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The Revolution Will be Folksonomied

Submitted by Karen G. Schneider on January 16, 2006 - 5:38pm

It was exciting to read Teresa's post about the North Carolina State University (NCSU) Libraries' catalog. This achievement represents a magnificent step forward for integrated library systems, and the NCSU Libraries catalog's rich combination of search and browse, combined with its powerful search engine, stand in silent rebuke to the piteously clunky library systems most libraries pay dearly for because we've never insisted that the catalog could be better than that.

We Bow Before Thee, Your Highness
It's appalling that most integrated library systems have not kept up with at least the rudiments of good search products: relevance ranking, spell-check, stemming (automated word truncation), and flexible sort options. The reason they get away with it: we haven't had the leaders in this profession to step up to the plate and insist the tools central to our mission function the way users expect them to. If only we could knight librarians! "Sir Andrew" has a nice ring to it. But—and I say this with trepidation, because Andrew's a really big guy, and I have to sit near him at many meetings—the NCSU Libraries' catalog, good as it is, still has some old-fashioned limitations.

The first limitation is the catalog's reliance on Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) as the structure for the topic browse. They massage it in ways I like—using LCSH links like keyword searches—but it's still LCSH, and that means it's still an arcane language, expensively applied, and that is either too broad or too narrow for the item it's discussing. I think of LCSH as item-level language, whereas most thesauri for the Web—which is where library users encounter the catalog—are based on collection-level language. Your typical Flickr collection has more precision than most items grouped under LCSH, and as for the terminology of LCSH, let's just say I have never known a library patron to ask for a "cookery" book.

Here, Piggy Piggy
Now, the NCSU Libraries' online-catalog team is simply working with what it has, and it has included some adroit enhancements to improve the 'browse-by-LCSH' function, but as a browsing language, LCSH means that pig is still wearing that dress.

Another challenge for NCSU is that its libraries' online catalog is still an index, not a full-text search engine. Users—particularly younger users less familiar with the older technologies that predate them—come to library tools (such as search portals and online catalogs) with expectations honed by the luxury of full-text searching in Google, Amazon, A9, AskJeeves, Technorati, Google Book Search, and thousands of other full-text tools that quickly meet and satisfy their needs.

But library applications—the NCSU catalog included—remain wedded to a conceptual model of user behavior predicated on the card catalog of yesteryear. Users want full text, and we give them metadata. When they say our tools are broken, they're right.

This is not intended to undermine NCSU's dramatic achievements in improving the catalog. But it is intended to say that we are just beginning to understand what we need to do to rethink bibliographic access and control in the twenty-first century. And even when we do understand it—and I believe Andrew grasps the failings of library catalogs better than nearly anyone else in our profession—we need more tools, and fast, for creating change.

Uni. of Cal. Libraries Fnl Rpt 2005: Bibliographic. Svcs. Tsk Frc

The Cavalry Arrives!
Fortunately, this week also heralds the arrival of a report [pdf] with breathtaking implications for librarianship. (In a hurry? Here's the executive summary [pdf].) My only gripe with UC's report—named, quite modestly, "FINAL REPORT: DECEMBER 2005 Bibliographic Services Task Force," and referred to simply as "BSTF" by some—is that it's issued as one humongous PDF, when to really be read and discussed online, a simple HTML alternative would be useful.

But I can't complain. This is a report that gives voice to issues, beliefs, and even evidence-driven data familiar to many of us who have been voices crying in the desert about the utter failure of library catalogs to meet user needs.

Of the early analyses of "BSTF," my favorite so far is from Lorcan Dempsey, whose engaging blog, the eponymous Lorcan Dempsey's weblog, has one long post (on which I have already commented twice—I'm a little keyed up about "BSTF"). But I am hoping to be the first to say of the UC report, that what is most significant in its recommendations, is how the sun finally resolves around the user and her needs, not the librarian and her longstanding practices and habits.

Fiddling with Em Dashes While Cyberspace Burns
"BSTF" is fairly radical and pulls no punches. "For the past ten years online searching has become simpler and more effective everywhere, except in library catalogs," it states, then cites the "BSTF" mantra: "Users want immediate satisfaction."

