Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Define Yourself, Sir

When I took early modern philosophy in college, one of the main problems that we ran into between any two philosophers was their difference of definition. Kant might have meant one thing by his use of “mind” or “knowledge”, and Leibnitz would have a very different meaning. And then if you threw Berkeley into the mix, well, you had a rumble on your hands.

Just kidding. Philosophers do not have fistfights.

Anyway, this is a major problem in most fields, because if you don’t define your terms, no one is ever going to understand you. The beauty of FRBR, for example, is that they defined the shit out of everything. You might have to read it five times to get it, but they DO define their terms.
The problem that I’m seeing more and more and more in blogs and in listservs, is that librarians are not defining their terms and therefore make themselves completely unintelligible to anyone who wants to understand them. They also simultaneously make themselves completely dismissible by anyone who doesn’t care to listen to them.

A good example is this listserv I'm on. I subscribe to it, mostly just to read all the smart people’s contributions. I am, unfortunately, a listserv-lurker. Anyway, there has been this discussion about non-literal vs. literal strings. Don’t ask me to explain what those are, because I can’t. But someone decided to try to explain the basic difference, finally, after about 5-6 emails had already bounced around that used the terms without definition, and what happens? An email immediately comes through from someone saying “Thank you!” for explaining the terms. It took 5-6 emails for that one person just to understand the terms...not the argument about the terms, just the terms themselves.

What is it with people? Is it that hard to understand that you might not always make sense? Especially when you’re talking about very difficult concepts that only use words as placeholders and not as describers? I mean, if the person were using “literal” in the literal sense…well, I have no idea what that could mean in relation to “non-literal.” This is one of those times when you absolutely have to define yourself, or everyone’s eyes will just glaze over and you’ll never get anywhere.

To extrapolate this further, one of the biggest issues I see in blogs is that people won’t define their terms, and let’s face it, the library world is really not that well-defined. Yes, we have standards and we have codes of ethics and we have conferences, but we still insist on using whatever term our local database has contrived for a “work” or a “bib” or a “title” (all the same thing, by the way—just different terms, all dependent on your ILS). FRBR tried to help us out by changing some of the ways that we think about conceptual objects in the library world, but I don’t think that most librarians are well-versed in that FRBR world, and don't use those terms on a regular basis. And since RDA apparently isn’t even using all of FRBR's concepts to write their manual…well, I don’t exactly see a light at the end of the tunnel.


Asaf Bartov said...

Aren't RDA using FRBR's concepts to write their manual? I mean after their shift last year to structure their draft according to FRBR entities? Seems to me that the fresh RDA material is quite FRBRized, no?

Scribe said...

But doesn't it seem a little strange that they had to "shift" their structure? I mean, FRBR's been around since 1998, and RDA was supposed to be based on FRBR-generated entities all along (at least I thought it was). FRBR though it might be now, I'm just not sure how deeply integrated the new manual will be...I don't know, but I still wonder how easy it will end up being when this manual actually gets into catalogers' hands.

Asaf Bartov said...


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