I think I'll stick with Library 1.5, actually


I should probably start with a little caveat lector: this post will deal with pretty rarefied librarian issues. The fact that I can get so worked up about them probably says something about how I choose to expend my energy, but for the non-librarian, it'll be pretty boring.

As I mentioned in my last post, I was at the ULA conference last week. Whenever you get a group of librarians together, it is only a matter of time before certain topics crop up. The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act is one of these items. For people unfamiliar with the full version of this legislation's name, that's the USA PATRIOT Act. Another thing that is sure to be addressed is google and wikipedia. What do they mean for libraries? How can we fight them? In essence, this is the great librarian panic: becoming obsolete. Connected with this panic is, of late, the discussion on tagging. The idea here is that Library of Congress Subject Headings are out of date, unwieldy and opaque to the casual user (facts I have no problem readily agreeing with). Instead, we should tap the collective skills of all users and allow them to categorize works, vote on other peoples' labelling, and thereby create a folksonomy instead of taxonomy.

Sounds like a great idea, right? However, most librarians are unsettled by this and, not just for job security reasons. Where I become particularly antsy is where tagging is proposed as a replacement for subject analysis by librarians and other info pros (I'm cool with a supplemental tagging scheme, though). Anyone who thinks about it for long enough for the gee whiz! to wear thin, see some obvious problems here. To wit, you've got the issue of controlled vocabulary. Person A make think a given book is about death, Person B prefers dying, Person C passing on and Person D (who, apparently, is stuck in an earlier version of English) wants decease. Proponents of tags say, 'well this gets sorted out by having the most popular tag win the day on each item'. Trouble here, though, is that Book I could be tagged with death as the most popular and Book II with decease. Rather than forcing these to agree, you've created lacunae that people who think differently won't be able to find and, because there's not professional oversight, they cannot turn to a solid source for tracking things down.

Another problem with tagging is the lack of hierarchy. Sure, LCSH can get pretty long when it's things like Jews -- Indiana -- Muncie -- History -- Video recordings. But, at least here, you can trace the breakdown. Tagging might lead to situations here where things like Indiana or even something as basic as history are left out. This exmple's perhaps not the best for my case, but there are times when it'd be nice to be able to backtrack through your subject headings. Like, drop Video recordings to find books, then history to find all treatments, then Muncie to find stuff about Indiana Jews in general and so forth.

As usual, most of the advocates for the change come from outside the library world (or are so managerial that they don't quite get the hesitation about the innovation). Librarians then get accused of being old-fashioned, resistant to change and so forth. Maybe I'm just a library nerd (and we know I hate the change), but I'm glad of this facet of libraryland. Doesn't it take your breath away that you can search in Yales's library catalogue or the library catalogue of Sitka Public Library using the same terms to find similar books? The hesitation to split apart something that makes libraries so delightfully interoperable should be seen as a good thing.

All this spewing came about not only from the talk at the conference, but also from an analogy I came up with as I tried to vocalize my trouble with folksonomy. Subject analysis and classification are really, when all is said and done, the professional service that makes librarians librarians. To assert the public driven tagging method is more effective, more useful and generally better use of resources than traditional aboutness readings is like throwing out the entire knowledge base of medications and interactions and telling people to just treat their diseases in the way that the general public (or even, the engaged, informed but non-trained segment of the population) decides works for them. Obviously, finding that book about poodles and lace making in Belgium is no where near as serious as life and death, I think the analogy about public- versus professional-driven methods holds. Plus, we all know that being a doctor's way easier than they make it out to be, right?

See, I told you it'd be boring. By the way, this post was brought to you by the heading Classification, Library of Congress -- Popular works.


Nitesh said...

Great thoughts will be checking back on your blog often.

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