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1. So I had a dream last night where Lorcan Dempsey had a really good idea that I want to riff on

So I had a dream last night where Lorcan Dempsey had a really good idea that I want to riff on. Of course, it was "dream Lorcan" who got my mind rolling which I guess is essentially me and not him. Which is weird. I also don't believe this idea is really new, though at the moment I can't lay my brain on exactly where it is being discussed, at least in the way I'm thinking about it. (Please show me those places if I don't know about them or learned about them and have forgotten all but the nugget of their ideas, which obviously I'm appropriating just now.) I'm not sure what this all says about me, but that's never stopped me in the past from just going ahead and talking, so here we are. I've also been fixated on this idea enough that I'm writing this pre-coffee and pre-the rest of my usual weekend wake up routine, so we'll see how that goes. Moving on now.

I've recently switched jobs within libraryland (loving the new one, thanks!), and am not doing on the ground metadata work any more. It was time for a shift, though I do definitely miss working with metadata issues. But that shift has given me some distance to reflect more on the overall state of the library metadata landscape. In this dream, I was setting up at table in the front of the room for some conference or another. The session was a good ways away from starting, and for a while it was only the other speaker and me in the room. We were supposed to be presenting about really big picture issues in libraries, and we were chatting a bit about what we were going to say, about the overall dearth of big ideas in libraries (especially in metadata), and about our own personal insecurities about what we were about to say in the session. Enter Lorcan. He heard us, and entered the conversation. He had some amazing ideas that the other speaker wrote down and said "oh, great, I should definitely talk about that!" Of course, since this was a dream, I have no recollection of what those were, but in the dream they were brilliant, trust me. And then he said it. "You know, we really need professional help."

What dream Lorcan meant by that is that libraries are entering new areas of work, trying out new ideas, and talking the big talk about interoperating beyond our borders, but that were really not very good at all about truly working with others outside of our own culture to do this, or to do anything beyond us taking inspiration from something going on outside then working only inside to try to appropriate them. And, in my opinion, that's a problem.

Of course we want to take ideas from elsewhere and make them our own. And of course, "we" understand our culture, mission, goals, ideals, etc., so we need to be core players in adopting ideas from other communities, and in many cases we can indeed do it on our own. But this idea has me thinking doing that alone for some critical ideas is too insular an approach. Much of library culture is good, but not all of it is. Sometimes when we try to work on ideas and services from other communities we corrupt them in ways that we really shouldn't. Sometimes when we adopt an idea to work for our core values and vision we also impose some of our baggage on that idea. And we need someone to call us on that, but there's nobody that doesn't have that baggage close enough to do it.

I see library metadata as a prime example of this problem. Take the RDA Vocabularies work (aka "try to turn RDA into something that allows library metadata to interoperate outside libraries.") [1]. There's a core team of great people working on this that really understand the issues from the library perspective, and are able to think beyond many of the constraints libraries place on ourselves. I share their frustration with the lack of engagement in this aspect of RDA within the library community, and with them desperately seek ways to raise awareness within libraries of the issues raised by this work. However, the work is being done by library people learning about other

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2. Visualization of the Metadata Universe

I know, I know, this poor blog is basically abandoned. I really do want to find more time to spend on it. But in the meantime, I wanted to post here an announcement I just sent out to a bunch of places. I'm pretty excited about this!

The sheer number of metadata standards in the cultural heritage sector is overwhelming, and their inter-relationships further complicate the situation. A new resource, Seeing Standards: A Visualization of the Metadata Universe, , is intended to assist planners with the selection and implementation of metadata standards. Seeing Standards is in two parts: (1) a poster-sized visualization plotting standards based on their applicability in a variety of contexts, and (2) a glossary of metadata standards in either poster or pamphlet form.

Each of the 105 standards listed is evaluated on its strength of application to defined categories in each of four axes: community, domain, function, and purpose. Standards more strongly allied with a category are displayed towards the center of each hemisphere, and those still applicable but less strongly allied are displayed along the edges. The strength of a standard in a given category is determined by a mixture of its adoption in that category, its design intent, and its overall appropriateness for use in that category.

The standards represented are among those most heavily used or publicized in the cultural heritage community, though certainly not all standards that might be relevant are included. A small set of the metadata standards plotted on the main visualization also appear as highlights above the graphic. These represent the most commonly known or discussed standards for cultural heritage metadata.

Work preparing Seeing Standards was supported by a professional development grant from the Indiana University Libraries. Content was developed by Jenn Riley, Metadata Librarian in the Indiana University Digital Library Program. Design work was performed by Devin Becker of the Indiana University School of Library and Information Science, and soon to be Digital Initiatives & Scholarly Communications Librarian at the University of Idaho.

I hope this resource proves to be helpful to those working with metadata standards in libraries, archives, museums, and other cultural heritage institutions.

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3. Completely backwards

Emails, blog posts, and tweets are flying by regarding OCLC's recent message to OAI-PMH data providers asking them to agree to a set of Terms & Conditions allowing OCLC to include data harvested via OAI-PMH in both free and toll services that OCLC provides. We do love our drama in the library community!

I agree with the predominant theme that this has all been handled very poorly, but I think the biggest problem lies somewhere else entirely. OCLC has set this whole system up completely backwards. OAI-PMH is a mechanism to share metadata widely, without having 1:1 agreements between data providers and service providers (harvesters). The entire point is to reduce the overhead of sharing. OCLC asking each data provider to check their status and preferences against OCLC's ideal is the wrong way 'round! The way this really should be done is with data providers making clear statements about what can and can't be done (per both copyright and license) with the metadata they're sharing. And, oh, look, OAI-PMH, already lets data providers do that.

To be fair, there's lots of data provider software out there that doesn't support this optional part of the profile. Still others are using software that provides for this but they don't go to the effort to use it. My own repository doesn't have this mechanism in place. (Working on it, I promise!) But this really is the way it has to be for any kind of open data initiative to work. I as a data provider put my metadata (and content if I can!) up, make it clear what copyright terms apply and what license terms I place on its use, and let the sharing begin. The burden must be on the service provider (or harvester, OCLC/OAIster in this case) to determine if the use they want to put the data to conforms with my terms. Service providers should bear the load of managing multiple data providers - it's part of the work they have to do to set up the service. If they want the free stuff, they have to do the work to figure out if their efforts are kosher. OCLC must be responsible for protecting themselves from lawsuits stemming from their use of stuff they're not supposed to, rather than transferring that responsibility to us as data providers.

