Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Cataloging Distribution Service

I don't mean to sound alarmist or anything, but Library of Congress must actually be letting their cataloging department fall by the wayside. I tried to call the CDS to order a subscription to the Cataloging Bulletin, and was greeted with nothing but transfers to mailboxes that were already full. It was really heartening, let me tell you.

I'm not a crazy cataloger, and I don't mind that much if Library of Congress decides to make changes to it's own library, but in case they didn't notice, LOC is basically the only source that librarians have for creating and maintaining organizational standards. They need to think about that before they decide to throw away their responsibilities towards the entire American library system.


I like to talk about libraries and archives and how different they are (hello?! They are A LOT different). Of course many of the differences are directly related to the amount of stuff that archivists deal with. We’re talking about millions of pages, manuscripts, letters, objects, and now databases, webpages, emails, IMs, etc. Librarians, on the other hand, put their feet down long ago, and accept only things that are either physically or digitally contained within themselves. Librarians don’t accept anything else. A bunch of letters from George Washington? No thank you! Please publish this first, give it a unique identifier, several subject headings, and a spine label. Then we’ll talk.

I sometimes feel as though archivists took on the responsibility of preserving all the things that museums and libraries simply couldn’t be troubled with. Archives are notoriously hodge-podge; indeed, archivists seem to take a kind of perverse pleasure out of having lots and lots of things in their possession that would make a librarian or a curator throw up their hands in disgust.

The uniqueness of all of these millions of pages of documentation have made it very difficult for archivists to come together on standards. EAD IS a standard, I suppose, although a very cautious one:

“Okay, we’ll standardize what we CALL things, but don’t tell us what goes under each name!” And the result was that while I call a scope and content note one thing, someone else may use the same tag for something different.

Then along came DACS (Describing Archives: A Content Standard), which is very nice and should be wonderful, but there a lot of archivists out there who don’t use it. Show me a librarian who doesn’t use AACRII at least to some degree.

I think it’s funny that while archives have been around in Europe since before the French Revolution, and the US has had archives of sorts since their own Revolution, archivists seem to have missed the boat, letting librarians (a relatively younger profession as we know it today) sail off to take the credit for preserving culture. They’re so much older than librarians in many ways, but librarians dove right into organization theory with a vengeance. While librarians spent the last century perfecting a system of cataloging books, archivists apparently decided that the 20th century wouldn’t do, and are now beginning the process in the 21st century. I just never understood why they waited so long.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Treehugger v. Propellor Head

The age-old debate, right? In case you're wondering, this is a difference made by one of my professors in my graduate program. He himself was a propellor head, I think, which means he was a technology-lover. I tend to think of myself as a natural treehugger, which means that I would rather be handling old and fragile paper and books than learning SQL or building webpages.
Which is weird, right? My entire job is focused on computers, databases, and programming languages, yet in my heart of hearts, I do wish I ran a rare bookshop, telling customers all about the new first edition Wealth of Nations that just came last week and no, please, don't touch the pages, they are in good condition but I'd rather not have your finger oils all over them if you're not prepared to buy .
At any rate, the dichotomy between these two camps used to be much more prevalant than it is today, I think. Go to the Society of American Archivists conference, and you'll find nothing BUT tech seminars and digital records and EAD and whatever else is coming down the pike. Very little left on the paper that they are preserving. More and more, preservationists and archivists are moving away from their roots. I know that most of the people I graduated with, have gone into or are more interested in, digital matters.
But the thing is, most small-organization archivists don't have the time to mess around with fancy digital anything, and would rather have more information on the nuts and bolts of preservation than the newest open source software out there, or how to put all of their things online. Unfortunately, many archivists get sucked into the digital wave--our archivist is thinking of digitizing old newspapers, but without thinking that maybe the cost of digitization would outweigh the gain of having them online. Without heavy use, what's the point of putting them up on the web? Does it increase use? Maybe, maybe not. It's not like he's thinking of putting ancient Roman texts online, or the Gutenberg bible. It's just some student newspapers, and if they don't get accessed anyway, what's the benefit of making them digital now? His thought process seems to be (and I think it's this way a lot in the archives community) that any digitization is good digitization. I don't think that such thinking is productive, but it's very prevalent everywhere.
Don't get me wrong, the digital revolution is full upon us, and it's not a bad thing. It gave me a job that is interesting and fun and challenging, so who am I to complain? But I hope that the treehuggers stand firm and don't give too much ground. We need our lovely old books, too.
"Wicked people never have time for reading. It's one of the reasons for their wickedness." —Lemony Snicket, The Penultimate Peril.