that undergraduates prefer to use Amazon.com and Google rather than libraries and their catalogs.

The implication in the Calhoun report that Google and Amazon.com are comparable to a library catalog and that libraries are in competition with Google and Amazon.com, are dangerous falsehoods.

Now, I have to re-read the Calhoun report, but that is not what I got from it the first time I read through. When people (librarians) say that we need to learn from Amazon & Google when it comes to our catalogs – I always took it to mean simple, easy-to-use interfaces and features that (privacy issues aside – just for now) take user preferences into consideration.

I have heard/read librarians talking about doing away with Subject Headings – but I’ve heard just as many say that they’re necessary. The fact is that as annoying as it can be to try and find the right darn heading (at least for me), they’re very very useful. That said, I think that allowing user added subjects (tags) is just as useful. Why must it be one way or the other? Why can’t it be both? But I digress.

One discussion that seems to pop up a lot on the AUTOCAT list is that the records entered by publishers are lacking – and I totally agree! I do not want to see our cataloging records in the hands of the publishing industry, but at the same time, I like that sometimes there is a minimal record ready for me to build off of. Part of the problem is that some catalogers are overworked (or just lazy – cause let’s face it – we’re not all perfect) and they don’t take the time to build on these records.

A computer cannot discover broader and narrower term relationships, part-whole relationships, work-edition relationships, variant term or name relationships (the synonym or variant name or title problem), or the homonym problem in which the same string of letters means different concepts or refers to different authors or different works. In other words, a computer, by itself, cannot carry out the functions of a catalog.

Agreed!! But at the same time our catalogs can do much more than they are! The data is all there. When we have a part of a work we put that information into our MARC record and it’s never ever used. When we know of variant forms of titles or names we have the ability to put that into our records as well. If that info is there (and put there by humans) there is no reason the computer can’t make the connections.

As for the operations that only humans can perform – that’s where teaching the public about librarians comes in.

It is a fact universally acknowledged that librarianship is a woman-dominated profession. As such, ours is a deferential culture that avoids conflict and encourages humility, otherwise known as low self-worth. After all, what we do is perceived of by society at large as women’s work, that is, work that anyone can do and that does not require any particular expertise (see Roma Harris. Librarianship: the Erosion of a Woman’s Profession. 1992).

If the public is out there thinking that librarians don’t require any expertise, then why they heck are they going to come to us for help with their research?

It’s this great big loop that we just can’t seem to get out of. Patrons aren’t coming to ask us questions (in person, online, etc) so we want to make our online tools more effective at helping them, but our online tools can only do so much and in the end a human is needed to help, but the patrons don’t want to ask the librarians ….

One last point that I want to comment on:

Many members of our profession, including catalogers, believe that information seekers prefer keyword access and that, for that reason, Amazon.com and Google are better designed than library catalogs. The reason catalog users seem to prefer keyword access is that system designers make keyword access the default search on the initial screen of nearly every OPAC in existence.

I’m torn here. I agree that keyword searching is not the most effective way to find the right information – but at the same time when your catalog requires that you do a title search from the beginning of a title or a subject search that matches the LCSH exactly – that’s not helpful either! Martha mentions that Voyager now has “a keyword in heading search of subject headings and cross references which responds with a display of matching headings and cross references, not an immediate display of bibliographic records.” (demo). I still need to try this out – but this sounds like a step in the right direction. Other steps in the right direction are facets and “anywhere” searches (anywhere in the title, anywhere in the author, anywhere in the table of contents, etc), features that are available in some catalogs – but not all.

I think all comes down to the same old argument. How do we inform the public of the skills of our librarians? How do we get them to ask us questions? How do we provide them with the information they want, in the form they want, in the easiest way possible?

So, as I’ve said – I’m not sure I agree 100% with what Martha has written – but I do think it’s worth a read – and something to get you thinking ….

2 Responses so far.

  1. [...] Of The Library Profession To The Internet Be Self-Immolation? (Special Libraries Cataloging) Where’s the Threat (What I Learned [...]

  2. [...] Where’s the threat from What I Learned Today… [...]


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