From the catalogs of babes











{January 15, 2009}   the power of fashion

Tim Spalding makes a t-shirt and the next thing you know, OCLC creates a Review Board of Shared Data Collection and Stewardship to “discuss the Policy for Use and Transfer of WorldCat Records with the OCLC membership and library community.” While I can’t say for sure that it was the t-shirt that caused OCLC to finally make an effort to engage its members in a discussion about its controversial policy and its even more controversial application, it does reinforce the idea that fashion can be more than a simple visual statement–it can be a political one as well.

Sometimes, I feel like I find myself discriminated against because I work for an institution devoted fashion. Other librarians and professionals perhaps think we’re not as serious or scholarly as libraries that serve the sciences or literature or ‘capital-A’ Art. It’s true–we’re not often about the in-depth historical or theoretical research, although, to our credit, we do serve those needs to a few of our patrons. But what we are about moreso than scholarly research is inspiration and practical, hands-on knowledge. Our students aren’t looking to write theses, they’re looking to start fashion lines.

My recent reading on the information-seeking behavior of visual artists and art students shows that our patrons are not an anomaly: arts-oriented people are looking for inspiration. They browse the library for “serendipitous discovery.” They prefer to ask a human being where to find something rather than search the catalog themselves.

This seems like it should make librarians’ lives easier, no? If they’re interested in random discovery, could we not then just put all the books in acquisition order and let them have their serendipity? If they prefer human interaction over online searching, could we not just do away with the catalog?

But I think it’s the opposite. I think this type of behavior makes the librarian’s job even more difficult. Because we can’t just do away with our catalog–even if it’s not made available to assist our users directly, it serves serves the function of assisting librarians, both in retrieval and also in inventory management and collection analysis. While patrons prefer browsing, they also have legitimate needs for specific information, especially specific images (“I need to see Marc Jacobs’ collection for Spring/Summer 2008” or “I need a photo of the Chrysler Building”) or practical business or construction information (“Who is the CEO of Nordstrom?” “How do I sew a French seam?”). So, unlike some other libraries, we have an equal need to support both browsing and searching, which is exactly why we need to look at our catalogs and evaluate how they might better serve both. I also think that by making our catalog interfaces more browse-friendly, we might just channel some of that browsing behavior into use of the catalog itself, perhaps assisting in library and research education as well as helping to support the increasing number of distance and online students who also need library resources but may have information-seeking behaviors not currently supported by traditional online catalogs and interfaces.

People think fashion is easy and frivolous. I think math is easy. I think fashion, and supporting a fashion library to truly best serve its patrons, is hard.

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