From the catalogs of babes

{May 20, 2010}   SOS: save our stacks

Man, I had a great segue of posts lined up for this week, with ideas that flowed into and built on one another, and then Donald A. Barclay had to go and write this.

It’s an article from American Libraries magazine (the online edition–I didn’t see it in the print issue) called “The Myth of Browsing,” and it purports that browsing the physical stacks  should not be a priority in the contemporary academic library. And with all due respect, I say “bull sh*t.”

Barclay offers a number of reasons why browsing need not be supported. First off, he claims that the physical stack browsing that current scholars feel is a historical precedent is actually false–public access to physically browse stacks is a relatively recent (20th century) concept. To this I say: so what? So what if it’s a new idea? Should we always do things the way they were done in the past? Should we take away OPACs and return to card catalogs–OPACs have even less historical precedence than shelf browsing. Oh, and let’s do away with full-text access in scholarly databases, too–that’s only been around, what, maybe 20 years? Just because something wasn’t done throughout the entirely of library history does not mean it’s incorrect or wrong–in fact, it’s quite possibly a positive innovation, and, in the case of public browsing, I think it’s been wildly successful.

Barclay also tries to shoot holes in the ‘serendipitous discovery’ valued by some researchers (especially in the humanities, and, near and dear to my heart, the arts). He tries to claim that because every resource in existence in the entire world cannot physically be on a shelf in a library to browse, that patrons are missing out, like “hitting the sale tables on day three of a three day sale.” Again, I must disagree. Of course we cannot offer every existing resource on a shelf at any given time, and yes, this will reduce some discovery possibilities. But aren’t our collections tailored to best serve our patron groups? Do not arts libraries acquire what they feel to be the best selection of books and resources for their clientele, while law libraries choose the best resources for their patrons, and so on? Yes, we must make choices, and yes, that mean perhaps choosing one resource over another and only offering selected books on the shelf. But isn’t that our job as librarians? Isn’t that what we are supposed to do, and what people rely on us for? Collection development and management are key components of professional librarianship, and to offer a collection of every resource in the known universe rather than a carefully tailored collection targeting user group needs, would be unsuccessful, and in my opinion, unprofessional. And at least with some resources on the shelves, something can be found, even if it’s only selected from a few dozen titles rather than every book in the world.  If resources are removed completely (say, to off-site storage as mentioned in the article) then nothing can be selected by browsing, and I personally think something is better than nothing at all. He also tries to claim that browsing is counterproductive due to issues with classification schema, but to me that reflects more on the appropriateness of the schema to the particular library. Regular readers of my blog know that I may be biased in this area, but I think such issues should motivate research into the library’s classification success (or lack thereof), even the success of the furniture design (as Barclay notes, books are more likely to be browsed at eye-level than on the top or bottom shelves out of view).

But what about digital access and browsing? Surely if we remove all those books off-site, people will be able to search and browse the library catalog digitally and find materials that way, right? This is Barclay’s claim–except he doesn’t mention libraries. He’s certainly keen to cite‘s “rich browsing experience” and how “so many of today’s academic library users routinely start by looking up books via bookstore websites.” He himself is saying it right here–library catalogs currently cannot and do not support the browsing needs of library users. Until we can offer the same sort of browsing and findability experiences digitally that library users can get from browsing the stacks, we are in no position to be removing stacks browsing access from our libraries. Now, I may be delusional, but I have optimistic hopes that the day will come when library catalogs are more robust and user-friendly than commercial book websites. But until that happens, we should not be putting our eggs in the basket of Amazon and other external sites and vendors over whose fate we have no control.

Finally, Barclay claims that large physical book collections have become an “unsustainable luxury.” I don’t inherently disagree with this. But why are the unsustainable? Because we’ve made them so. Perhaps better management and strategic planning, with a focus on sustaining physical collections, would alleviate this issue. As for luxuries–indeed, large book collections are luxuries. That’s what attracts people to them–it’s a luxury that most people cannot afford on their own. Libraries are luxury, that’s part of what they’re designed for. They are a luxury of civilized, educated societies, which we need to offer if that’s what we purport to be. And again, from the way I see it from behind my rose-colored glasses, if it’s a luxury people want, they will say so. Which is exactly what they did at Syracuse, and what prompted Barclay’s article. Which brings me to my final (and biggest) beef with Barclay’s piece: here are library users stepping up and saying what they want and value about the library–in this case, physical stacks to browse and a hallowed environment in which to study–and yet Barclay throws everything in his arsenal against it. He sees library users saying in no uncertain terms what they want, and yet he argues against it. No wonder librarians get a bad rap; no wonder people sometimes see us as snooty, uptight traditionalists who push our ways on people because we assume that we know better. Now, I understand that users may not always know what they want, or even what might work best for them, but we’re certainly not doing anyone any favors by shoving that down their throats and blatantly arguing against supporting their needs and wants.

I don’t know much, but I do know this: people want physical spaces to browse print materials and immerse themselves in the traditional atmosphere that occurs only when in the presence of a large number of books. I believe they want it so much, that someday, when all these libraries have taken it away from them in favor of digital access and offsite bunker storage, I will open a space for them where they can come and browse and smell and take in the atmosphere. Maybe if I’m nice I won’t even charge them for it. On certain holidays and every fifth Tuesday of the month.

ps> Way to go, American Libraries, for not allowing comments on the article.

{December 4, 2009}   3rd time’s the charm(?)

