From the catalogs of babes











{May 18, 2010}   I am not a librarian.

I am not a librarian.

You heard me. I’m not a “librarian.” I never have been.

Officially, my job title is “Catalog Coordinator.” It’s a title I despise, for several reasons. Some of them petty—I went to graduate school and got my MLIS, and now I want to be a librarian, damnit! Some of them logical—try telling anyone outside of libraries (and sometimes even within the field) you’re a “catalog coordinator” and they want to know how you decide on product photo placement for this year’s Lillian Vernon. Heck, even “cataloging coordinator” might be a little bit more accurately descriptive (and grammatically correct) to reflect what’s actually in my job description: things like cataloging materials in all formats; developing and creating library cataloging standards; oversee local technical processing; oversee cataloging across 4 campus branches, including standardization, education and training.

I know there are lots of titles for this type of job in use, some of them without the word “librarian” in them, even: Cataloger, Cataloging Supervisor, Metadata Manager, Technical Services Coordinator, and everything in between. And, sure, some of those titles encompass different duties and are not all equivalent (for instance, “Head of Technical Services” covers plenty more than just cataloging, and would be an inappropriate title for what I do. Although “Technical Services Librarian” might, depending whether or not it included all aspects of technical services).

So sometimes I wonder: if we librarians are supposed to be all about vocabulary control, why can’t we control this? Our titles are just as outdated as our subject headings. I’ve already gone off about the terms “OPAC” and “catalog” and changing them to more appropriately descriptive titles, why not our job titles as well?

For many, “librarian” conjures up a stereotypical image of the woman with the glasses and hair in a bun, shushing library patrons and stamping due dates in books. You and I know better—we know that librarians are so much more. We lament it all the time and try to find ways to explain to people what we do, that we do more than shush people and read books all day. That yes, we do need graduate-level educations to do our job. So maybe we need an updated ‘subject heading’ for what it is exactly that we do nowadays.

The New York Times recently mentioned “metacurating” the web: users controlling and vetting streams of information tailored to their personal interests. “Metacurator” might not be so far-fetched as a job title in the future.  Even if we don’t drop the “librarian” bit (and I can certainly see reasons to keep it), perhaps we can still clarify. What does “cataloging librarian” really mean to people? Even within the profession, I find that people have a narrow understanding of the job. Heck, I don’t even understand professional designations myself sometimes—I still can’t figure out the difference between ‘cataloging’ and ‘access services.’ If cataloging ain’t about access, I don’t know what is. Personally, I always tried to convince my boss (with zero success) to change my title to something more descriptive regarding what it is I actually do: I was gunning for “discovery librarian” or maybe “findability librarian.” But no dice.

In the scheme of things, does it really matter what my job title is? Probably not. And so perhaps I’m just being a petulant child about being a “librarian.” But that’s what I want to be, that’s what I went to school for, what I trained to do, what I’ve been devoted to accomplishing, and it seems like it will never happen.

Advertisements


I have a little bit more I want to say about reference, and then I’ll get back to cataloging, I swear. Really.

To me, reference and cataloging go hand in hand. Like peanut butter and jelly (or peanut butter and bananas or peanut butter and potato chips, if that’s how you roll). Like oil and vinegar, treble and bass, salt and pepper. They’re the heads and tails of the coin of library service. Sure, reference can be done without the catalog (and by extension, cataloging)–if you’re one of those intense know-it-all reference librarians with the answer to everything at your fingertips (less and less likely these days as more and more information is created, published and distributed). And sure, cataloging, at its very most basic data-entry skill level, can be done without reference. But really, what good is one without the other?

Cataloging and reference are two halves of the same whole. I know from my personal experience (which includes 8-10 hours/week working reference out of the 40 I spend in the library) that my direct reference interactions have made me a better cataloger. Where else could I see first-hand exactly how our patrons look for materials? Where else could I hear exactly what words they used for search terms? Sure, I could get that kind of information from others who work the reference desk, or from reports or surveys or OPAC search logs.* And I would use all of that, too. But it’s so much more immediate and makes such a stronger impact to hear people tell you in person, to your face, how they search in their own words. It’s interacting directly with our students and faculty that led me to investigate library reclassification, develop alternative subject vocabularies, and brainstorm improved catalog software interfaces.

