From the catalogs of babes











So I finally joined ARLIS, which I know seems strange that it took me this long to join the organization devoted to arts libraries. It’s not that I didn’t want to join before, because I did. It honestly sometimes just comes down to a matter of money. I started joining professional organizations when I was a student, and I personally find them very beneficial. It’s cheap to join as a student, but the membership fees often drastically increase after graduation. I don’t fault the organizations for this, and I don’t think any of their individual fees are outrageous, but by the time you’re joining 3 or 4 organizations, it can get pretty pricey.

I’ve tried to cull the herd and cut some of my memberships, but I find it very difficult. I don’t want to leave ALA, as I feel it’s the “core” organization of the field. With ALA comes ALCTS and LITA. I’m hesitant to leave SLA (although the debate about the realignment and name change may just drive me away), not only because the specialty library focus ties in so closely with our library and what we do, but also because they invested in me when I was a student, and I still feel I owe it to the chapter and the organization to make good on that investment. I was considering dropping SAA, since I don’t currently work as closely with archival materials as I used to, but then they published my paper in their journal, and I’d feel bad leaving so soon after that. So I’ve got those three, plus their subdivisions and local counterparts, plus now ARLIS, and I still think ASIS&T would be worth the membership if I could afford it. By this point, we’re talking hundreds, if not $1,000+ per year for professional organization memberships alone.

But I finally ponied up the dough to join ARLIS, since I’ve been wanting to attend one of their conferences for a while and though 2010 might be a good year to do so. And I’m really glad I joined–it really does seem to cover the niche area I want to work in. I got several friendly and welcoming emails, including one that alluded to a local discussion group specifically for catalogers in the arts! I know must know how excited that made me–how awesome to find a group of people like me, and even better, their next meeting was coming right up, so I was chomping at the bit to attend.

I wish I hadn’t gotten so worked up. Don’t get me wrong–it was a nice meeting, with a lot of nice people, and well-educated catalogers, which was a nice step up from some meetings I’ve been to. Unfortunately, I missed the introductions, so I’m not sure exactly which and what kinds of libraries everyone was representing, which was dissapointing becuase I feel that’s so intrinsic to cataloging work–what type of library are you, who do you serve as your patrons, what types of materials do you collect? I know quite a few attendees came from art museum libraries, which are going to have very different research needs than art schools. What I didn’t understand was how no one else seemed to understand that.

I felt a very strong presumption in the room about Cataloging Rules and How Things Should Be Done, and not very much about users at all. Most of the agenda covered what I consider to be very niggly little bits of cataloging propriety: is the entry in this 1XX field correct, is “$vCatalogs” being used correctly in this record, should this piece of ephemera be described as “1 sheet, folded” or “1 folded sheet”? I know I’m probably going to get flayed for this, but really, people: who the hell cares? Software, if designed properly, makes all those issues irrelevant. Google’s search algorithms will find your folded sheet either way, and probably even if you call it “folded paper,” too.

I was shocked at the apparent prejudice–while discussing whether or not a “cheat sheet” for cataloging exhibition brochures was correct (see above re: niggly minutiae), many people were asking “why would anyone bother to collect those things anyway?” and similar narrow-minded comments. Perhaps that institution has the largest art ephemera collection in the world. Perhaps those materials are in great demand in that geographic area. Perhaps the brochures are used as examples for graphic design classes or instruction in art exhibition design. Who knows? None of those catalogers, because they didn’t even bother to ask before ripping into not just the proper application of MARC and AACR2r on the cheat sheet, but also the reason for the collection itself.

