Basic Values and the Future of Cataloging

Daniel N. Joudrey, Simmons College

Frame 7. The future is longer than the past.

Our work is situated in time. This implies that, first, while it is of course necessary to act on the basis of present expectations and resources, policy and practice decisions have multiple ripple effects extending further forward in time than we are able to imagine. Second, remembering the continuity of actions in time will help us to explore new ideas for improving access to information resources, while continuing to understand and value the best of our accomplishments to date.

Yes, our work is situated in time. While we work in the present and think about what may come in the future, our processes, theories, standards, and tools have all been influence by what has gone on before us. It is my opinion, and feel free to disagree with me, that we must to be mindful and respectful of the past. As the Spanish philosopher George Santayana stated in his Reason in Common Sense: Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

In Western culture, we have been creating catalogs and bibliographies for over 2000 years since Callimachus created his Pinakes for the Library of Alexandria. He used alphabetical author entries (albeit in very rudimentary form) and subject categories in his 120-volume catalog. Cross-references, uniform titles, entry by surname, and multiple access points all have their origins in the middle ages and renaissance period. And then, of course, there was the flood of work that was done in the 19th century. Many of our descriptive cataloging rules today are easily traced back to the 91 Rules of Panizzi, Jewett’s rules for the Smithsonian, and Cutter’s Rules for a Dictionary Catalog. Subject cataloging is still influenced by the work of Cutter and classification by Dewey. And in the 20th century, classification was changed forever by the works of Ranganathan and the Classification Research Group.

The early bibliographies and catalogs of antiquity and the middle ages were not sophisticated tools by today’s standards; but over the past two and a half centuries, we have made tremendous progress. What we do today, although certainly more sophisticated, is not that different. We, like our predecessors, are organizing information so that those who need it, can retrieve it. We create surrogate records to represent the most important characteristics of works, so that users can identify, retrieve, and select the documents they might need, no matter the format. In short, our basic goals have not changed, and the systems we use to organize information still reflect some of the choices made in the past. Unlike some, however, I believe this legacy is something to be proud of; something to embrace. We have over 2000 years of experience from which to learn. During that time we have made some wrong decisions, but we have ALSO made some very right decisions. And even though the technology of today has greatly improved, it still cannot solve ALL of the problems associated with information organization.

In my first semester in library school (1999), I was told by one of the professors that there was no longer any need for catalogers and that I should study technology instead (obviously, that wasn’t my advisor Arlene Taylor). I chose cataloging anyway. I was also told by a library director that I was choosing a dead-end specialization, and then he went on to tell me with great pride about how he drastically cut the cataloging staff at his research library and spent the money on electronic resources (of course, he didn’t have anyone to catalog those resources, which turned out to be a bit of a problem later, but that’s another story). As a doctoral student teaching the organization of information classes, each term I had at least two or three students who resented taking “cataloging” because they knew that all that was needed was a good algorithm to solve the problems of organizing information. And, when I went on the job market in 2005, looking for a faculty position to teach cataloging, one dean told me that since computers could take care of all that cataloging now, he couldn’t see why I did my dissertation on subject analysis. Over and over, I heard that catalogers weren’t going to be around much longer. If that’s the case, I have some questions. How is it that we are we all still here? Why are we still talking about cataloging? Why are there still cataloging positions being advertised? Why are there still students REQUESTING LIS schools to add cataloging courses? Here, at Midwinter, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting at cataloger. If there are no cataloging jobs and catalogers are no longer needed, WHO are you people? Don’t you know, the computer is doing your job for you.

This line, this notion, this wishful thinking on the part of many in positions of power that computers can do/will do it all is the biggest threat I see today, but it is not just a threat to cataloging. Thinking that technology can completely replace intellectual processes of organization—which seems to be fueling several of the reports on the future of cataloging that are floating around out there—is also a serious threat to scholarship, research, and intellectual life in the western world. I believe there are some very serious consequences to abdicating our organizing responsibilities.

Search engines, full-text searching, and keyword searching, are all mentioned quite frequently in several of these recent reports on the future of bibliographic control. Many are up in arms by all of these reports, but the reports produced for the purposes of examining a single institution’s workflow are not as worrisome to me; BUT the one commissioned by our de facto national library, that presented its conclusions as applicable to all research libraries, is the one that I see as most problematic, because it not only affects a single institution, but could possibly influence the catalogs in all libraries, large and small. This document, while inflammatory, does contain some well-reasoned arguments for examining cataloging processes and workflows. (Even the most die-hard cataloger will admit that cataloging and OPACs are not without problems; we have been saying for several decades that online catalogs are difficult to use.) But there are several flawed and/or suspect assumptions, and some radical suggestions for changes without substantiation that damage the document’s overall credibility. Some of these include:

  1. Throughout this report, the author repeats that students and scholars do not use the library catalog first (implying, disingenuously, that they do not use the library catalog at all), preferring Internet search engines instead.
  2. The author does not discriminate between the related (but distinct) processes of simple information-seeking and in-depth scholarly research. It is alarming that there is so much emphasis on the needs of casual information-seekers and so little to the needs of scholars.
  3. The use of a business model as a framework for evaluating the future of the catalog. As Thomas Mann said, “research libraries do not exist to secure a greater market share or to generate profits, but instead to promote scholarship”.

I believe that the future of scholarship could be endangered by the suggestions of and actions recommended in this report and by those who commissioned it. They seem to be pursuing a golden (but still uncertain) digital utopia, based on Google-like searching, minimal cataloging, digitizing books (no matter the copyright implications), and eliminating human-based subject analysis (no matter the chaos and loss of meaning that may ensue). The suggestion that automated processes should or will replace intellectual categorization and description could have devastating effects on the scholar. Heeding the call to over-simplify cataloging and to eliminate subject analysis would be tailoring catalogs to the lowest common denominator; by using a simple information-seeking model to redesign online catalogs, these visionaries may just succeed in destroying the scholar’s ability to conduct genuine research, with serious long-term consequences for education and the intellectual life of this country. Dumbing-down effective systems of description and subject access to meet the needs of casual information seekers does a disservice to those who genuinely need access to information resources that have been organized into conceptual categories, which reveal bibliographic and subject relationships. Finding something—a cornerstone of Internet information seeking—is just not satisfactory in actual scholarly endeavors. The Internet and research libraries fill different niches in the information universe. Different techniques and different tools are required.

If we attempt to simply everything into a single Google-like search box and strip away the context-laden, meaningful, human-derived subject terms we rely on for homograph and synonym control, we are endangering our intellectual futures and dishonoring the past. Many smart men and women have come up with many ingenious ideas throughout the centuries –ideas that still have roles to play today. Let’s remember what we have learned from 2000 years of experience. What we chose to do today may have serious, long-lasting consequences.

I do not think of myself as a Luddite, and I do believe that some of our systems could benefit from simplification, but betting the farm on a promised technological utopia that may never actually be realized is a sure way to condemn ourselves to relive our past. But this time, we may just wish that we had a tool as sophisticated as the Pinakes, when we are sorting through thousand and thousands of hits looking for a few legitimate, relevant scholarly resources. We might just be going back to the dark ages again, if we aren’t careful.