From the catalogs of babes

{December 22, 2008} shut down

I just read that the Library of Congress requested pull the plug. I’m pretty much in shock, as I just recently discovered and it has saved my butt quite a few times in the few months that i knew about its existence.

See, my library has a subscription to ClassWeb, which is a paid service from the LOC providing searchable subject headings and classification. Ours expires every year in October. Every year, In October, we send them a payment to renew our subscription. And every year in October, they cut off our access, telling us that our subscription has expired. They are nice enough to cut off our access with no warnings or reminders, so that it always happens that one day I go to log in and BAM!: access denied.

So every year we make numerous phone calls to the Library of Congress, playing lots of phone tag and wasting our time and theirs. After several weeks, when we finally get ahold of a live person at the LOC (and that’s a generous estimate–I won’t tell you how long it took us to purchase the Subject Cataloging Manual–no wonder libraries lack standards and are all over the map; if LOC really wanted to support standardization and use of their heading and classification products, you’d think they’d make them easier to get and use), after waiting for weeks to talk to someone, they tell us, yes, we did pay (which we obviously already knew) and that it will take a few weeks to reinstate our service. (And in this day and age, I’m agog at any web subscription that takes 2 weeks to reinstate.)

Over the course of the past several months, I’ve been using to do my work. We don’t have hard print copies of LCSH anymore (who does? and why would they use them even if they did?). I could use the LOC Authorities, which I sometimes do, but I find their search function cumbersome, with high recall yet low precision retrieval. While I do like that LOC recently added subject heading strings to its authorities search, it does also open up the possibility of retuning unauthorized entries, with which I have had problems in the past, especially since unauthorized headings have been one of the biggest problems in our local catalog and something i have been working very hard to correct. In contrast, was clean, with an easy-to-use search function and a nice retrieval display in order of relevance. To me it wasn’t even about the experimental techniques, though I grant I was interested in those as well, though I never had much time to explore them before the December 18 shut down. It was a simple case of access and availability– made subject headings available to my library and allowed me to accomplish my job when a paid service from LOC could not.

I have never understood LOC’s tight grasp on LCSH. I do understand and respect that LCSH wasn’t originally designed for such widespread use–it was designed to catalog the LOC collection, not for every American library everywhere. While I often rail againt the terminology and diction of LCSH, its outdated (and sometimes offensive and prejudicial) terms, and its demonstrated user-unfriendliness, I do respect that it was never intended to butt up against sue situations where that would be a problem. LCSH is user-unfriendly because the people who currently use it never should have become its users. But somehow or another we are it’s users–librarians and patrons a like–and if you want us to keep using your system, we have to have a motivating reason. For years it’s been nothing but inertia: we use it because we always have used it and we’ve gotten so many materials and so deeply entrenched in it that it’s easier to keep rolling along with it than to change it. But someone needs to stop this rolling rock, because we passed the library turnpike a long way back. LCSH has never served my library’s users well. It certainly handles fashion poorly, and I’ve been looking for a specialized vocabulary to use instead and not found anything yet.* While we are a special case, I argue that public and academic libraries as well need to leave LCSH behind. Everyone knows the “Cookery” example by now–how many ridiculous, outdated subject headings do we need to see before we decide it’s time for a change? how many patrons need to walk away confused, or have their catalog searches yield zero results because they didn’t know to search for “Caffeine habit” rather than “Caffeine addiction” (note the lack of UF).

I have long held that if you want someone to use your product, whatever that product may be, it should be easy to use and easy to access, as well as easy on your wallet to purchase. I hate craft shows that charge an entrance fee–it find it makes purchasing goods more difficult when I have to pay to get in the door. I hate buying from websites where I can’t figure out how to use the shopping cart–and sometimes I end up being physically unable to purchase, if I can’t make the damn thing work. If I buy a toaster and can’t understand the instructions, it’s not going to get used. These things all go for LCSH or any cataloging standards (MARC, AACR, etc.), in my opinion: if you want people to use your system in their libraries, it should be freely accessible and easy to use. The only thing  big organizations like OCLC and LOC have going for them right now is inertia. And while that will carry you far, eventually it will run out.**


*I had planned on writing my thesis on this, but ended up doing an electronic portfolio instead. I’m still interested in the project and refuse to let it go.

**Unless you’re in a vacuum, which I think we’ve already established they are not.

[…] many other libraries across the nation, my library has a subscription to this service. As I have previously mentioned, ours expires every year in October. Every year, in October, we send a payment to renew our […]

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