I blinked: did a report from an academic institution really refer to "user satisfaction"? I blinked a few more times as I kept reading.

"BSTF" states library systems "pale" next to Amazon, Google, and iTunes; is sharply critical of the practice of offering "fragmented set of systems to search for published information (catalogs, A&I databases, full text journal sites, institutional repositories, etc)"; makes the case for full-text searching; and states that traditional cataloging and acquisitions' workflows do not serve users well and are extremely expensive for their outcomes.

Sacred cows go heels-up in "BSTF." The report goes so far to recommend," Consider using controlled vocabularies only for name, uniform title, date, and place, and abandoning the use of controlled vocabularies [LCSH, MESH, etc] for topical subjects in bibliographic records."

"BSTF," at least by traditional academic standards, even has buttery warm things to say about tagging and folksonomies: "We should monitor current experiments in social bookmarking, folksonomies, and the like as applied to bibliographic data, and consider adding these features if they prove valuable."

As for all that time and money we spend creating metadata: "In addition to staff created resource descriptions, metadata can be obtained from vendors and publishers, derived automatically from data, or contributed by users. ... Given its prohibitive cost, staff created metadata should be applied only when there is proven value for current and future scholars."

The phrase "proven value" should be carved into stone and carried through the halls at ALA Midwinter. This phrase embodies UC's implicit acknowledgement that some of our most central library practices are neither evidence-driven nor have any logic in a networked environment.

There's much more in this report, from rethinking how serials are done to a call for FRBR-izing catalogs. (FRBR in a nutshell: a user shouldn't be confused by multiple records for the same item.) We should all be exposing our metadata—and no, we won't be arrested for that, either.

In a world as diverse as ours, catalogs should support all language sets (or, as some say, "non-Roman"). Consolidate your resources instead of dribbling finite funds across multiple, duplicated library systems. Spend your money on content and user outcomes, not on practices developed in the nineteenth century for dead-tree catalogs. Work toward a single-search-box approach. Most of all, though, the report infers, we must change, and change quickly. We can't afford our old practices.

I like "BSTF" most of all for acknowledging that the user is not broken. The user is quite smart, in fact, and is not to blame for the shortcomings of search in library applications. Library and information science has, for the most par, failed to address the limitations of its own tools with serious user-centric analyses and solutions. But the user has a hero in the team that wrote this brave report.

Technorati tags: library, library catalog, library catalogs, OPAC

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Comments (5)

I agree with you that

I agree with you that 'cataloging is too hidebound to its silly rules', but catalogers are not whom to blame! Who created these silly rules to frustrate both catalogers and users? I know many catalogers hate the stupid rules as much as you do. It's rather arbitrary to say catalogers 'deserve bad reputation because of inability to adjust and to see the bigger picture of why they do what they do'. The truth is they have no power at all to change current 'bad rap' situation. All know that Technical services Staff is underrepresented second class people. How sad it is for catalogers that they work so hard to learn AACR2 and MARC, how to use all cataloging utilities, and sit in front of a computer eight hours everyday, but for blame!

Let me first state that I

Let me first state that I agree with most of what is stated here, especially, that I think the UC report is a real breath of fresh air. I agree that it contains very valuable and 'dangerous' thinking and assumptions. It places the emphasis on the user. That's great.

Well, you knew this was coming...What is my beef with what is written here, then? First, let me state that while I deplore the state of our ILSs as much or more than you or anyone else, I very very much want to emphasize that **this state of affairs is largely our (librarians) OWN CREATION.** It is what it is because WE wanted it that way, not because ILS vendors are so stupid or good at hoodwinking us poor, powerless librarians, or entirely just out there to steal what little money we've got. To place the blame (or most of it, anyway) on vendors is like Don Quixote jousting at windmills. Pretty useless. Let me say that as someone who has worked for a number years for an ILS vendor (and many more years in academic libraries) that most vendors are JUST as frustrated in many ways as you are. Why? Because they need to spend so much effort and time on widgety crap at the request of -- you got it -- librarians. If you need a bogeyman to blame for the current state of affairs, then I think the real onus must be place on us as a profession, at all levels. I would also point out that what those in positions of authority (directors, e.g.) in libraries think and say and want is often light years apart from what those who work with their ILS every day want. So in a way, we librarians are very good at talking out of both corners of our mouths. Often, the left hand has no clue what the right hand is saying, and vice versa.