But I have to temper the other side of this too. I was a member of the group that developed this set of recommendations, urging data providers not to put undue restrictions over reuse of their metadata. I really believe this is the right way to go. Of course we as data providers are sometimes under legal (copyright, contract, etc.) constraints that limit what we can do with our metadata. We have to honor those agreements. But for the vast majority of our stuff, we can share without restriction if we choose to. Giving up control is part of sharing, and we have to learn to live with that. Blessing certain uses and banning others is a dangerous business, and one that doesn't mix very well with the open sharing of information libraries are all about. As the Creative Commons recently found, even "non-commercial use" isn't a very straightforward issue, so I don't think it serves us well to fall back on that old standby. Freedom is about taking the inevitable small amounts of bad with the overwhelming good, and I really do believe those principles apply to information sharing as well. Let's spend our efforts on sharing more and better information, and less on metering out what we do have.

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4. Thoughts on FRSAD

I don't usually publish my individual comments on things sent out for review within our community, but I've decided to make an exception for the FRSAD report. I'm actively working with a FRBR implementation (and trying to take in as much of FRAD as we can), and anything I can do to help push FRSAD (FRSAR? what's in a name? ha - there's got to be a FRAD joke in there somewhere...) to be useful to the work I'm doing I see as a good thing. So here are the comments I sent in through official channels.

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In short, I think good work has been done here but it doesn't meet my needs as someone working diligently (and actively implementing FRBR and FRAD) to re-imagine discovery systems in libraries.

While I am a great believer in the power of user studies to inform metadata models, I believe inappropriate conclusions have been drawn here. It doesn't surprise me at all that users had trouble sorting actual subjects into categories such as concept, object, event, place. But that doesn't mean our models shouldn’t make that distinction. Users wouldn't be able to distinguish between Work/Expression/Manifestation/Item, either, but those are still useful entities for us to use underlying our systems.

The draft report rightly notes that the concept/object/event/place division is only one way of looking at it, that other divisions such as those outlined by Ranganathan and the framework (which seems to be basically abandoned?). But that's the very essence of a *model* - to pick one of many possible representations and go with it, in order to achieve a purpose. The fact that competing interpretations are possible is not a rationale for abandoning selecting one that can advance the purpose of the model (even taken together with user studies showing users don’t gravitate to any one specific division). By choosing concept/object/event/place (or Ranganathan's model, or , or any other option) we can delve deeper into the modeling we need to do and provide a way forward for our discovery systems. By refusing to do so, we don't advance our case the way we must.

The thema/nomen structure outlined here is very useful. However, I believe strongly the report should not stop here. Going further is often stated here as "implementation dependent" but I think there is a great deal of room for the conceptual model to grow without venturing into actual implementations. Certainly FRBR and FRAD take that approach.

In general, the thema/nomen structure could apply to any attribute or relationship under vocabulary control. There is great (and unfortunately here unexplored) potential for this model to apply beyond simply aboutness. Limiting it in this way I believe is a disservice to those of us who are attempting to use these models to reinvent discovery systems.

I'm concerned about the significant lack of cohesion between the FRBR, FRAD, and FRSAR reports. They show their nature of independently generated by different groups with different interests over a long span of time. This limitation definitely needs to be overcome if these reports are to be useful as a whole for the community. Each could be used on its own, but we need a more coherent group. In fact, the thema/nomen structure in the FRSAD draft isn't really all that different than the (whatever entity)/name structure presented in FRAD. Much greater cohesion of the three reports could be made - what's written here seems to ignore FRAD in particular. I believe this is a missed opportunity. I think the most significant mismatch between the three reports is where they draw the boundary for how far a "conceptual model" should go.

On a higher level note, the report reads more as an academic paper outlining alternative options rather than providing a straightforward definition of the conceptual model. I respect the background work done here, and believe it needs to be done. There's a lot of room for papers like that in this environment; however, this report series needs to serve practitioners better and stick closer to the model.

On a more practical note, in the report the Getty AAT is often referred to by example. Yet most of the facets in the AAT bring out the "isness" (which in the introduction is explicitly described as out of scope) rather than "ofness" or "aboutness". For example, on p. 45, #7 under "select," "ale glass" in AAT is intended to be used for works of art that ARE ale glasses, not works (presumably textual) that are ABOUT ale glasses. This internal inconsistency is a serious flaw in the report.

I'm certainly not one to promote precoordinated vocabularies, but they exist in library metadata and we must deal with them. It's unclear to me from this report how these fit into the model proposed.

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5. DLF Aquifer Metadata Working Group "Lessons Learned" report available

That moment when a long-term project comes to an end is always simultaneously filled with relief and sadness. Relief in that new opportunities can be embraced and a pretty package placed around what was accomplished, with appropriate rationales for what didn't make its way into the package. Sadness in that productive and creative working relationships come to a close or change, and that there is always more to be done that cannot for practical reasons be embarked upon at this time.

The Digital Library Federation's Aquifer initiative wrapped up this spring, and causes me to experience that moment of relief and sadness. (Well, to be honest, several moments!) I've been involved with Aquifer from the beginning, and during that time my relationship with it evolved from skepticism to "just jump in and see what you can do" to "bite off one reasonable chunk of a problem and do your best to make this chunk work with other chunks." A report the Metadata Working Group just released, "Advancing the State of the Art in Distributed Digital Libraries: Accomplishments of and Lessons Learned from the Digital Library Federation Aquifer Metadata Working Group," reflects that last approach, attempting to place our work in an ever-evolving context. There is much more that could have been done, and the limitations and benefits of a volunteer committee to do work like this is more evident to me now than ever. Nevertheless, I'm proud of the work this group did. Congratulations to all involved on sucessfully navigating through our many tasks.

The message I sent out about this report to various listservs included the following "thank you":

The Aquifer Metadata Working Group would like to thank all who have been involved with the initiative, including current and past Working Group members; the Aquifer American Social History Online project team; participants in ground-breaking precursor activities such as the DLF/NSDL OAI-PMH Best Practices; individuals and institutions who tested, implemented, and provided feedback on the Metadata Working Group's MODS Guidelines and other work products; and of course DLF for its ongoing support. It's been a wild, educational, and wholly enjoyable ride!
I can't state with enough gratitude the role the community has played in what the Aquifer Metadata Working Group was able to accomplish. I like to talk with those thinking of entering the digital library field just how much of our work is figuring it out as you go - we're constantly refining models to apply to new types of material and take advantage of new technologies. My absolute favorite part about working in this area is navigating the tricky path of effectively building on previous work while pushing the envelope at the same time. I hope the Aquifer Metadata Working Group's contributions continue to be useful as building blocks for a long time to come.

