Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Future (?) of Cataloging

First, if you've been under a rock the last few months, here's a fairly good layperson's summary of the current state of the LoC cataloging kerfluffle. As a fan of both 2.0 innovations like tagging/folksonomies, as well as a regular user of good old fashioned subject searching, I've got opinions on this mess as a user, as well as an erstwhile copy cataloger.

(Disclaimer: I'm a self-taught cataloger who probably couldn't create an original MARC record from scratch if my life depended on it).

As I've watched this debate rage on the OCLC-cat list, as well as in the literature, I've come to several not-quite-compatible conclusions about both the series cataloging thing and the LCSH issue.

1. Cataloging has to be simplified if it's going to survive, even if it means drastic changes to the current system.

OK, it's time to admit some basic facts. First, the library catalog is no longer the best game in town when it comes to search technology. Most OPAC's keyword search features (and let's be honest, that's what gets used), are, frankly, CRAP. There is no reason for this other than an oligopoly going unchallenged by libraries when they provide us substandard ILS software, but that's another rant for another day. Second, why in the world should it take me, a newbie to cataloging but an MLS librarian nontheless, a whole day and much wailing and gnashing of teeth to figure out how to manipulate government document MARC records into a format that won't give our ILS indigestion and will allow the labels to print right? This is one area where I agree with LOC's report. Copy catalogers waste far too much time fiddling around with original MARC records, when with some simplifications and standardizing, we could increase our ability to do batch processing, offload more of the tedious cataloging chores to non-professionals, and spend more time doing original cataloging, learning about the process, and having a serious discussion over how much of this crap we really DO need in a MARC record. (When's the last time you searched for a book by it's size, anyway?) And this leads me onward to point 2.

2. Losing the series cataloging doesn't bug me too much.
Again, I'm not exactly the queen of AACR2 here. That said, why should I care about this? I've been listening to the hand-wringing on various cataloging forums, and I'm still fuzzy on the whole "changing series cataloging will bring the downfall of western civilization" thing. Yes, they won't be creating new authority records for series. But...they'll still be creating bib records, right? That will indicate if something is a series...right? Okay, we'll lose the ability to validate against an authority record, but I just don't see that as a big deal, or that whatever benefit is gained from series authorities is greater than the effort involved in creating them in the first place. Maybe there's something I'm just not understanding here, though given how much ink and bandwidth I've seen spilled on this issue, the more credence my confusion (and the confusion of others) lends to point #1. If a LIBRARIAN doesn't get what the problem is here...we have bigger issues.

3. I would miss LCSH, but...

4. I'm not sure anyone else (including scholars) would miss it.

I like subject searching. It's simple, elegant, and highly effective if the cataloger did their job well (which amazingly they typically do. Kudos to LoC and our other main generators of metadata.). However, LCSH has certain eccentricities that can make it a challenge to non-librarian types, which all boil down to what a user may think would be a subject heading may NOT be what LoC picked. more than once I've typed a "reasonable" subject term for a field where I know we have items, come up with nothing, and had to either go to the LoC website or drag "Big Red" out of the reference section to figure out what I should have searched for. That's fine with me, that's why I get paid the big bucks. But students won't put up with that, nor will most faculty. Quite often a faculty member will want to type in a extremely specific technical term, which isn't an LCSH. And if the word doesn't happen to be in some other searchable MARC field, they're not going to find that particular work through ANY marc record search. And LCSH, by definition, is just too inflexible to keep up with every possible term in every subject area. However, this presents us with a bit of a conundrum, because...

5. LCSH (or some sort of controlled vocabulary) is still the best topic metadata option out there with current technology.

Unless Ebsco and Google assimilate the planet, scan in every print document ever created, and make them all full-text searchable (in which case we're toast anyway unless we can figure out how to compete on quality), we have to have some system of controlled vocabulary. There's no way around it. It's clumsy and inelegant, but there you have it. Until 100% full-text searching is practical on our entire collections, we're stuck. But do we have to be stuck with LCSH, or could we come up with a better method of subject-based access? Is there some way we could find a middle ground between the overly rigid LCSH we have now and an anarchic tagging free-for-all?

See, this is where I think tagging, folksonomies, and wiki technology (IN MODERATION) could come in. I also think there could be a future with RSS empowering us to automate updating of existing records in our systems, and not just with adding and replacing subject terms. In addition to all the big names in library 2.0, our friends in Knowledge Management have also been doing a lot of work in this area. While I don't think there's a killer app to replace LCSH quite yet, I think it's just a matter of time, and I think it will evolve out of the web 2.0 paradigm. Stay tuned.Now, one last thought, that doesn't really relate to the LOC proclamations so much as the debate surrounding them...

6. The elimination of series authority work and questioning of LCSH's future is not a conspiracy theory designed by haliburton and Dr. Evil to kill library cataloging.
As the child of a federal employee, I can assure you that when it comes to these sort of teacup tempests, one should never ascribe to malevolence what can be blamed on stupidity. Example 1: the shining beacon of well-designed interfaces and elegant search engine that is the GPOAccess website. I'm sorry, but we've got enough real problems as it stands with our government's current policies, and we sound like idiots when we ascribe everything wrong in this world from half-baked LOC reports to injured puppies to the malevolence of the current administration. I assure you, our leaders wouldn't know the LCSH if Laura Bush hit them over the head with it. (hmmm...) If whatever changes come do kill off the modern library (which they won't), then it was our own fault for being so inflexible that we couldn't even figure out another way to handle subject searching.

So. What do you think? Do I have a point here?