There was so much narrow focus on minutia that it seemed like the considerations of library users didn’t even exist. One woman from an art museum brought up a dispute with a classification number assigned by the Library of Congress to a book about 4 artists. LC classed it in ND237.O5, evidently specifically under Georgia O’Keeffe, but she felt LC was incorrect and a broader classification would be more appropriate. After spending a lot of time hemming and hawing and discussing why LC had classed it that way, based on the rule of three and classing on the first listed subject heading, and how it was biased for LC to class it only under O’Keeffe since she was the most famous, and how this woman had seen the exhibition herself and it was beautiful, and how the book might be classed under women artists, and why the book shouldn’t be classed under women artists because it’s not specifically feminist enough, about how the book might be classed under American painting, but the book wasn’t all painting, there was one piece of sculpture included… it was all I could do to bite my tongue to keep from shouting: “If you don’t like it, just change it!”  (Someone alert the classification police, because we do it here all the time. I changed the classification numbers on no less than 10 titles this morning alone.) Especially since the women’s primary complaint was that her museum curator would “not understand why the book was classed there” and would be unable to find it! I think books should go where your users will find them, most especially in arts libraries, where established research repeatedly shows a preference for browsing access over searching.

As if that wasn’t enough for me to bite through my tongue, another cataloger actually said that “classification is nothing more than an address” and “not to fret over the call number.” I wish I knew which library she worked for. I’m sure this is a fine model for more research-oriented libraries like perhaps the Getty or LACMA. But as a group of not just catalogers, but catalogers serving arts libraries, I was appalled at the lack of understanding of patrons’ information-seeking behavior. These people are so busy counting the knotholes in the trees, not only do they not see the forest–they’ve forgotten the forest even exists.

It was my first meeting, and as a newbie and relative unknown, I wasn’t quite ready to vocalize my thoughts and make waves. (You might not guess it from my outspoken rants on this blog, but I’m actually fairly introverted and shy.) I’m still glad I went–I saw a few more potential rogues in the woods, and the meeting really opened my eyes in a lot of ways to just how entrenched we are in our methods of cataloging, how much momentum the history of cataloging carries, how hard it just might be to switch to a user-based model of cataloging. It’s going to be an uphill struggle, that’s for sure.

And now that I know what the general tenor of the group is like, I feel better about starting to broach the idea to the group slowly, perhaps with an announcement at the next meeting in February about my forthcoming book chapter about cataloging for art school users. It also makes me wonder if maybe the time isn’t right to pitch a session on user-based arts cataloging to ARLIS…but one thing at a time. Sometimes I have the problem of seeing just a little too much forest and not enough trees!



friend of mine invited me to call in to a web talk show about “who curates the real time web?” after I posted some characteristically snarky answers to the question on his Facebook page. I tried to call in, but between my phone-phobia, my partial deafness (I have a really hard time hearing on the phone) and the time constraints of the show, I didn’t quite make it on-air.

The initial summary of the session (the irony of it being no longer available on the site, as far as I can find, is not lost on me) included the authors’ suggestions for some sort of curatorship, software or human. My haunches bristled when I saw the use of the word “curator.” Other words bandied about during the talk were “archiving” and “taxonomizing.” They didn’t know it, but what they were asking for was a librarian. And we already exist. Here a bunch of much-lauded tech-entrepreneurs think they just came up with the most brilliant idea in the world to help users navigate information. Well, I hate to break it to you, buddies, but we’ve been around for thousands of years, and that’s what we do: we select, process, organize, deliver, manage and mediate access to information, and instruct users how to locate, evaluate, and effectively use this information.

 But there’s obviously still some sort of need, or else this whole discussion wouldn’t have been happening. Why?

Needlelane Silos by jhritz

Needlelane Silos by jhritz

Silos.

In library jargon, a “silo” generally refers to a disparate, stand-alone resource that cannot be searched in an integrated way with other resources. A common example is the inability to ingrate subscription databases of newspapers, magazines, etc., into the online catalog. A patron has to search the catalog for books, then a separate database for newspaper articles, a third for magazines, etc. In business, I generally hear silos referred to in terms of departments functioning independently, in a “one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing” kind of way. I think the same thing is happening here, with libraries and librarians in one silo, and the tech-savvy entrepreneurs in another.