Not only that, but once I take these gleaned insights and incorporate them into the catalog, I then know a new trick or two about how to use it, which in turn helps me help patrons. Understanding how the catalog works from the back end leads to easier use of the front end interface. Many of the reference librarians I know speak highly of their cataloging classes in graduate school–even if they detested them at the time, they almost all acknowledge how beneficial those classes turned out to be when using catalogs to help people on a daily basis. Knowing about LCSH and how headings are structured helps them find more (and more precise and appropriate) materials for patron. Knowing where to look for a language note, illustrations, or editions can make or break matching the right resource to the right person.

I firmly believe all catalogers should work reference. I also believe that all reference staff should do some sort of cataloging. Now, I know that’s not feasible in some libraries, like large institutions with entire cataloging departments and teams of specialty reference staff. That’s okay–every library should, first and foremost, do what works best for that environment, for those users. But I think a lot of libraries could benefit from doing away with the whole reference vs. cataloging,  “public services/tech services” divide. Libraries are about user service, period. Reference is a user service. Cataloging is a user service. Circulation is a user service. Instruction is a user service. Everything we do should be a user service–if not, why are we doing it?

I’m sorry for all those catalogers who got into the job because they weren’t ‘people persons’ and didn’t want to interact with the public. That’s a very narrow (and selfish) mindset, imo, and a sorry excuse for pursuing a career, especially one in a service profession. I think the time has come for catalogers to integrate further into other library areas. We can work better together than we can apart. Catalogers cannot see themselves or be seen by others as the solitary data wrangler in the back corner of the basement. How do you know if your catalog is helping provide reference service if you’re never out there at the reference desk?

*Well, some people can. We don’t have access to that kind of high-falutin’ technology here.



{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?



So what if libraries did take a page post from the Illinois Poison Control Center and chronicle every single reference query in a day, or a week?

Now, I’m not a reference librarian (although 20-25% of my job is, in fact, reference). But  I do feel like from my personal experience, discussions with other reference and non-reference librarians and staff, and reading articles and blogs, I can make some general assumptions about what types of inquiries might be included in such a list.

You’d get some “where are the bathrooms?” questions and requests for tech support. You’d get questions like “do you have this book…?” and “Where are your books about…?” You’d get some weird questions you’d never thought people would ask. You’d also get more informational-needs questions: the Internet Public Library has compiled a list of some examples here. There are lots of different types of reference questions.

It then occurred to me that every catalog query is a reference question. Asking for books by title or subject is certainly a reference inquiry. Catalogs are designed for holdings inquiries. The purpose of the catalog is to enable a user to find what materials a library holds by  title, author, and/or subject :

Charles Ammi Cutter, Rules for a Dictionary Catalog, 1904

But aren’t holdings questions reference questions? And–more importantly– does a patron know the difference? Do they know that a catalog only retrieves holdings, and not the answers to all of their different types of reference questions? And can they be expected to, in this day and age of Google, which does not return holdings, but rather information and data, the kind that reference questions are built on?

All of a sudden it hit me. I’d thought about it for a long time, but hadn’t yet be able to articulate the idea in words: the catalog has always been a holdings interface.Yet, many people expect it to be a reference interface. Patrons sit down at (or log in to) the catalog expecting it to be like a reference librarian or like Google and provide information to help answer all their questions. But it’s not. It returns bibliographic records, which are barebones representations of resources that may or may not contain the information that will help answer their question.

Should the catalog become more of a reference interface? Is that even possible? Evolving the catalog into a such a design would certain help move the catalog beyond the “find” and into the  “identify,” “select”  and “obtain” aspects called for by IFLA. As evolution of the catalog progressed, it might even lead into AI interfaces (anyone remember Ms. Dewey?) that could react and respond to each patron’s personal search queries and information needs. I can see a more interactive interface like this especially important/applicable to arts users, who generally tend to prefer human interaction over self-guided traditional catalog navigation.

