Friday, March 21, 2008

Creating meaning

I've been reading up on RDA, FRBR, and metadata more generally over the past week (I have such a cool job). Anyway, as I was reading, and reading, and reading, I saw some things that grabbed my attention.

A lot of people who talk about RDA (and FRBR) talk about how these new concepts and new shifts in understanding are going to help us create meaning for our users. Instead of cataloging in a vaccuum, treating each piece as separate islands, we're going to be creating the connections between ideas and users and creators.

Now, shift over to TWO weeks ago, when I was trying to learn about our new big metadata project. I was talking to the project manager, and we were discussing how our group would assign subject headings and geographical placenames. The more we talked, the more I realized that the focus of this project does not lend itself to "traditional" ideas about assigning metadata.

In my other job as a cataloger, I might catalog a book about Nabokov, and then a book about English Victorians. These two things will have no relation to one another, and my job is not to try to find a connection (although in this particular example, what a great challenge!).

The thing is, in this metadata project, that is EXACTLY what they need. They need this map to be applicable to this book, or this book to remind a user about that manuscript. We're actively trying to create meaning for the user. Now, this is easy for us in this case, because everything pulled for the project is swirling around a central research topic. So it's not as if we're going to be using the entire LCSH in order to do this project. Instead, we're using just a small, interrelated fraction of that. So when I tell the other catalogers that we need to keep connections in mind, they totally get it, and its easy.

RDA and FRBR have a great ideal in place, and I love it, but I think that RDA is missing something really central in their thought processes. Even if you use machines to pull a lot of this data, and we use publisher information, and we stop caring about grammar and punctuation, it is still a ridiculously high expectation to put on catalogers to "create meaning" for the entire scope of human knowledge. I think its daunting for us to be doing this for researchers in a relatively narrow application, because we're never going to understand what those researchers really want. Maybe its time for librarians to adopt the archival perspective: We can't know what the user wants, so we give them the best we can give and they just have to figure out the rest. In that light, the ideals don't look quite so daunting.

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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.