Let’s look at this discussion: who were the speakers, and who was the target audience? Businessmen, tech-geeks, entrepreneurs. Middle-and upper-class educated users and developers of technology. People motivated by sales and funded by venture capital. Basically, what I’d call the “technical elite.” As far as I could tell, no librarians, curators, archivists, or taxonomists were invited to be on the discussion panel. Libraries and librarians are not part of the tech-elite demographic. While there are nuggets of progress here and there, librarianship overall is a slow-evolving profession and often last to the gate in terms of technology. I’m not in denial about how backwards we are. How long did it take us to move away from the card catalog? Have you compared a library OPAC to Google, Amazon, Netflix?

These companies spend tons of money and market research on giving their users what they want, making it easy for users to find what they seek. Libraries want to do the same. But they don’t have the same resources and motivations. They don’t turn a profit and don’t have investors. Traditionally underfunded to begin with, many libraries and librarians are seeing their budgets cut further and jobs cut altogether. Libraries don’t have the same financial resources and motivations as tech entrepreneurs.

Libraries and librarians aren’t limited to a certain target market or demographic.  I felt a blatant bias in the talk show participants–talking about how “everyone” gets up in the morning and checks Twitter and how “everyone” is on Facebook. According to Pew, only 35% of American adults have a social networking profile, and only 22% of those people are on Facebook (MySpace still leads at 50%, but interestingly enough, I never heard it mentioned in today’s discussion). A mere 11% of online American adults use Twitter. I can forgive the speakers a bit due to their intended listening audience. I understand a business targeting the tech-savvy demographic, since they tend to have more education and disposable income. And I understand that these are the people on the forefront of things, and even though only 11% of people use Twitter right now, that number could be expected to rise as the service becomes more ubiquitous. So I’m willing to cut a little slack there. But talk about closing yourself off in a silo! Who’s curating the web for the rest of America?

The librarian silo is starting to crumble at the bottom from rotting woodwork. The tech-business silo can’t be built any taller without more resources and materials. I can’t help but think maybe if we were all in the same barn, instead of off building our own silos, our Twitters and our OPACs, we could achieve real progress, for both sides of the spectrum. Librarians have immense value to offer. We know how to organize, annotate, and recommend materials and information. We have a history of credibility, authority, and reliability (unlike “brands” that were recommended as reliable sources).  We have exactly the skills called for in today’s discussion. But we just don’t have the money, the support, or the technological skills. The tech elite wants their web organized, and they have resources to throw at it. They just don’t know how to do it. Imagine what we could do if we broke down those silos and worked together.



{April 21, 2009}   easy to be hard

Lately there’s been a resurgence on RADCAT, the “radical catalogers” mailing list. It’s good, as that list is generally pretty quiet, and the encouragement of introductions and discussions has stimulated conversation and participation. It’s bad, though, too, as that list is generally pretty quiet, and the encouragement of introductions and discussions has stimulated conversation and participation.

What I meant to say by that: I subscribe to a number of library listservs and mailing lists, as well as blogs, message boards, project wikis, etc. My inbox, my Google Reader, my bookmarks, my LiveJournal friends page, are all full of stuff I want to not only read but comment on and participate in every single day. There’s a wealth of good information, help, and support there, but sometimes I honestly fear opening my inbox after being sick for a day or two. The amount of information overload (a recurring theme in today’s world) makes me wonder which is worse–spending hours and hours sifting through it all, or just simply hitting the delete key and chance missing out on something important?

In an attempt to be more organized and efficient, I choose to subscribe to listservs such as RADCAT, AUTOCAT, etc., in digest form. I’ve had some suggestions on how to read the list on the web, which does seem to satisfy some users, but I personally don’t care for it.  So I get all the day’s messages delivered in one (supposedly) convenient email.  However, it’s not so much that I find it convenient, but rather it’s the least inconvenientof the current options available to me.  It’s long; and repetitive where people don’t delete the entirely of the messages to which they are replying; discussions aren’t threaded; and formatting from all sorts of email clients literally makes reading the emails difficult, as many of them come across garbled with code. There is a vast chasm between “convenient” and “least inconvenient,” between “easy” and “less hard.” I really wish I had a better way of filtering and organizing this information. As part of the recent RADCAT discussion, I mused that I would probably participate more if my participation interface was more user-friendly, even going so far as to say “let me know when I can subscribe to the list in Google Reader.”