If these lofty ideas are not possible (or should I say “feasible”, because I have no doubts that such things are possible, but perhaps not for libraries) then how can we bridge that gap? If catalogs truly aren’t designed to work like reference librarians or Google information searches, then it’s not fair to patrons who have that impression and expectation. It should be on us to make it clear that the catalog is a list of what the library holds and nothing more. Maybe we need to start referring to it as an “inventory” rather than a catalog? I don’t know. What I do know is that as long as patrons continue to expect reference answers from their catalog queries, they will continue to be disappointed.



Once upon a time, about 2 weeks ago, a friend of mine posted an interesting link on Facebook to a post from the Illinois Poison Control Center blog. It’s called “A Day in the Life of a Poison Center,” and the entry is simply a chronicle of every single call and inquiry the center received on a given day: February 10, 2010. The center received 282 calls and abbreviated each one to a 1-2 sentence anonymized summary which was listed in the blog as it occurred.

The day-in-the-life blogathon was motivated by state funding cuts to the poison control center (surprise, surprise). By listing tangible, concrete examples of the services they provide, the poison control center effectively demonstrates value and return on investment to the community–I mean, isn’t saving a life worth a little bit of state financial aid?

But whether or not they intended to, the poison control bloggers demonstrated more that just why the center needs funding–they also clearly demonstrated exactly what their staff do all day and why it’s important to have trained, specialty professionals handling those tasks.

Let’s say your child just drank some drain cleaner. Who do you want answering your questions: a professionally certified poison specialist with training in toxicology, or some random, minimum-wage worker hired off of Craig’s List?* Sure, we can save money by hiring less qualified staff–and we might need to after being subjected to drastic funding cuts. But is it worth it?

Reading through the summaries, I learned lots of things I never knew or realized about poison control centers before. I had no idea that EMTs and ER doctors and nurses consulted poison control centers for information and advice–or that such a high percentage of calls to the poison control center were from those sources. I guess I always just assumed poison control centers were designed for end-consumer, average individual use. It certainly makes sense, though–I can’t expect an EMT or ER staff or general physician to be familiar with highly detailed, in-depth specialty knowledge about the immense amounts and varieties of poisonous substances that exist in the world. It’s critical that they call someone with specialty knowledge of the subject–people’s lives depend on it.

Now, I might be biased and it might be a stretch to say that librarians save lives,** especially in the same direct ways and methods as poison control specialists. But the two situations seem to me to have much more similarities than differences: they both fulfill information needs from reliable sources.They both require specialized knowledge and training to perform this task. Their job duties are both often misunderstood by the general public and they both suffer from funding cuts–from tax money that comes from that same public. The Illinois Poison Control Center publically documented every single question they received in a given day in a direct attempt to  change the former in order to change the latter. What if we did the same thing with library reference questions? Could it help show exactly how we help unite people with the critical information they need and answer that annoying age-old question: “why do you need a master’s degree to be a librarian?”

*(Now, I realize that’s a bit blunter and more cut-and-dried than the real world, where often times people without degrees and certifications can still hold expert knowledge, and people who hold those qualification can still be ignorant. But in general, there’s a reason such degrees and qualifications and standards exist, and the poison control center is an excellent example.)

**Just for the record, I totally and utterly do believe that librarians save lives. It’s not as hands-on direct as doctors and EMTs, but getting the right information to people is just as critical and often has the power to affect life decisions of all levels of significance. If I didn’t truly believe that, I probably wouldn’t be a librarian.



As some of you know, I’ve been lobbying for quite a while for new ILS/catalog software for our  library. Lobbying hard, considering our current state. I feel like we’ve made some successful progress: we had a great library staff committee to evaluate potential commercial software packages, and once we decided on our top choice and presented it to the director and the administration, the response was positive. However, at approximately the same time, the world decided to have some sort of Giant Economic Crisis, and despite the fact that it may truly be an unnecessary precaution for our institution, all software budgets were frozen until the beginning of FY2010. Not to worry though—I’ve been assured it’s our #1 top priority the minute the 2010 budget opens up. But I’m not exactly holding my breath here. What can I say? I’m frustrated that this project—in the works for several years now, since shortly after I first began working here—might be put off yet again, not just because I’m annoyed by delays or buget frustrations, but because I can’t understand why something so intrinsic to improving patron experience and access success seems to be so inconsequential to the powers that be. So it goes.

