Archive for the ‘LIS’ Category

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

Something is the Future

Wayne Bivens-Tatum, a Princeton librarian and blogger, wrote an excellent post, called “Nothing is the Future.” It attacks a certain sort of insipid library futurism—and is going all over the “Twittersphere”:

The kindest interpretation of statements like “the future is mobile” or “the future of reference is SMS” or “the future is librarians in pods” or whatever is that the librarians are trying to create that future by speaking it. The incantation will somehow make it so…. The less kind interpretation is that the authors of such statements are reductionist promoters, reducing a complex field to whatever marginal utility they’re focused on and claiming that this is the future, while simultaneously promoting themselves as seers.

The obvious and most likely statement is that nothing is the future, as in no thing is the future, period. Anyone who tells you different is just plain wrong. With technology, it should be clear to anyone who bothers to see past their obsessions that formats and tools die hard. Some people like to imply that if librarians don’t take up every new trend they’ll become like buggy whip makers. I should point out that there are still people who make buggy whips. Buggy whips aren’t as popular as they once were, but they’re still around. There are even buggies to accompany them.

I started to reply in comments, but my words added up. So here they are:

Though a purveyor of “Web 2.0″ ideas—I founded LibraryThing, what can I say?—I think it’s a great post.

The rhetoric you describe rings true. It starts, I think, from the popularizers and enthusiasts who take up new technologies and communicate them to the great mass of librarians whose life revolves around other things. To get through the clutter—to be one of the things you take back from a weekend of ALA or PLA talks—the message is simplified and the rhetoric ratchets up. “This is useful” loses out to “this will save you.” As it passes through libraryland the cycle repeats in spirals of simplification and amplification. Over and over I see broader intellectual discussions of technology and the future of libraries reduced to trivial and ephemeral exhortations like “every library needs to be on Meebo!” or “the future is SMS!”

It’s depressing, but it’s not unique to library technology. You see it in other trends, like “green libraries” (they’re the future, didn’t you get the memo?). It’s in the dynamics of communication. Your post is a good corrective to it.

At the same time, you’re missing something. I don’t know if you’re missing it for real, or just in this focused expression. But there’s a powerful “yes but” here, and it needs saying—shouting even!—lest people take the wrong thing from your post.

For all the nonsense and hype, librares are subject to an extraordinary and rapid cultural change. They have already changed drastically—especially if “libraries” means what libraries mean to culture generally, and people who don’t work in them.

Libraries are in the “information business” and this business is in one of the most profound transformations in human history. This isn’t buggies vs. Stanley Steamers—different ways of getting to the habberdasher. It’s horse-and-buggy culture vs. everything the car has brought—mass production, suburban living, the Blitzkreig, the global economy, global warming and the sexual revolution. Certainly, as you say, carriges continue to exist as objects that convey people, but their meaning has been utterly transformed. If libraries end up as a way for rich people to indulge children on a visit to a big city—what carriages mean today—well, crap! How did that happen?!

The world is changing, and for all the noise about this or that technology, I don’t think libraries are dealing with it squarely. (Forget Web 2.0; libraries haven’t really ingested Web 1.0 yet.) “The future is X” isn’t the best response to that change, but it’s a response.

I expect your post will get wide circulation. It says something that hasn’t been said before as well. But if it prompts librarians to dismiss technology’s impact on the future of libraries, it will do great harm. Instead, I hope people use your essay as a way to “kick it up a notch” intellectually, get past the small stuff and confront the very real changes ahead.


PS: By the way, LibraryThing is releasing a universal mobile catalog. It’s the future. No, really! :)

Labels: library technology, LIS

Saturday, November 10th, 2007

An academic take on LibraryThing tags

I just discovered Tiffany Smith’s “Cataloging and You: Measuring the Efficacy of a Folksonomy for Subject Analysis“.* It’s the first detailed academic study of LibraryThing tagging—and a very sympathetic one.

The article focus on five books, comparing their tags with their Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH). The books are Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and John Hodgman’s The Areas of My Expertise.

LibraryThing doesn’t “win” every comparison, but it comes out pretty well. I’ve already coopted her observations on two titles into my talks, namely Persepolis and Areas of my Expertise, both of which rate a single, very general subject. On the latter:

“How do you identify the subject of a fictionalized almanac, which, according to the Library Journal blurb on the back cover, is ‘a handy desk reference for those needing a dose of nonsense’? If you’re the Library of Congress, you call it ‘American wit and humor’, and move on to the next item on your book cart. You’d be accurate, because Hodgman is American and the book is witty and humorous, but you wouldn’t have captured the specificity of this item.”

Smith contrasts this with the LibraryThing’s florid tag cloud, sporting such terms as almanac, hoboes, alchemy, cheese, cryptozoology, eels, omens, portents and absurdities. Record-by-record these tags may only serve to amuse, but if you can’t recall the title, Hodgman’s strange work can be easily retrieved by looking for books tagged both “eels” and “humor” or “hoboes” and “almanac”. By contrast, I would not recommend wading through the American Wit and Humor subject!

I was also gratified to see the author notice an effect I’ve mentioned periodically but which has found no echo in other examinations of the topic and in the whole tired expert-vs-amateur polemic. As she writes, LibraryThing members pick up on the Napoleonic Wars element in Jonathan Strange, which LCSH misses:

“This may speak to the problem of the physical impossibility of the library cataloger reading the entirety of this roughly 800 page book to get to all of the detail. The Napoleonic element is not evident for the first third of the book and is not represented in the chapter titles, although it plays a pivotal role in the plot development.”

Fundamentally, I’m willing to concede the virtues of expertise, but there’s a lot to be said for reading the book all the way through, and library catalogers are not often able to do that.

In this connection, I’ve previously noted how my wife’s third novel, Love in the Asylum, acquired an erroneous “Alcoholism” subject, derived ultimately from bad publisher flap copy. Clearly neither the librarian nor the publicist had read the book. (My wife caught the copy before it went to print, but not before it had acquired Cataloging in Print LCSHs.) And the LCSH team also missed the topic of American Indians (Abenakis), a major presence in the book, but not touched on in the first 1/3 or the flap copy.

Anyway, it’s an interesting read. Since Smith did her research LibraryThing has grown almost 100%, and there are few things I’d quibble with*, but it’s a very good outside examination of why LibraryThing member’s tags should be dismissed by librarians interested in cataloging quality.


*”in”—as they say in academia—Lussky, Joan, Eds. Proceedings 18th Workshop of the American Society for Information Science and Technology Special Interest Group in Classification Research, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
**For example, Smith was confused why some LibraryThing works had subjects that were not present in the Library of Congress record, which she believes is our source. In fact, we get our Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) from many librares. Libraries are free to augement the LC’s headings, and many do; we pick up anything in the 600s of all the MARC records that make up a work.

Labels: academics, LCSH, LIS, tagging, tags