From the catalogs of babes

{May 4, 2010}   these are not new ideas.

You know, these things I talk about in my blog, they’re not new ideas. They’re not even always my ideas. Sometimes I think they’re my ideas, when I’m thinking about them and writing them, but then later I stumble across an old blog post or an article in a back issue of a journal, I realize that, no, I’m not the first person to think of things like online catalogs as reference interfaces or using user-supplied tags as literary warrant for new subject headings. These aren’t revolutionary ideas. These concepts are not new to the library world; in fact, people have been suggesting and talking about them for years.

So what? I’m not bothered that my ideas aren’t new or original. I’m not trying to tout these things as my own. Mostly I’m using this blog as a way of sharing ideas and “thinking aloud.”  Heck, sometimes I’m excited to think that I thought of the same things in the same way as great famous names in the cataloging world.

What does bother me is that we’ve been talking about these things in the library world for years–decades, even–and we’re still talking about the same things. I remember a time in graduate school in 2007 when I thought of an idea where hierarchical record structures might be beneficial in reducing excessive record duplication and also assisting patrons in identifying, selecting, and disambiguating records and resources. Then earlier this week I sat down and read an article by Martha Yee  from almost 15 years ago proposing a near-identical concept. I have to wonder: why haven’t we done it yet? Perhaps the idea was tried and failed, but then wouldn’t we have heard about it? The fact that we’re still coming up with the same ideas over and over again yet never seeming to implement them is, I think, a troubling sign. I know progress doesn’t happen overnight, but it can’t really be this slow, can it? What’s stopping us from trying these ideas? Budget limitations? Lack of administrative support? Complicated processes? Inertia? I’m sure it’s a combination of all of the above, and more. But I’m tired of those reasons, and these excuses. I’m ready to try these new things. Some of them will fail, and that’s okay. Some of them will work, but only locally, and that’s okay, too, so long as they don’t break or otherwise interfere with others’ systems. Some of them will work, and catch on, and other libraries will start to implement them because they’re easier, more efficient, and work better. Maybe we can’t get to the latter without the former, but after all this time suggesting and talking about it, isn’t it time we started to try?

Irvin says:

I think cataloguers’ lack of programming skills is an important factor. The reason Cutter called the 19th century the Golden Age of cataloguing was because you built the catalogue yourself. It’s always going to be hard to innovate if you rely on others to do the technical implementation — or have to first run ideas through a committee.

Susan says:

I’ve been having a lot of the same thoughts lately. I wonder if it isn’t because librarians are inherently looking for consensus. There’s something to be said for building consensus, but as anyone who has been part of any sort of collective can say, there are times when getting to consensus actively inhibits moving forward in a timely way too, especially when the collective is monolithic.

And I think we’re holding on too tight to our laurels of ‘but we were first!’ We think we have all the answers and in our desire to “get it right,” we’re not taking the risks we need to take to move forward in any significant way while in the meantime people on the rest of the internet are getting wild & crazy & pushing the bounds of ‘hey, what happens when we do this!?’ and making amazing systems that work, actually, respectably well. Sure they have their problems, but I think libraries have a number of problems as well, even if I think of all the solutions, libraries have their hearts in the most right place. I don’t think we have to be on the wild & crazy edge, but taking thirteen years to revise the third edition of something that verges on biblically complicated… I fear it doesn’t bode well for keeping up with what we could be doing. The difference in the information landscape between now and 1997? Here’s Google in late ’98:*/ To access my library catalog, the beginning instructions from the wayback machine:
Access through the Internet is available:
1) Get to the appropriate UNIX or Telnet prompt…
To say nothing of the excitement of having a research class in 1992’s lab fees go entirely to approximately five minutes of using Dialog (but oh! what a five minutes! A tiny taste of a future soon to be surpassed by more than I could have imagined in my wildest dreams!)…

As excited and optimistic about the world of metadata as I am right now, I am not as optimistic about the library world’s ability to integrate old school, hard won best metadata practices with the current information landscape. I’m going to try my best because I find what’s coming out fascinating, but is it really as complicated as we make it? I know that’s not an original thought either because I read it somewhere recently too. Here? Or maybe somewhere else. The access to information both on the wild & woolly internet and in the gated garden of the library (how I love my library card that gives me access to journals and articles that I could never afford to buy but I can now search for and read from home!) makes me giddy. We’re doing something right, but we can do better.

I’m going to try some new things (and old things that we’ve been arguing about for years) and I’m pretty sure I’m going to get knocked down a few times, maybe a lot, but… I’m going to do it. Cross your fingers for me, K? :)

[…] Babes posts about how what we are blogging about is not new, these are not new ideas. Go read her post. I’ll wait [insert musak … wait! get permission and pay…now insert […]

Ivy says:

@Irvin: I couldn’t agree more. Although I feel a bit of a hypocrite, becuase I personally am not interested in learning to be a programmer. I’m not quite sure what to do about that.

@Susan: “but is it really as complicated as we make it?”

This is the heart of it, at least for me. (And yes, it’s a recurring theme on my blog here, although I’m sure I’m not the first to come up with the idea.)

>We’re doing something right, but we can do better.

I totally agree, and I never mean to belittle the great abd often revolutionary progress libraries and librarians have made in the past. We’ve changed the world before–let’s do it again! :)

I will totally keep my fingers crossed for you–I hope you will report or chronicle somewhere your trials and tribulations and (hopefully) successes!

Susan says:

Will do — I’m currently struggling with how public I can be with the stuff I work on (I’m in a weird conjunction of bibliographic metadata/MARC providing, software, and vendor neverland as the manager of cataloging/bibliographic & metadata control for my business unit which is the technology solution arm for a “content” provider). And then there’s always the question of how much energy I have once I’m done with a day of work to do much processing about it… :)

I had an interesting discussion today with another MARC records vendor and we were both really surprised at how many libraries and publishers alike are looking to offload the MARC record creation and yet desperate for records. Libraries are getting their cataloging budgets hacked to bits, MARC isn’t really on the radar in terms of a publisher’s core capabilities or focus. Libraries are at the point where some of them won’t accept a publisher’s materials unless they provide a MARC record with it. There’s a gap happening. One of the things I’m trying to figure out is how to continue providing libraries with high quality MARC records (among other things), while finding an effective and efficient way to partner with publishers to help them get their metadata into consumable shape for libraries. We’re some ways away yet from having a good solution in place as it’s only started really being a point of potential business development in the last month or so, but the more I look, the more confirmation I get that there’s a desperate need on both sides. It’s an interesting area to be in right now! I’m a little worried about both libraries and content providers/publishers, but big window of opportunity for those of us interested in metadata! :)

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