Monday, December 17, 2007

Functions of Cataloging

What do I believe a cataloging department is charged to do?

Call me a product of my environment (and people do!), but I do not think that new technologies are dragging cataloging departments away from their primary responsibilities. As an information organizer, I see my role in any place to be one of facilitation. Although cataloging departments are not traditionally known for their social and outgoing ways, cataloging itself is about serving the user. Of course, all departments of a library are about serving the user: we are a service industry. And I think that cataloging is no different. All of our systems, all of our rules and notations, are about serving the user and helping him or her to find what they need with as little trouble as possible.

Now, that is not to say that the library catalog is good at this. In fact, I think that in many ways its not that good at all. When even reference librarians complain about the Library of Congress Subject Headings, something is definitely wrong. When I would rather use Google than a library catalog, something has to be wrong. So we're at an intersection—the intersection between traditional cataloging tools, users, and emerging technologies. Because I do not think that our mandate as catalogers has changed; rather, I think that the user has always been at the center of what we do. It’s the technologies that are starting to fall in our laps that will really make a difference in the next few years, and how flexible we can be in response to those.

Some scholars say that libraries have already missed the boat. RDA (Resource Description and Access) is dead before it ever lived, because it is going to be too much like AACRII and not enough like Vannevar Bush’s Memex. Some of the same people have given in to quiet resignation over LCSH, which, because it of its basic opposition to clustering, should have died a long time ago. MARC is too clunky, authority records are useful but may not be widely known enough to make the leap from libraries to other users in the digital world who might find them useful, too.

Other problems also arise as we start to imagine how a library might better use the new resources at hand in the form of metadata schemas. One is that there aren’t that many people in the library world who are thoroughly familiar with all the available resources for digital organization. Unlike traditional cataloging, which has produced thousands of people versant in AACRII and MaRC, there are so many different metadata standards and technologies blooming all the time, that there is very little knowledge transfer in the typical mentor-mentee model. This leads to a lot of reinventing the wheel. Listservs have become the standby community for many of us (I subscribe to at least 7), but so many social networking utilities are clunky and not conducive to actual substantive conversation in the way that typical workshops and classroom environments offered with ease.

Another issue is that the Web has simply not developed along the lines of creating machine-readable documentation. Tim Berners-Lee said “The web has developed most rapidly as a medium of documents for people rather than data and information that can be processed automatically,” and he is absolutely right. Even now, some 4 years after his statement, the semantic web is still growing. Most users notice it only when they type in “real estate” into the google search engine and get maps of all the real estate in a given area, or when they search for a person and get their phone number. These are the beginnings of the semantic web, but so much is left to be done that it seems, at times, insurmountable, especially when one thinks of all the published resources that are out there, unused because they are not accessible via the web. The Principle of Least Effort is alive and well in the Interwebs, and it is not going away anytime soon. The mandate to librarians is to make the numerous diverse collections of materials into one coherent and searchable whole. Although daunting, the institutions that do this (like NCSU’s catalog) will find they have happier and better informed users (not to mention MORE users).

I do think that the role of catalogers is changing, though, even though the mandate remains the same. As we inevitably move away from books and move past other forms of media into more raw data, our means of making it available are changing.

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"Wicked people never have time for reading. It's one of the reasons for their wickedness." —Lemony Snicket, The Penultimate Peril.