While I’m perfectly satisfied with the out-of-the-box product we’ve chosen and I have no doubts it will more than fulfill our current needs, some part of my mind can’t help wonder what a catalog for our patrons might be like if we could design it ourselves, from scratch, to specifically meet our patrons’ unique needs, rather than settling for the best pre-made system that addresses most of them in a traditional library way. Because I’ve never quite been sold on the idea that a traditional “library catalog” interface would be the best discovery tool for our students.

I’ve thought about this on and off ever since the RFP was but a twinkle in my eye, but Karen Schneider’s post about the shift from the “librarian-centric” to “developer-centric” model brought it back to mind:

Librarians do bring terrific skills to the table. We have a strong service orientation. We are practical. We understand what these products must do, and we have a firm grasp on timelines and calendars. We also have an appreciation for order, governance, and transparency. But we simply don’t (yet) have the core competencies to do what we did one hundred years ago — design, build, and manage our own tools.  We lost our way several decades ago, and we need to acknowledge that we can’t get out of this forest on our own.

If I could sit down today and start from scratch, and not base the design on previous library catalogs, I have an idea for how I’d like our catalog to function. Instead of title/author/subject based searches and entries, I imagine a browseable subject hierarchy. The opening screen displays visual representations (i.e. images instead of and/or in addition to text) of maybe the top ten or so popular research subjects that hour, day, etc. There might be a Google-esque search box, not the focus of the screen but certainly available for those with more specific needs or interest in topics not readily apparent. But overall, a simple, clean, un-cluttered, uncomplicated design.

pencil sketch of an idea of a new catalog interface

Please excuse the poor quality of my sketches—just because I work at an arts-related library doesn’t make me an artist. :) My original plan was to jerryrig some screenshots and do some fancy Photoshop work, but I kept running out of time and putting if off, and finally decided that my crappy sketches got the idea across and were better than nothing. Sorry about the bleed-through, but I'm a proponent of recycled paper.

Clicking on a subject (either from the home screen or after a search) does not take the user directly to a list of materials, but rather an authority page for the subject. Not a library-jargoned authority file like an LC authority record, but more like a Wikipedia-esque page with some basic info about the subject. A basic biography, birth/death dates, what they are famous or known for if a personal subject (like, say, Christian Dior);  a brief definition or explanatory information for a topical subject, such as Art Deco. Beneath this brief info, the screen would offer materials results: books, articles, DVDs, images, and other references (links to designers’ websites, contact information for design companies, etc.).

sketch of new catalog interface--second level screen

I think the subject focus would appeal to our students, and a page design reminiscent of a familiar site like Wikipedia would ease use. I think it would be more in touch with our patron demographic, both in their information-seeking behavior and their technology literacy.

Apparently other people agree with me, too, because while I was spending time writing this entry and putting off sketching, I happened across this fantastic blog post about concept-oriented catalogs which shares some of the same ideas (right down to the Wikipedia analogy) as this post I’m writing now.

So why isn’t our library’s catalog like this?

Because I can’t build it. I’m a librarian, not a computer programmer. As many of us are, and, as Karen Schneider notes, to our own disadvantage. I can understand my patrons’ information needs and behavior, and I can figure out how to organize and present that information to them in a findable way. I know what to do, I just don’t know how to manifest it. How, then, can we take the next step, from concept to creation?