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6. Must Watch! Michael Edson: "Web Tech Guy and Angry Staff Person"

I heard Michael Edson (Director of Web and New Media Strategy for the Smithsonian) speak at the IMLS WebWise conference last week. He delivered an astonishingly good talk centering around an animation entitled "Web Tech Guy and Angry Staff Person." It's a riot, and the animation sets a lighthearted attitude that reinforces his disclaimer that he's not poking fun or diminishing the very real tensions cultural heritage institutions face as our communication, collection, and even the dreaded B-word (business!) models change underneath us. Instead, I believe it's effective in using exaggeration to highlight some underlying issues and think intelligently about what it takes to say we CAN do something rather than taking the easy road and saying no. We can't just dismiss the challenges - understanding them will help us address them.

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7. Google vs. Semantic Web

On a number of fronts recently I've been thinking a bunch about RDF, the DCMI Abstract Model, and the Semantic Web, all with an eye towards understanding these things more than I have in the past. I think I've made some progress, although I can't claim to fully grok any of these yet. One thing does occur to me, although it's probably a gross oversimplification. The difference in the Semantic Web/RDF approach from the, say, Google approach is this: is the robustness in the data or is it in the system?

The Semantic Web (et al) would like the data to be self-explanatory, to say itself explicitly what it is it is describing and with explicit reference to all the properties used in the description. The opposite end of the spectrum is systems like Google which assume some kind of intelligence went into the creation of the data but doesn't expect the data itself to explicitly manifest it. The approach of these systems is to reverse engineer that data, getting at the human intelligence that created it in the first place.

The difference is one of who is expected to to the work - the sytem encoding the data in the first place (Semantic Web approach) or the system decoding the data for use in a specific application. Both obviously present challenges, and it's not clear to me at this point which will "win." Maybe the "good enough and a person can go the last bit" approach really is appropriate - no system can be perfect! Or maybe as information systems evolve our standards for the performance of these systems will be raised to a degree where self-describing data is demanded. As a moderate, I guess I think both will probably be necessary for different uses. But which way will the library community go? Can we afford to have feet in both camps into the future?

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8. Wow.

This poor blog has been sorely neglected lately, and for that I apologize, both to you and to myself. Life has gotten a bit too crazy and I'm still trying to find a way to set some boundaries. But in the middle of several big work deadlines and several personal deadlines (including a 2000 mile road trip starting tomorrow, unexpectedly a day early!), I feel I have to take a minute to comment on this.

lcsh.info is no more.

Wow. I really don't know what to say. There's obviously a story behind this, and I know nothing of it. What I do know is that LC has been promising remote, machine-readable access to their authority files (SKOS is frequently mentioned, and if my memory serves being cited [indignantly] during the leadup to the release of the LC Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control as something LC is already working on, so stop harping on it already...) for YEARS now, but such a thing, as Ed notes, has not come to pass. Taken in the context of the recent controversy over the change in OCLC's record use policy, one has to wonder what's up.

I know our library universe is complex. The real world gets in the way of our ideals. (Sure I can share my code! Just let me find some time to clean it up first...) But at some point talk is just talk and action is something else entirely. So where are we with library data? All talk? Or will we take action too? If our leadership seems to be headed in the wrong direction, who is it that will emerge in their place? Does the momentum need to shift, and if so, how will we make this happen? Is this the opportunity for a grass-roots effort? I'm not sure the ones I see out there are really poised to have the effect they really need to have. So what next?

I mean, wow.

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9. This week's revalation

Too many interesting things going on, too little time to put them into words that others can read...

Something has been stewing in my head for a long time about RDA, and this week I'm at the OLAC/MOUG joint conference where the topic has come up a bit. RDA is supposed to be "made for the digital world." This is something I can completely get behind. But the drafts I've read (and I admit I gave up on them at some point, so maybe this has changed) don't seem to me that they're actually accomplishing that. It's the right goal, but the products I've seen don't meet it. And then it occurred to me: by "for the digital world" I think what the RDA folks actually mean is "catalog digital stuff" rather than "create data that can be used by machines as well as people." I'm interested in the latter, so that's what I was assuming they were interested in. But I'm now wondering if that assumption was false. If we have this problem with terminology for this long within our own profession, how in the world are we going to communicate effectively with others?

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10. I couldn't resist

I'm not one to participate in many blog memes, but seeing all the Wordle clouds out there, I just couldn't resist creating one for FRBR.


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11. LC statement on RDA

I've long been on the fence with regards to the development of RDA - is it a transformative event or total folly? I think I've finally come to the opinion that RDA is overall a positive thing, and that it represents a necessary (although of course not perfect) step forward in the ongoing evolution of libraries.

What got me thinking about these issues again was a recent letter from Deanna Marcum at LC explaining why LC was issuing a joint statement with the National Library of Medicine and the National Agricultural Library outlining a testing and decision-making plan for determining whether or not to fully implement RDA. The letter and statement essentially say that wide participation in RDA development is a Good Thing (tm), yet so is substantive evaluation of it. Not much to argue with there. (Well, we always do find something to argue about, don't we?)

The stated goals of RDA, as well as its scope and underlying principles, speak to me strongly. I like the idea of a content standard written with FRBR principles in mind. The goal of making library description interoperate better in the current information environment outside of libraries is of course a laudable one. In this way, just by clearly stating these and a handful of others as the rationale behind the work being done, we've made a significant step forward. We're responding to the world as it exists around us today.

The world is changing, though. The environment today won't be the environment tomorrow. There's no indication, and perhaps even no real hope, that what we decide today will be right in a year, three years, ten. That's a reality we have to face, and I've decided I'm in the camp that says we have to move forward anyways, analyzing the risk but not being afraid of it. Looking at RDA through this lens, will it meet the goals it has outlined? Probably not. I see much in the current drafts that don't demonstrate the overall goals well. But we've never done this before, at least not in this way. We're learning. We're going to make mistakes. The stakes are admittedly high, but they're also high if we don't act. RDA has already evolved from community input, and I suspect it will continue to do so. Maybe it doesn't even stick around that long - maybe we learn enough from writing and trying to implement it that another round is warranted with some key needed improvements. We've investing many resources in this, but that's part of life as well. Many things don't pan out, and that's certainly not unique to the library world. I realize our resources are scarce, but they're going to be zero soon if we don't think creatively. I think RDA is an attempt to do that.

