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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

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Wayne Jones

Fifty years from now, librarians and information professionals and even library users won’t be looking back on Martha Yee, Michael Gorman, and Thomas Mann and thanking them for saving the profession from being devoured by the AmaGoogle monster. Instead, their brand of reactionary hyperbole will be a curiosity in the history of a profession which will have decided to embrace the habits of its users and adjust accordingly, rather than denigrating keywords and other practical searching and promoting an old-fashioned and unrealistic attitude toward information and the people who organize and use it.

Yee’s testimony, which was posted in full on the Cataloging Futures blog on July 25, is highly overstated and misleading, and the calm Canadian reader doesn’t really know where to start. Well, in the beginning, as one book put it …

1. Yee reduces the research that has been done on users’ information-seeking behaviour to a mere “All this because some research studies show that undergraduates prefer to use Amazon.com and Google rather than libraries and their catalogs.” The rationale is evidently to continue to deny any validity in the way users actually search and to insist on forcing them to do it the ways we have been doing it for decades. Yes, those old ways have served the profession and users quite well, and so did button shoes and the 8-track before we found superior replacements, which I don’t mean completely flippantly. Things change: the internet is a major enough shift in the information landscape to make us reconsider the advisability and practicality of our former organizing practices.

2. Yee writes: “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.” That’s true, of course, computers can’t do that all by themselves, but human beings can program them to achieve that or a practical, semi-fabulous approximation.

3. Yee cites the example of ordering the Lummox by Fannie Hurst on Amazon.com, but receiving a play adapted from the novel, because none of those bibliographic details appeared in the Amazon description. I see this as an error in searching and verification on the part of the buyer rather than an indication of something profoundly wrong with the way Amazon operates. Unless someone has the time and money to ensure that the millions of web pages and the thousands of books produced every year are fully catalogued, this kind of thing will happen. If I do the same search (“lummox” as title) in the Library of Congress catalogue, for example, I get four hits for books that do appear to be different editions or printings of the novel. If one of them is actually the adaptation, then LC has made the same mistake as Amazon in its bibliographic description; if not, then LC’s collection development policy has fallen short of that offered by a commercial outfit and its affiliates. At least Amazon can be credited for making the user aware, however clumsily, of the possibilities.

4. Yee writes: “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 think she has got it exactly wrong and reversed: users, especially today’s users who are familiar with Google and Amazon, search by keyword, and so ILS vendors and libraries have promoted the keyword search to the top. Many libraries who have studied user behaviour have found that when title or some other more structured search was made the default, users still searched by keyword anyway.

5. Yee writes: “It has become fashionable to criticize catalogs for not providing users with the evaluative information they desire, a la Amazon.com. Those who criticize seem unaware that catalogs currently do provide evaluative information, in that the presence of a work in the collection of a major research library implies (with some caveats) that that work was deemed of scholarly value.” This betrays the intellectual snobbery which underlies much of Yee’s complaint about the demise of cataloguing/librarianship/the social order. She writes later about the “anti-intellectualism characteristic of our society,” which I take to mean, perhaps ungenerously: We librarians are smarter than you dumb slobs who are searching for information by keyword, and we don’t care how you want to get your information: do it our way. My point is that academic and research libraries are indeed the cornerstone of organized information, and the librarians who feed their catalogues (and know how to use them) should be hugged and thanked. However, there are other sources and other ways to record and access those sources, and the value of that social web should be recognized as well, and not simply dismissed as an anti-intellectual tidbit.

arkham

I agree with many of your points. I found Mann's most recent article, which so many catalogers got so excited over, very reactionary. Gorman is something of a luddite on the subject of the Internet in general, and Web 2.0 developments in particular, and has not really been involved in discussions on the future of cataloging until just recently...and I've been unimpressed with his contributions. Yee has some good points quite often, but she's clearly an academic librarian, and many of her viewpoints are colored by academic tunnel-vision. Not to denigrate academic librarianship by any means, but Yee does not seem able to see the impact of cataloging beyond her own insulated world, where there are serious scholars willing to put in the work to make best use of our clumsy and outdated OPACs and to wade through our archaic subject heading morass.

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