I often get asked, both in blog comments and in real life, how I got started in library science and cataloging. Also, the Library Routes Project has been making the rounds in the blogosphere, and so I figured it was about time I posted something about how I got to where I am today (even though I might not always be sure where that is…)

Once upon a time, there was a girl who had a job making trophies. (As with most of my parables, the girl is, of course, me.) I was working for a promotional products company, doing graphic design for all sorts of tchotckes and etching crystal paperweights with company logos. In the spring of 2005, I was let go from my job there. I started applying for teaching positions (both of my parents had been teachers and I had some related experience) but the schooling required to acquire a teaching credential did not appeal to me. At all. In fact, many people suggested that I go back to school, and I was having none of it: I hated sitting in classrooms, I hated the inherent bureaucracy of higher education, I hated the time investment to acquire a piece of paper that I wasn’t really interested in acquiring in the first place, only because it was mandatory for the job. I’d spent some time in my undergraduate days working my way up the chain of retail bookstores, and while I enjoyed it greatly, I knew that retail was not a lucrative career path, especially one I would enjoy.

One of my friends who was pressing me to return to school suggested library science. I explained, all the reasons above and more, why I in no way, shape or form, wanted to go to grad school. He then sent me a link to a list of course descriptions from the University of Denver’s MLIS program. The page is different now, but I can still picture what it looked like when I read it for that first time. One of the first descriptions I read was for a class called “Online Searching.” I read that description and thought, “Hey, I Google-stalk people all the time, and I like it and I’m pretty good at it. You’re telling me there’s a class where I can learn to do this kind of thing even better?!?” I remember thinking how amazing that class sounded, that I didn’t even care about a degree or any sort of higher accomplishment–I wanted to take that class not only because it sounded interesting, but because it sounded fun.

I wanted to start so badly that I applied to the two local(-ish) programs that would let me start the earliest, that coming spring (Denver and San Jose State University, just for the record). The other feasible schools only accepted students to start in the fall of the following year, and I didn’t want to wait that long. I figured if I didn’t get accepted at the first two, then I would have time to improve and reapply for the later-starting ones.

In the meantime, I applied for a circulation assistant position at a fashion design school. Unfortunately, I didn’t get that job, but the head librarian at the time asked me if I might be interested in a temporary position for a few months while one of the circulation staff was out on maternity leave. I knew that a temp job could easily be a foot in the door, and even if it wasn’t, temporary work was better than none, so I took it. My very first project was organizing a collection of vintage sewing patterns. I thought it was a perfect task for me at the time simply because I was familiar with the major pattern companies and brands, as well as 20th century fashion and styles. It was easy for me to sort the patterns into women’s, men’s and children’s wear, then groups by decade and then alphabetically by name of pattern company and numerically by design number. Looking back, it’s clear to me that it wasn’t just the fashion familiarity at work–it was also the innate tendency to sort, classify, and organize those materials, to group like things together, and to base the method of organization on the inherent characteristics of the materials of that specific collection.

Thankfully, I was accepted at both of the schools to which I applied.  I ended up choosing SJSU’s distance program because I had just been offered a permanent full-time position at the library, mainly copy-cataloging books from the vintage collection and building preservational boxes for them. By this time, upon suggestion of the head librarian, I had just read Cataloging and Classification for Library Technicians. I still think it’s one of the best introductory texts available.

I don’t remember when I learned about MARC, or Dublin Core, or AACR2r, or LCSH, or any of those things. To me, it’s like learning how to read–I don’t remember a time before, I don’t remember the actual learning, it’s just something that I’ve always been able to do, something that I’ve always been aware of. I do remember starting the MLIS program in the spring making sure to take the prerequisite course for cataloging, since I would need to take beginning cataloging over the summer if I wanted to take advanced cataloging in the fall (the only semester it was offered). So even before I started my first semester, I already knew that cataloging was the area I wanted to study. I remember taking the introductory library science course, which included assignments like an annotated webliography and a summary of job trends in a particular area of library science. I think these assignments were designed to help students explore different areas of focus in libraries and information science. While other people wrote about law libraries for one assignment and reference for another, I wrote every single one of my assignments focused on cataloging.