This is not to say that vendors bear no blame. Let me be clear on that.

Another point I'd make that is sorely missing from this whole debate is the fact that those who cry with the most outrage over the state of our OPACs and ILS implementations are often those who have not or do not work in technical services. I have noticed an implicit assumption that cataloging in particular is too hidebound to its silly rules and that catalogers are to blame for holding us back. There is some truth to that. However, I think it very important to remind you that cataloging rules and standards were NEVER created or intended to do anything BUT serve the user. Cataloging and other areas of technical services are USER services, in my view, as much as those who work in reference or other public services areas in libraries. Catalogers don't quibble over rule interpretations and coding of MARC for the heck of it but for the overarching purpose of how to best serve users, how best to organize library information so that the user can find and make use of it. I fully realize that catalogers (and maybe other areas in tech. svcs.) deserve their bad rap because of an inability to adjust and to see the bigger picture of why they do what they do. My point here though is that the ideal of what they do and what they contribute is for the USER. That fact seems to be lost sight of.

There is much more that can be said and I need to think more about these issues. But I hope what I've tried to articulate here adds something of value to the discussion.

Let me rearchitect my

Let me rearchitect my earlier post so that it will be more reflective of the truthiness of my position. Remember, truthiness is not something you find in a book, it's something you find in your gut.
There needs to be some sort of structure to the organization of information. If there is no structure then it is not organized. The advantage of folksonomies is that a structure can be imposed cheaply through free labor. However, you get what you pay for. There could be a slew of items under 'french cooks' that would be missed by those looking for 'french cooking' and vice-versa. Cookery-French covers them both.

By educating users, I don't mean they have to be highly educated (like the people who use words like 'rearchitecting'), but rather educated to the extent that they know some sort of structure has been imposed. They don't need to know cookery-french but rather they do need to know that something like that exists and they should look for it. Cross references like babies leading to infants, etc is a good example of this type of education.

I reserve the right to rearchitect this response.

As a public

As a public librarian/cataloger from a single branch, small to mid-sized library, I too have serious doubts about replacing controled vocabulary and structured search patterns with only free-for-all general keyword searching. Remember what you were taught about doing recall and precision searches. Wading through a lots of irrelevant or only marginally relevant materials is frustrating for any one.
I\\\\\\\'ve only just started my research on folksonomies, and it may be that this is a way to get a more \\\\\\\'common\\\\\\\' vocabulary into searching mechanisms but I don\\\\\\\'t know enough about how it will work especially with limited resources. At my library, we do all authority work inhouse. The only real tool I have is access to the LCSH. For years I\\\\\\\'ve manually added cross references to the more arcane authority records when and where I can with the budgetary and time restrictions imposed on me. Cooking is added to cookery, babies is added to infants. Anything to give a \\\\\\\'regular\\\\\\\' opac user a good shot at locating relevant materials.
I agree that it is, at least, in part a failure to educate users, but why do they have to be educated? Most user expectations to technology is that it should be intuitive. That may or may not be true for most technologies (VCR programming springs to mind), but that\\\\\\\'s how they want it. It\\\\\\\'s even how I\\\\\\\'d like it.

I looked at the executive

I looked at the executive summary. I'm sorry, but I find it very difficult to take seriously something that purports to make things easier for users (i.e. the common folk) when it contains jargon such as 'Rearchitecting the OPAC.'

If the writers claim they are writing for Librarians only, then that is an argument against dispensing with controlled vocabularies. It seems to me that controlled vocabularies are a way of forcing information organizers to attempt to organize everything. Obviously there are absurdities, cookery-french for example. However, subject access is a very powerful tool. I think it is a failure to educate users rather than a systemic failure. But what do I know? I'm only a public librarian.