I'm still concerned that RDA as a content standard is stepping too far in the direction of a structure standard for my taste. It's explicitly defining "elements" whereas for content standards I like to think of "classes of elements" to help us remember that instructions in a content standard aren't necessarily a 1:1 match with fields in a data record - this is what enables us to mix and match content and structure standards as we see fit. But I'm the first to admit that the distinction between a structure and a content standard is an artificial one, and that any given standard can blur the line a bit. My concern still lingers, however - the RDA Scope & Structure document uses "elements" and "properties" interchangeably, but I believe these terms, even in the context given here, have very different connotations. We'll see, I suppose, whether my concerns are valid. Maybe I'm just being pedantic about terminology. Or maybe there's a fundamental conceptual problem here. I'm a pragmatist - I realize the only way we're going to find out is to try it.

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12. A small, interesting, and potentially more powerful than it is now, example of user-contributed metadata

I was rudely awakened just after 5:30 this morning by an earthquake. The odd thing about this is that I live in Indiana, not exactly a hotbed for such things. This being my first earthquake (does that mean I'm a "survivor"? heh) I got up to look around and turn on the local news. There wasn't anything at all about it on the local news for about ten minutes, and then when it did appear for a long time it was just the anchors saying "We thought we felt an earthquake, but we don't know anything yet. Call us if you thought you felt an earthquake too."

Meanwhile I'd long since found http://earthquake.usgs.gov/eqcenter/recenteqsus/, learned it was a noticeable and scary, but overall pretty routine 5.4 magnitude confirmed earthquake. The cool part (even at 5:45 in the morning) was the "Did you feel it? Tell us!" link. This link led to a form where one reports basic information like your zip code, how long the tremor lasted, and what kind of damage it caused. One question asks if your refrigerator door opened and food fell out. At that point I realized just how minor of an earthquake we'd had! But there are also some really interesting questions in there too - whether you were awake or asleep at the time, your level of fear, and what you did to protect yourself. I wonder what they're doing with this data - I can think of many interesting possibilities. I can think of more possibilities if the USGS were to provide this data for use by others. (Maybe they do - this is very much outside of my area of expertise!) We could have a lot of fun with this one.

Based on the, (ahem), "classic" design of this part of the USGS site, one might conclude this feature has been around for a while. Good for them - collecting this sort of data from users is a fantastic idea.

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13. Scholars and practitioners

I spent yesterday afternoon and this morning at an advisory board meeting for the IMLS Digital Collections and Content project, lead by UIUC. I'm sitting next to Jeremy Frumkin, who was able to blog briefly about the project while we were sitting here, so I took that as a challenge that I should be writing up my thoughts on these issues as well. (Poor lonely neglected blog - if it were a house plant it would be all dried up! I'm not out of ideas by any means, what I am out of right now is energy.)

The IMLS DCC project is starting a new phase concentrating heavily on understanding what collection descriptions really are, and how they could be used to improve retrieval of items within them. It's a researcher-driven project, with most project leaders in the library school at UIUC. There are a few investigators representing digital library practitioners as well, and the advisory board reflects a similar diversity. In the LIS field in general, there's a pretty wide gulf between researchers and practitioners, but I've aways considered UIUC as one of the places where the situation is better than most. This project shows some of that separation - looking at the problem from both the theory and practice perspectives, and hoping to meet in the middle along the way. I see many potential pitfalls in this, but I also see paths that could work.

I'm overall very interested (and concerned, because I don't see a lot of good activity in this area!) about how we move practitioners (such as myself!) towards more consistent and useful work without all of us having to become researchers in the theoretical realm. I'm very interested in the theoretical research in areas like the ones DCC is studying, and see value (and fun!) in figuring things out just for the purpose of figuring them out. But we need better bridges between that theoretical work and how the greater understanding gained from it could be used to build better products. I think the IMLS DCC project is really trying to do that, and hope that the practitioners on the project staff (and advisory board, like me!) are able to help them reach the practitioner community that needs to hear it. I see this with my own work, thinking, "well we published a paper, what more do they want?" but I've found that's not enough. Some combination of publishing, conference papers, informal distribution like listservs and blogs, plus the crucial step of showing a concrete (if test) system that illustrates a research result is necessary. And possibly other mechanisms as well - I don't claim to know exactly how to do this, I'm just muddling through like the rest of us. But it's something I think it's worth our time to work on.

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14. Woohoo!

The metadata book I recently co-authored is now available. And only four months late. :-)

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15. Metadata interoperability

I'm not especially handy. (Get up, those of you who just fell on the floor laughing at the understatement of the century. Stop it. Right now. I know who you are.) Inspired by a recent minor home repair (which would probably be a trivial repair for you normal folks!) involving a screwdriver (flathead, if you were wondering, I'm not quite that inept), I've been thinking about how to explain metadata interoperability in terms of tools.

I've long held that interoperability by prescribing a single way of doing things is unsustainable, even at a relatively small scale, and it seems to me those sets of many-sized gadgets can show us a path forward. Wrenches, bolts, sockets and the like are not all the same. Rather, a bolt is chosen based on what it needs to do - what functions it needs to support and the environment in which it needs to fit. The same is true for descriptive metadata standards. The ones used for a specific class of materials need to both match well with the materials themselves and are supported in the institutional environment.

On the other side, how to deal with a bolt may not be immediately obvious, but it's not all that hard to figure it out. There are many options for what size socket wrench would be needed to tighten or loosen it. It would be nice if the bolt clearly stated what size it was, and this happens in some cases but certainly not in the majority. The wrench needed might be of the type measured in inches or the type measured in millimeters. We can consider these akin to the different approaches to description taken by libraries and archives. A practiced eye can examine the bolt and guess at the right size wrench to try. They'll likely get close, maybe with one or two mis-steps. With trial and error, a novice can find the right wrench as well. I believe the same is true for a system using metadata from an outside source - a skilled human can tell a lot about how best to use it from a quick glance, and trying various tactics out on it will inform how well various choices work for both an expert and a novice. With time and expertise we can transfer some of these evaluations to a system rather than a human (we can do some of this now; for example determining which metadata format from a predefined list is in use can be easily automated), but the process is still the same.

The point as I see it is that for these types of tools there are many options, but each of them are well-defined and well-documented. The same is true for metadata. As we gain more experience, we work towards defining various approaches that work for a given class of materials in a given environment. We then don't need to re-evaluate everything every time we start something new; we can refer to existing knowledge to see that in this case that approach has proven to be useful.

Maybe this analogy fails once you look closer (especially on the tool side - what's here pretty much represents my entire understanding of those types of things), but, like any analogy, it's bound to break down at some point of examination. But I've been pondering a bit and for now I still think it's useful. Feel free to argue with me, though!

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16. Musings on RDA, LC Working Group Report, and various other random things

I’ve been staying on the outskirts of the flurry of activity the last few months surrounding RDA and the Library of Congress Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control. Various things have been swimming around in my brain during this time, and I think now they’re finally ready to come out. I don’t know that I have any conclusions or suggestions for future directions, but that’s what I see as the function of this blog – to think through things that may or may not end up anywhere interesting.