I took a lot of classes in information organization and architecture, but I also took quite a few courses in archives. It wasn’t just that I was interested in crazy old stuff and personal papers (although that was certainly part of it), but I was also interested in the organization of these unique, one-of-a-kind collections. Like the vintage pattern collection that was my very first library project, archival collections come with their own organization issues, and it’s always been more interesting to me to puzzle out the best ways to organize things, rather than simply following a strict set of inflexible rules–especially when they can’t apply.

After a year of copy-cataloging for the vintage collection, I started copy-cataloging for the general collection at large, and then eventually handling the cataloging (copy and original) of all the library’s materials, as well as attempting to formalize policies and procedures for cataloging across the library’s four campus branches and starting a campaign to migrate to a new ILS.

In my final semester of graduate school, I applied for an additional job keywording images for a graphic design company. Image cataloging was an area that interested me, but also seemed to be one of those areas where you need the experience to get the jobs, but you can’t get the experience without previous jobs. A representative of the company spoke to my vocabulary design class and I was intrigued by the company’s controlled vocabulary, especially the use of natural language and user search terminology. I kept my eyes on their employment page and submitted my application the minute a position opened up. I mention this job specifically because I distinctly remember the posting describing the types of people wanted for such a position:

“Successful Keyworders are highly organized. Many have backgrounds in library science. Some even claim to enjoy alphabetizing their CD collections.”

Yes, I saved the posting. (Remember, I did study archives.) The thing that caught my attention was the bit about alphabetizing CD collections. Because that was me. Literally. Not only did I like to alphabetize my CDs, I liked to pull them all off the shelf and re-alphabetize them, or put them into genre categories, or by artist, just for fun. Yes, this was a hobby of mine. I’m not ashamed to disclose my lack of popularity or party girl status.

It’s a pretty roundabout story of how I came to be a cataloger, and while I can put my finger on the moment I knew I wanted to study library science, the exact moment when I decided that cataloging and information organization would be my focal point isn’t exactly clear. Looking back, I sometimes can’t believe I didn’t figure it out sooner. But I list all these bits of experiences here because they are not only what made me a cataloger, but what made me the cataloger I am, with my background and perspectives and opinions, where they come from, and why.

 



I know it’s barely Thanksgiving, but time is going by so fast that it feels like it’s practically 2010 already. It’s going to be here before we know it.

According to the current issue of Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 2010 has been dubbed “The Year of Cataloging Research.” I’d heard rumors of this at ALA, but forgot about it until I saw it mentioned again yesterday.

Oddly enough, yesterday was also the day I met with our head of institutional research to discuss surveying library users about findability of materials in the library. Coincidence?

Remember the proposal I submitted for library reclassification? I got a green light to proceed, and it specifically included assessment as one of the first steps. We’re working on designing a short survey for faculty and students about how easy or hard it is for them to find books, DVDs, magazines, and other research materials in the libraries. If all goes according to plan, the survey will be distributed to faculty in late January 2010, and will appear to students via the online student portal in mid-February.

I’m so excited! I can hardly wait to see the responses. I have gut instincts and observational experiences that color my expectations of the results. But like Carlyle says in her editorial, “we need to have real evidence for the claims we want to make.” I’m so very interested to see what our library users really think, instead of just doing my best to made educated guesses from experience and observation. 

Is it really just coincidence that we’re going to be starting off 2010 with some cataloging research of our own? Well, probably. But I’m gonna milk it anyway, for all it’s worth.



{September 9, 2009}   proposal

I went on vacation for a week last week. Before I left, I submitted a proposal  to our library director about researching and implementing a new classification system, one more in line with our students’ needs and behaviors. I suspect from his response–no comments but passing it on to some of the other librarians for review– that he doesn’t really understand what I’m talking about (despite my attempts to use small words).

It was easy to not think about it while I was away, but now that I’m back, I’m kinda nervous. I think that most of the librarians will support it–two of them looked it over and supported the idea before I even submitted it, and I’ve been talking to another about this on and off since the spring. And if it doesn’t move forward, I know it’s not the end of the world–I’d be disappointed, but it’s not like I don’t have plenty of other projects I could work on. I’m just not a big fan of the not-knowing.



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.



et cetera