As if the other instances of fame this week weren’t enough, this blog has also apparently been citied in the recent issue of Cataloging & Classification Quarterly (Issue 8, 2009).  It’s in a new(?) column(?) called “Cataloging Blogs.” Thanks to David of Catalogablog for pointing it out to me.

It’s under the “Research and Opinion” section, as well it should be, as the tone of the piece seems quite a bit opinionated against blogs to me. I’m not sure if that’s really there or something I’m reading into it. I almost wish it was a reviewed piece instead. I confess I’m a little disappointed to see this piece given the green light for inclusion in CCQ.

Had the piece been reviewed, maybe there wouldn’t have been typos in both the title of my blog (the article calls it “From the catalog of babes” when it is in fact “From the catalogs of babes”) and the description (“An unfashionable cataloger takes on the fashion library” vs. the correct “An unfashionable cataloger takes on a fashion library”). Not to mention the repeated references to “Technocrati”–it’s Technorati, folks. Yeah, I know, these are really minor errors. But I am, after all, a cataloger–it’s my job to notice these differences. What if this were the transcription of a book title in a bibliographic record? I’d like to think someone affiliated with cataloging would have a little more attention to detail. The typo in the title bothers me more than the description, because the URL for the blog includes the “s” in “catalogs.” (Thankfully, the URL is correct in the list provided.) I’m a little surprised (and, I admit, disappointed) that these errors slipped through the publication process, of a traditionally respectable peer-reviewed journal about cataloging, no less. These omissions and misrepresentations lend an air of misinformation and prejudice to this piece that lower the journal’s claim to preeminent scholarly publication in the field.

But it’s more than just the typos that bother me. I feel like the author (who is not listed, so I can’t tell if it’s  Mary Curran or someone else)is trying to hold me up as a young person who still chooses old technology.

One of the newest cataloging blogs on the block, From the catalog [sic] of babes, started in December 2008 by a recent MLIS graduate seems to suggest that even young catalogers continue subscribing to AUTOCAT and other cataloging listservs and read them along with cataloguing blog posts.

But if the author had read back though my blog, he or she would see that I severely dislike the listerv format utilized by AUTOCAT et. al., and that I rarely actually read or contribute. Since I published that post, I’m excited to see good use of Twitter for instantaneous cataloging q & a and I think it’s only a matter of time before a major migration to better, easier, more-user-friendly technologies occurs. The author also cites an “in your face” factor as a reason people might prefer listservs over blogs, but that’s exactly one reason why I prefer blogs. He or she only seems to describe this as a negative feature, when I actually find it useful and beneficial to read articles and writings when and where I choose, rather than be forced to constantly recon with them in my inbox. Again, as I said in my post linked above, I think it comes down to each person’s personal preference, and systems should let the user choose his or her preferred method of delivery and access, a metaphor not unanalagous to libraries at large.

The author states that “AUTOCAT and the specialist cataloging listservs have become the authoritative sites to publish cataloguing news, studies, events, etc.” I’d like to emphasize the words “have become.” They didn’t start out that way, and they didn’t get to that position overnight, and neither will blogs. The author is looking at a mere two years of blogs (since 2007) which cannot hope to compare to the years AUTOCAT and other listservs have had to evolve into the authoritative resources they are today. The author also states (sans cites or statistics) that “repetition is more notable in blogs than it is with listserv cross-postings,” which is counter to my own personal observations at least–I see much more crossposting between AUTOCAT, RADCAT, and NGC4LIB than I ever do on all the cataloging blogs I read (43, btw, and that doesn’t count more general library blogs that also include cataloging topics). In fact, I’d venture to say that blogs are inclined to be less repetitive because of the very “personal rumination and occasionally ranting and whining” that the author disparages. To me, that’s what makes blogs unique and interesting, and very different from one to the next.

The author also assumes a “generational issue” in preferring blogs over listervs, and seems to assume that because I received my MLIS recently in 2008 that I am one of those new-fangled young librarians. But at this point, I ain’t that young anymore, in terms of generations. I’m not Generation Y. I am not a millennial. Nor am I a digital native, although I did grow up with technology moreso than many of my educational peers simply becuase my parents were both heavily interested and invested in technology and computers. But I remember learning cursive handwriting and sending letters to pen pals via “snailmail” before that term even exisited. I used typewriters and even wrote some school essays on college-rule paper with black pens. I remember a time before email and cell phones, maybe not as long as some others in the profession, but I didn’t grow up exposed to them like many current youth entering the profession. I was around when listservs were first new and the best technology around for the job. But I’m also around now, for new and improved technologies. And I’m not one of those young whippersnappers who went to grad school straight after finishing my BA. While I’m certainly not “old guard,” I spent 5 years in retail books and 4 years doing graphic design before it even occurred to me to consider libraries as a place to work, much less as a career. I’m proud to say that much of the insights I gained through both those areas of employment experience color my views on libraries, cataloging, and findability. I’m new to libraries, but not to user experiences.

I respect the author’s opinions and I certainly won’t complain about the exposure. I’m not even sure why an author so seemingly set against the value of blogs would bother to write such a piece. But regardless of the author’s motivations, I am glad to see blogs starting to be taken a little more seriously as professional resources and literature. So yeah, I’m glad for the citation, but I’m also thankful it’s only an opinion piece. Because we all know what they say about opinions…everybody has one. Sometimes I’m even known to have more than my share.

et cetera