I read the LC Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control’s draft report, and submitted comments via the web form designed for quick email questions rather than substantive feedback in time for the Working Group’s consideration. I didn’t post my comments on the blog, as many others did, as I felt my comments were pretty boring – they mostly were of the type “this paragraph seems to say x, but I wonder if you really meant to say y….” Overall, I was impressed with the report, and thought it represented an admirable vision for the directions in which libraries should be heading. It also struck me as largely avoiding library politics, although I thought it was odd a specific reference to FAST disappeared between the draft and final reports – I wonder what that was about? I liked the boldness of the report pushing attention for special collections, and the tough questions about the continued utility of MARC and LCSH.

But I, like many others, found a bit of schizophrenia in some of the specific recommendations. The report is not afraid to take a bold stand on MARC, but stops well short of recommending a move away from tens of thousands of distributed copies of bibliographic records, and (new in the final version, I think) questions RDA’s move away from ISBD. The report recommends moving quickly to work on new bibliographic frameworks but even more forcefully says that RDA should wait before proceeding. It provides many recommendations discussing how to improve moving information in and out of the catalog but provides little in the way of rethinking the function of the catalog itself. I believe some of this inconsistency is the result of trying to address comments the WG received (although I don’t see any changes related to any of my comments in there!), but most of it is probably due to the fact that this is a committee effort, written and revised on a short schedule. The biggest disappointment for me in the final report was that my favorite recommendation from the draft lost all of its power. In the draft report, one of the recommendations relating to LIS curricula described some extremely technical and theoretical topics as essential to offer. I believe cultivating individuals with both system and information expertise is the single most effective things we can do to ensure libraries play a part in the future information environment. In the final report, this recommendation was sanitized to simply say LIS curricula should include “advanced knowledge and topics.” Bleah. That could mean anything.

One other thing regarding the LC WG report: representatives from both Google and Microsoft served on the Working Group, but I see little if any evidence in the report that these individuals contributed points of view that haven’t been making the rounds within the library community already. That’s unfortunate. We need some outside points of view in this community.

I know the term “bibliographic control” has been questioned in relationship to this report. Roy Tennant suggests “descriptive enrichment instead. I recognize the problems with bibliographic control – it sounds so authoritarian in the face of the open vision the report outlines. But all labels are words, and words have baggage. I’m not clever with names (my dog is named Daisy, if that gives you a sense of how un-creative I am in this area), but I’m skeptical that any brief name could capture what we’re trying to do here. “Descriptive enrichment” to me calls up images of armies of humans manually adding things to records, an image I think we don’t want to be promoting. So I’ll remain neutral on the name issue – if someone comes up with a new one that folks like, I’d be happy to start using it. But I’m unlikely to be the one thinking that new label up.

I read many of the responses to the LC WG report that appeared on blogs, and found myself agreeing with many of the points made, and disagreeing with others. Pretty standard reaction, I suspect. I found OCLC’s response quite odd, however. It had the general tenor of “we’re doing all that stuff already, don’t worry, just trust us…” while at the same time oversimplifying the issues in a way I found totally inappropriate for a response to a committee of experts. For example, the OCLC response touts its FRBR work as testing the WG didn’t realize was happening, but it glosses over the fact that the Work-level clustering and other FRBR-like things OCLC has been doing aren’t true FRBR implementations. This community needs clarity and hard truths on these issues right now, not something that’s been reviewed by marketing. OCLC Research and RLG Programs are now and have been doing extremely interesting things recently, but few if any of them make their way to the productized mainstream of OCLC in ways that promote the state of the art or even fit well with the vision outlined in the LC WG report. I hope OCLC takes the report’s recommendations to heart in the same way LC and the rest of us are trying to do.

I found RDA’s reaction (or lack thereof) to the LC WG report to be of note as well. The folks behind RDA (the “Committee of Principals” for those of you in the know for such things) have on the RDA web site a response dated the same day the WG closed its call for comments. Presumably they submitted this document as an official comment in the appropriate time frame. The response, as the preface to the final LC WG report notes, smacks of “we’re too far along to stop now,” which in my mind is equivalent to “we/he/she have worked really hard, so what we came up with must be good,” which I believe is completely and totally bogus. It also lays the guilt trip on LC – saying basically “we’d hate to lose your input.” What the response doesn’t do is address directly (aside from listing a few pseudo-FRBR implementations that one can’t imagine the LC WG didn’t know about) any of the concerns raised in the report. It looks to me like more of people talking past each other and being defensive rather than trying to find common ground. Of course, the RDA response says they won’t be stopping development, which is no surprise at all. (Really, did anyone think they would? Wishful thinking doesn’t count.)

Through all this, I remain agnostic about RDA. I figure at some point I’m going to have to form an opinion, but frankly, I haven’t had the time to invest to develop an informed one. I haven’t read the last set of drafts (released December-ish), and with previous drafts I had trouble devoting the mental energy to them to see the forest of general vision and effectiveness for the trees of specific rules. I like the idea of more explicit connections to FRBR being behind the new organization, but it looks awfully complex. FRBR of course is complex, but I can’t help wondering if there’s another way to make the connection. I also understand (but again, haven’t seen myself) that the new drafts and/or supporting documents use terminology from the DC Abstract Model, including “literal value surrogate” and the like. I’m as intimidated by the terminology as the next person, but I do think it’s worth it to introduce some intellectual stringency to this process. I’m just not sure how to do that and still make the documents accessible.

Martha Yee has put online a set of cataloging rules she’s developed as a response to what seems to be the insanity surrounding us. I’ve long thought Martha was a clear voice in pushing against the book-centric focus of the cataloging community and realizing the importance of the display of information to users (in addition to just how we store it), but I’ve found myself disagreeing strongly with some of her more recent work that seems not to understand the state of the art with regards to search engines, information retrieval, or artificial intelligence. I haven’t read her cataloging rules yet, but I’m encouraged that she’s come up with some sort of concrete alternative (rather than just complaining, like the rest of us do), and apparently seems to be working towards an RDF model for her cataloging rules – bravo! I think any new set of rules, to be successful, however, need to be written to take advantage of current machine processing technologies. Not having read either the latest RDA drafts or Yee’s rules, I can’t say whether they do this or not. One can only hope.