Which made me think: why isn’tit? Is there any reason, besides continuity’s sake, that these groups have not moved on to harness a more current–and, in my opinion, a potentially more flexible and powerful–technology?

 For instance, AUTOCAT is peppered with posts containing cataloging questions: questions about using AACR2r, LCSH, MARC, etc. A couple of my previous posts about LCSH subdivisions would not be out of place on AUTOCAT. So why didn’t I post them there? Because to get an answer, I would have had to wade through unorganized and unstructured replies–some to me, some to the list itself, some replies to responses on the list itself…it’s just physically hard for me to read and follow. All I wanted was a quick answer to a quick question–‘can I subdivide “Trade shows” by industry?’ A simple “yes” or “no” was all I wanted. It struck me that a brief, direct question requiring a short, immediate answer, might be better served by a technology that was designed for short bursts of immediate communication. Now, I confess, I haven’t been much of a Twitter fan since it’s inception, but that’s because I never saw much practical use for it. Now I think I might. How great would it be to Tweet “anyone know the 040 for Italian?” and receive a real-time reply, without having to log in to email and scroll through numerous messages to find the answer. I know when I am sitting there with the book in my hand, in the middle of cataloging, I don’t want to put it aside and wait to finish when I might get an answer the next day (if I get one at all). How much more efficient might our cataloging be if we could receive quicker responses like this? Of course, Twitter doesn’t supply the ability for longer, more complex conversations, which are inherently necessary when talking about cataloging, but there are other technologies for that.

Like the recent flurry of activity on RADCAT: all these introductions are nice, but after a week or so, they’ve been archived in the depth of the list with no easy, instant way to refer back to them. What happens when I’m reading a message several months from now and want to revisit the author’s introduction to learn more about where they’re coming from? Gee, wouldn’t it be great if there was some technology out there where a person could have a page about him- or herself, and I could easily click on that person’s name and be taken to a profile, a page that told more about them, their introduction and background, what kinds of libraries they worked in, what other interests they might have? And Facebook has the capability for group pages and discussions, potentially allow people who wanted to participate in a 9/11 conspiracy debate to do so while others could talk about authority control on Ravelry.

The key word here is “easy.” The listservs, in my opinion, are not easy. I almost hate to say it, but Facebook and Twitter are. (Even my 70+ year-old aunt is on Facebook, and she is far from what I would call tech-savvy.) They are designed to be easy to use, because that gets them more users, and therefore more eyes viewing ads, and therefore more $$.  And it works–Facebook has 200 million active users. It’s not that this technology is “new” or “shiny” or “buzzworthy” or “cool.”  It’s that it’s easy to use for what people want to use it for, so they use it. It’s using the right tool for the right job. Technology too succumbs to the survival of the fittest. People will use what they find easy and pass on what they don’t: is anyone out there still running DOS? No, because something better, more powerful, and more user-friendly came along.

Now, everyone’s idea of easy will differ. Some people are not only content with listservs but prefer them. And that’s fine. What’s not fine is the inability for users to choose through which interface they prefer to interact. Wasn’t that part of the whole glory of Web 2.0? That we could make content independent of formatting, so that the user could view it in whatever format they preferred?

Whatever it is, we need to stop locking our content away in these outdated technology platforms. As technology evolves, we need to evolve as well. These listservs are a great concrete example. But I think they’re also a great analogy for libraries in general, and especially for cataloging. Whay are we still using the same difficult tools, rules, workflows, and softwares? Continuity can only carry us so far. Why are we fighting against technology and evolution, instead of using it to improve not only our jobs but our patrons’ experiences? And why do we continue to insist on making cataloging hard?



et cetera
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