Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Interoperability is a buzz word. A really, really important buzzword (unlike, say, "paradigm"). And I feel like I'm banging my head against it. I know the old saying: "There's the right way, and then there's our way." I think that this applies to this institution's approach to digitization projects.
Now, don't get me wrong: this place is the most awesomely together place I've ever worked with regards to digitization projects. They have very clear projects and expectations, if perhaps not quite enough staff to go around. But that's a common problem everywhere, and we all know it.

But the more we talk about this new project, the less happy I am with the way we're communicating. The TEI initiative isn't meshing with the metadata initiative, and I feel like, while they're not exactly working at cross-purposes, they're certainly duplicating work and ultimately making things harder for a user. The TEI people have no concept of controlled vocabularies, and the metadata folks are certainly not going to give into the natural language camp, and the more I think about it, the less I like the idea of one side doing their thing and the other side doing their thing, isolated.

So how do we get ourselves out of this predicament?

I'm teaching a class soon on the basics of cataloging for non-librarians. I'm hoping that this helps to clarify, for these natural-language people, just where we metadata folks are coming from in our need for controlling everything, and also how beneficial it can be to control terms and names and places. I think that many users never really understand how much controlled headings help them. Someone the other day asked me why we "bother" with controlling names or subjects, "when Google is right there and you can just let the software do that stuff for you." I think this person didn't really know what he was suggesting. THe beauty of the controlled heading is that I can put in something like "Dostoevsky" and get all the OTHER versions of Dostoevsky's name as well. Or that I can type in "New Amsterdam" and get the references to New York City. These are things that people think "software" can do, but in reality, it can't. Someone still has to map these things out in order for the references to exist.

So when the TEI people say "well, can't we just put Emperor Maximilian" and everyone will know what they're looking at?" I can honestly say "No--because what about the people who just write Maximillian, or the people who are looking for the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, or the people who are looking for the "emperor" of Mexico? Or the prince of Baden? Or Maximilian the saint?"

 If there's an easy way to solve the problem of searchability...I can't wait to learn about it. But for now, we're going to have to settle for interoperability, and making our metadata and TEI mesh in very concrete ways. And we're not at that point yet, unfortunately.

No comments:

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