And hope is where I am for the future of libraries. We have a lot going on right now in libraries, and I consider that a good thing. To use an old adage, we can’t be so afraid we’ll make a mistake that it prevents us from doing anything at all. Because we will make mistakes. We’re human. No matter how many people we involve, no matter how many levels of review we have, there will be things we try that don’t work out. If we realize that ahead of time we’ll be able to recover and try new things that will work. We’ve done so much already, and we have in our community an enormous number of insightful, dedicated individuals with a vision for where we’re going. Now we just have to find a way to let that vision emerge from the bureaucracy and the power of inertia.

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17. A bright future for bibliographic control

I was able to take some time this weekend to watch the webcast of the presentation to LC staff by the Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control. Given that the presentation covered draft, rather than final, recommendations (the full draft report will be distributed on Nov. 30), I think it's best that I not get too hung up in the details based on the presentation.

For example, the recommendation that RDA development be abandoned until FRBR is better understood could be a very good thing or a very bad thing, in my opinion, depending on how the recommendation is written. Karen Coyle, consultant to the group, involved in helping to write the report, has already indicated that the report's recommendations will be presented differently than they were in the presentation, addressing RDA and FRBR separately. I fall in the camp that the currently-released RDA drafts fall short of the sea-change for which it strives, but I also think we need to be making this change sooner rather than later. We'll see, I suppose.

I was also thrilled to hear in Barbara Tillett's question from the audience that LC is close to making some of their vocabularies (she didn't say which ones, presumably things like the language codes - I suppose it's too much to hope LCSH would be included) available via SKOS. This is the first I've heard of that initiative, but I think it's fantastic. It's something my institution would be able to take advantage of fairly quickly.

But back to the big picture, which I think is the most significant part of this week's presentation. The working group has outlined a vision that goes far beyond the mechanics of bibliographic control, into the scope and functions of discovery and use applications. I think this is a significant development, one that has gone in exactly the right direction. It only makes sense to analyze how we do bibliographic control if we fully understand what it is that work is supporting. I don't recall any of the webcast presenters saying this in so many words, but the vision that was outlined was not just one for library catalogs as we define them today. It covered information systems in the larger sense, and how they could interact. The future of bibliographic control is not just the design of records we create and store; it's a fluid, connected, living information environment in which libraries are but one (albeit important) player. What an exciting time to be a librarian!

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18. Google Book Search and... LCSH?

The Inside Google Book Search Blog recently announced that they've "added subject links in a left navigation bar as additional entry points into the index." This, predictably, piqued my interest. I followed the links in the blog entry, poked around a bit, then looked at this book. (Hope that link is persistent... the book is "Asian American Playwrights: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook By Miles Xian Liu") [UPDATE: Either that link evaporated or I screwed up and pointed to the wrong place. Try this one.] See that "Subjects" heading over on the right. Expand it. At least some of those are LCSH! ("Asian Americans in literature" is a dead giveaway.) The first three are close to what one sees in the book and e-book records in Open WorldCat. I've been something very close to living under a rock recently, so maybe this isn't news, but it's news to me at least.

I don't quite know what to think of this. I've heard Google was getting MARC records for books they're digitizing from libraries, but this doesn't appear to be one of those books. Is this a sign they're incorporating library cataloging from other places as well? And to date we haven't seen them do much with that data. Is this the sign of a change? I don't know that we can interpret it that way. This is perpetual beta, remember, and it's Google with roughly a zillion servers, and the ability to try all sorts of things out simultaneously. Just because I see those headings now doesn't mean they'll be there tomorrow, or today for you who is hitting the service through a different route.

To some extent I think this is a good thing. We have a great deal of data in our catalogs that deserves to be put to better use than it currently is. It's great to see this data making its way into services such as GBS, and for GBS to realize "subjects" are useful, perhaps even essential, access points. (I'll skip in this post a rant about the many things "subject" can mean, including "genre" [pet peeve warning!], and my thoughts on when this data needs to be human-generated and when it doesn't.)

But I'm surprised to see the precoordinated headings there. One of them seems to have the free-floating --Biography and --Dictionaries removed, but Dictionaries stays in two of the headings. It's also interesting, although I don't know what it means, that the delimiter between parts of the heading in GBS is / rather than --. I'm wondering if there's any intelligent processing at work here or if this is a quick and dirty approach to providing subject access. These headings have a subfield structure that would make it trivial to just leave in the topical aspects (according to some definition of topical that doesn't match mine, especially for music) and remove the rest. Why wasn't this done? Does GBS perceive value in the precoordinated headings? Or have they just not spent time focusing on this yet?

It's my great hope that the way in which GBS ends up using library-originated subject headings sparks a great rethinking of how we provide subject access in the library community. We're very vested in the way we do things, and there's a great deal of value behind those ways. But just because there's some value doesn't mean that we can rest on our laurels. We simply must be continually evaluating how well our vocabularies perform in ever-evolving systems and user expectations. How closely services like GBS stick to those vocabularies will be a litmus test for us. Ever the optimist, I hope we can use what they do as data to help us shape our evolution, rather than dismissing it as uninformed or not applicable to us. Only time will tell.

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19. DC and RDA - the beginning of a beautiful friendship?

An interesting announcement was made this past week that the DC and RDA communities will be working together to do the following:

  • development of an RDA Element Vocabulary
  • development of an RDA DC Application Profile based on FRBR and FRAD
  • disclosure of RDA Value Vocabularies using RDF/RDFS/SKOS

The news isn’t exactly taking the library community by storm, but the commentary I have seen has all been of the “this is a good thing, I’ll follow this with interest” theme. But something bothers me about this plan, and I’m having trouble deciding exactly what it is I find, well, wrong in some way.

There’s nothing in the announcement that indicates the development of RDA proper will be affected by this work; in fact, the indication in the announcement that funding will be sought for the activities outlined implies the work is a long way off, likely entirely too late to have any real effect on RDA. This seems to be to be entirely backwards – trying to harmonize DC principles with RDA after the fact. Didn’t the DC community learn its lesson about the pitfalls of this approach when developing the Abstract Model, only realizing long after developing a metadata element set that it would benefit from an underlying model?

This general approach failed miserably with the DC Libraries Application Profile. There, the application profile developers wanted to use some elements from MODS, but weren’t able to because MODS doesn’t conform to the DCMI Abstract Model. So basically what the DC community said here was that application profiles are great, they form the fundamental basis of DC extensibility, but, oh yeah, you can’t actually use elements from any other standards unless they conform to the Abstract Model, even though are no approved encodings for even DC itself more than two years after the Abstract Model was released. OK then. Way to foster collaboration between metadata communities.

Won’t the same problem arise with this RDA work? Yes, yes, RDA is a content standard and MODS is a structure standard, so this could make a difference, but won’t the same issues arise regardless? How in the world will the mess that is the set of RDA drafts right now possibly conform to the DCMI Abstract Model? Even if RDA was really consistently based on FRBR principles (which seems only a surface connection at best right now, with inconsistent use of FRBR terminology and some separation of content from carrier rules, but no real relationship), won’t a clash of conceptual models still occur? I’m the first to admit I have a very poor understanding of the DCMI Abstract Model, but given the history in the DC community of initiatives like this I’m not optimistic.

But maybe the DC community will change paths and realize flexibility and collaboration get more users than intellectual rigor. It’s sad in some respects, but true. It wouldn’t be the first time there’s been a major shift in the direction of the DCMI. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but I’ll certainly follow it with interest.

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20. Partnership announced between CIC libraries and Google

I don't normally use this blog for news, but hey, it's my blog so I can do as I please. :-)

The CIC Libraries are now participating in Google Book Search, announced today.

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21. Re-imagining browsing

In a recent issue of Educause Review, Robert Kieft describes work at the Tri-Colleges outside Philadelphia to plan for adding tables of contents and sample text to a prototype library catalog. The impetus behind these experiments is to provide users with a robust browsing experience in a world where distributed collections make shelf browsing insufficient.

I like this idea, as when I do shelf browsing, I do open up books, read a random page or two, and just generally poke around to see if the book looks interesting. I also believe this is an area in which our current catalogs don’t remotely match the physical experience.

But I also think there’s more to browsing than having something catch your eye then explore it further. When shelf browsing, we don’t look at everything – we only look at select things. In a bookstore, a cover might catch one’s eye, but this is less likely to happen on shelves with plain library bindings. A title or an author might be the hook that causes one to pick up one book and not another. To some extent, this type of browsing activity is random.

But what if it were less random? Can we re-imagine (or at least extend) our notion of browsing to make it more targeted? I like to think of browsing both as the ability to “look inside” a resource to learn more about it before committing to it, and as a “more like this” feature that introduces me to resources that I didn’t previously know existed. Shelf browsing of course does this but is also obviously limited by physical constraints, so that only one aspect of a work can be brought out by a classification scheme that locates it on the shelf. This isn’t news to anyone—see for example, the much-blogged-about Everything is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger for a discussion of what he calls first-, second-, and third-order methods of organization.

What I’m interested in is the ability of our catalogs to bring out more flexibility in browsing. If I’m looking at a resource, I want to be able to note one feature of it, and instantly get other resources that share that feature. I’ll then want to be able to add or subtract features to exert control over the size and characteristics of my results set. Say I’ve just read The Godfather. I might want more mafia fiction after that. But that’s a long list that I might consider too broad. Perhaps I’d limit myself to novels about the Sicilian mafia, or set in the 1940s or ‘50s. Then after I select a work or two, I may want to move on to real-life mafia stories, but only from the mobster’s perspective (not law enforcement’s). I’d likely find Henry Hill’s story in Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy, which could lead me to watching the movie Goodfellas, and start wondering what happened to Hill. From there I might start exploring the history of the witness protection program, then FBI training methods, then perhaps all the way to Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs and the film that was made based on the novel! And now imagine we can do all of that in a few clicks, without having to type anything in, or to know any of those books or films exist. And imagine if this could happen across multiple databases of content (including those from outside the library sector, such as IMDB), without me ever having to know that.

This vision is also nothing all that new. Certainly the faceted browsing features that are becoming increasingly common are a major step towards the overall goal. Technical protocols for connecting distributed databases are similarly emerging at a fast pace. I don’t think that massive initiatives that attempt to solve all the connection and interface problems at once are the answer. Instead, I see that smaller initiatives that perform a proof-of-concept of one issue at a time is the most effective way forward. It’s a sort of survival of the fittest – different people develop a few different ways of solving one particular issue, and let others adopt the one they believe works best. Each of these smaller solutions can then be building blocks for larger solutions – solve a problem, undertake an initiative to glue some of the smaller technologies together, iterate. Focusing on the smaller problems doesn’t mean we have to lose sight of the larger picture, and can help us avoid the paralysis that’s possible when the problem looks so large as to be intractable.

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22. Everything I know about librarianship I learned from Star Wars

Forgive the hyperbole—of course it’s not everything. But hear me out.


In celebration of meeting a major deadline and milestone in my career, I took some time for myself this weekend and watched the original Star Wars trilogy. (Yes, the good one.) This is something of a ritual for me, albeit one I’ve only performed only one other time in recent memory. It stretches back to junior high days when my brother and I, when we had a day off of school, would frequently watch all three movies right in a row off of a somewhat wobbly VHS tape made from early HBO airings. (If you’ve ever done this, you know just how very boring Jedi gets in the middle, but I digress.) Nowadays, three movies in three days is about all I have patience for (and Jedi still got boring), but it was comforting nonetheless.


While watching, I found myself saying lines out loud before they were said on screen, an annoying habit of mine. A few of these lines struck me as interesting, however. While Star Wars isn’t exactly the pinnacle of Western philosophy, my brain made some funny connections between the storylines and dialogue I know so well and librarianship. Here are a few examples:


“Use the force, Luke.” (Disembodied Obi-Wan voice to Luke, in the first movie.) We need to trust ourselves as skilled professionals. We know what we’re doing. Most of us in the library profession are in it because we love the work and believe we really can make a difference. This heavy personal investment in our work gives us the luxury to rely on our instincts in many cases, pushing forward with initiatives that are simply the right thing to do. Now we need to back up that instinct with reasonable plans, budget justifications, and all that administrative stuff, but I really do believe the best ideas come out of pure inspiration and vision, facilitated by the connections between us.


“R-2, you know better than to trust a strange computer.” (C3PO, Empire.) Now, the computer turned out to be right in this case, but we as librarians consider it part of our job to promote the effective evaluation of information. Many of the discussions today around this issue take an adversarial tone, as if the goal is to spot the misinformation and quash it. But we simply can’t just look at it as ferreting out the bad. We must not be judgmental. Instead, this evaluation can and should be just a routine part of our information flow. We simply need to evaluate everything. The source is only one factor among many that should be considered.


“What I told you is true, from a certain point of view.” (Blue-energy Obi-Wan dude, Jedi.) The role of perspective in truth or falsehood could provide more commentary on the evaluation of information theme, but I’ll take it in a slightly different direction – the role of metadata records in libraries. I find myself talking about this topic, inspired by Carl Lagoze, a great deal (and I believe on this blog before). A metadata record is necessarily a surrogate for a resource, and thus inherently takes a certain perspective on that resource in what it includes, what it leaves out, and the vocabularies it uses. We need to dispel ourselves of the myth that our records can or should be all things to all people, and instead focus on defining the views our metadata records need to support.


And of course the overall theme of the movies that a relatively small, smart, dedicated movement can effect sorely needed, large-scale change gives me good feelings for the future of libraries as well. So there you go. Little did Mr. Lucas know he was providing the library profession with a model to help guide our work. :-)


Oh, and I learned that my dog is strangely fascinated by Ewoks. Go figure.

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23. Cutting through the rhetoric about subject headings

I’ve returned from a vacation to see discussion on AUTOCAT of the utility of precoordinated vs. postcoordinated subject strings. I’m not all the way through my email list messages yet, but this discussion has prompted me to finally put into words something I’ve been stewing on for a while.

It seems to me that a great many of our disagreements in the library realm have at their root people talking past each other, each side meaning something different by a given term or two, but not cognizant of that fact. I see LCSH as a prime example of this phenomenon. A great deal of debate occurs over whether precoordinated subject strings or postcoordinated subject strings are more useful. But I see a fundamental difference in the way various participants in these discussions define “postcoordinated.”

One definition is that postcoordinated headings have no subdivisions at all; in LCSH-speak, have no --. The other definition is that postcoordinated headings are “faceted” (to introduce another term that complicates the issue); that each heading reflects only one characteristic of the work, such as “topic,” “place,” or “date.” The difference here is the difference between “subdivisions” and “facets.” These two concepts are not identical. A common criticism of postcoordinated headings is that they would not represent the essential distinction between concepts like “History--Philosophy” and “Philosophy--History.” While (ignoring the syntax; whether or not the double dashes are used is a style issue) this would be true according to the first definition, it’s not necessarily true according to the second—a “topical” facet may very well represent a complex concept. I’ve never seen a discussion on this issue in which this distinction is made clear to both sides. It’s unclear to me whether the “traditional” definition of postcoordinate allows the faceted interpretation or requires the subdivision interpretation, but I think what’s needed here is clarification of current definitions rather than historical ones.

I don’t have all the answers in this debate, nor does anyone else at this point. My inclination is toward the postcoordinate side, although I do very much want to keep an open mind on the issue. I’d like to see a well-reasoned argument for a postcoordinate system presented according to the facet definition (something I’ve long been wanting to write but find this is one of the many issues that have trouble finding their way from my brain to a shareable form). I personally read arguments for precoordinate indexing and think to myself, “We can do all of this with postcoordinate headings if we had systems that operated reasonably.” (Big IF there, considering our current state of affairs!) We need to have more room to experiment with these options to see if my interpretation is a good one. The Endeca use of precoordinated strings shows powerful promise; we need more large-scale implementations of systems working off of postcoordinated data to allow us to compare both user functionality and cataloging time (a much-forgotten but essential factor) of the two approaches. I want data, darn it! We can only go so far with the philosophical argument; to get beyond our current roadblock we need to see what will happen if we follow the various paths available to us.

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24. Can LIS education learn something from CS?

It seems the discussion about what can and cannot, and what should and should not be taught as part of an LIS Master's degree has a life all its own. From time to time, the same issues boil up over and over - often centering around this one: how do we give students the experience they need during the course of a professional degree to actually get a job? I'm a big believer in practical experience as the best teacher, and in the past have thought internships and other practicum-type setups were really the only way to get that experience.

But seeing some discussion recently about whether or not some of the more technical positions in libraries should require an MLS, I'm wondering if there's something we can learn from the CS community. Technical jobs commonly require a BS in Computer Science (note: NOT a graduate degree, whether it be research-based or professional), or demonstrated expertise in the task at hand, say, programming. That expertise can be demonstrated through that degree, through various certification programs, or by showing code one has written. While I suspect some would argue that the MLS is equivalent to those certification programs, I'm not so sure. A certification program for, say, Windows server administration, would be based on many practical tasks, and we don't see many of those in our library schools.

While I do agree we should be teaching the theory of things and then apply the practice on top of it, I see our library schools failing our students by ONLY teaching the former and providing no opportunity for the latter. Even single undergraduate programming classes manage to teach both. Can't we learn something from that?

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25. Catalog vs. search engine - or is it?

Discussion on the future of library catalogs is common today. In these conversations, I often hear an argument something like this: “Catalogs and search engines have different goals; are trying to accomplish different things. Therefore we shouldn’t be making direct comparisons between them. By extension, we shouldn’t be comparing their functionality and features either.” This is of course an oversimplification of what’s generally said, but the spirit is there.


I’m concerned about this line of thinking. The original posit makes sense on the surface, in the sense that there is a history of analyzing and documenting the goals of the catalog (Panizzi, etc.), and that the business goal of search engines is to make money by selling advertising. But I think this approach both sells search engines short and doesn’t go far enough thinking about catalogs. From the search engine point of view, the business argument is true, of course, but overly simplistic. We can extend the definition of the goal of search engines to say that they strive to make money by selling advertising in a system that connects people to information they seek. Google wasn’t a business at first, it started as a research project by CS students to better index information. That’s a pretty simple and laudable goal – to help people find things. The catalog is the same. With all the talk about the goal of the catalog being collocation (and all the other related goals well-documented in the literature), it’s easy to forget that those goals exist (wait for it…) to connect people, today and in the future, with information they seek. So in this very basic sense, catalogs and search engines are trying to accomplish the same thing. The methods are often different, but I don’t think we’re serving ourselves well if we just write the success of search engines and the current struggles of library catalogs off because of those differences.


Early search engines had one big difference from library catalogs: the materials they index. But this is no longer true to any significant degree. I’m no fan of cataloging web sites in MARC to make them searchable in our catalogs, and I see this as largely out of favor now, but this was only the first step towards blurring the line between the content indexed by search engines and that in our catalog. Google Book Search, for example, provides access to many of the same materials that are in our catalogs. The methods of searching are very different, with full-text indexing being a strong component of GBS and bibliographic information the strongest component of our catalogs, but again, the goal is the same – getting people to books relevant to their information need. The argument separating catalogs from search engines by format of materials indexed is waning, but I still hear it from time to time. The conventional argument that a catalog provides access to things a library owns is also waning, for obvious reasons.


So what’s left to distinguish the goals our catalogs from search engines, giving us a convenient excuse for why our catalogs perform so poorly? Not much of substance, I think. To me, the different is all in style instead. Let’s certainly keep those goals of the catalog in mind, but let’s not assume that the methods we’ve used to achieve those goals in the past are the only methods that can be effective. If the goals of search engines and catalogs aren’t all that different in the end, maybe we can mix and match some methods too. We’ll never know until we try.

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