Basic Values and the Future of Cataloging

Mary Charles Lasater, Vanderbilt University

Frame 2. ALCTS understands and respects the most diverse needs of all types of library users for all types of materials.

There are no "transitional" users. Library users comprise both those who sometimes, or always, prefer non-digital resources and those who now prefer digital resources, among others. All are to be treated with equal respect and without condescension.

I am very happy to see this stated so clearly in our document. We recognize that we serve ‘users’—all of them.

This Fall during a ‘getting to know you’ conversation, I was asked what I do. When I indicated that I am a librarian the response was ‘What do you do now that the Internet provides all information needs’? Which of course translates into –you are a dinosaur and no longer relevant in today’s world. This person is one of our users and perhaps one that has many librarians worried. Just in case you want to know, this man is slightly older than I am—a Baby boomer, not a young person.

Last week while preparing to speak today, I asked a group of people how many of them used the internet for all their information needs. About half of this group indicated that they do not own a computer. They went on to say that they have issues with eyesight or ‘using a mouse’. These older adults are also our ‘users’. These people are fairly well-to-do, intelligent adults. One person said I really resent it when there is a comment on television—Go to this Website for more information. Since many in this group do routinely use our new public library, I recommended that they go there to use the internet and get to the websites they might want to view.

These conversations occurred in the same community and even in the same building, but the people have totally different needs and world views. However, none of us needs to ask our neighbors what they think. You may remember in 2005 OCLC prepared “Perceptions of libraries and information resources”. You might want to review the document to learn more about our users. It is only a click away if you search the Library of Congress’s catalog. I recommend that you browse by title.

One comment in the conclusions section really struck me (p. 6-8) and I quote “It suggests that libraries are seen by information consumers as a common solution, a single organization—one entity with many outlets—constant, consistent, expected. The ‘Library’ is, in essence, a global brand: a brand dominated by nostalgia and reinforced by common experience.

There is information about the percentage of people that hold a library card (72% ). We are doing much better than I expected.

I was left really wondering why if ‘consistency’ is seen as positive here, we (catalogers) are struggling with demands to change/ lower our standards.

The value that catalogers believe we contribute, that other providers of information do not, is the organization of information and the resulting searching precision. By providing precision, we serve both the procrastinating student who needs something—anything, now-- on their computer-- in their room at midnight, as well as the serious scholar. Librarians should capitalize on what we do—not discard it. Even economists have recognized the value of the MARC record. In Nov. 2006 Alexopoulos and Cohen of the Univ. of Toronto used the Library of Congress MARC records to determine that the 1930’s was a tecnologically progressive decade.

One of the key words in Frame 2 is “respect’. One of most distressing things about the last year and the conversations that have taken place is the lack of respect we are showing to each other. Instead of having cooperative cataloging it is ‘uncooperative’ cataloging. Management doesn’t repect what catalogers do, so catalogers respond. There is metadata vs. cataloging or is cataloging good metadata? It seems we have taken the political environment (Democrat/Republican) model and can not find common ground for discussion.

We need to change the tone of our communications. The needs of libraries to meet budgets and librarians to maintain and develop standards should be carefully considered. Perhaps the fast flow of information is working against us. We need to remember that our decisions don’t usually result in life or death and we can take some time to consider the consequences of our decisions.

So let’s take another look at my two user groups in my community. The first one that worries us so: Did this user ever need libraries? He is a well-to-do professional, even before the internet he would have purchased his own resources for most of his information needs and for professional needs would often contact other professionals for copies of articles or the latest information. Aren’t most of us like this person? Only recently have I started using my public library. I now go for videos, DVD’s and books. I’ve never used the computers there and I rarely look anything up in the online catalog. I find what I want by browsing. Perhaps you prefer to buy books and DVD’s and spend time in bookstores instead.

What about the second group? Are they really ‘out of date’ or just savvy consumers? I’m not a casual internet user. I telecommute part-time. In order to work from home I have to purchase a new computer every two years. Each month I pay for high speed access so that my computer will work fast enough (over $600 a year) AND of course to keep my computer safe I must download updates multiple times each month. If my needs were occasional, wouldn’t I be much smarter to just go to my library? And to the person who says I can just use the Internet and get rid of my set of encyclopedias, I answer: It is faster to walk upstairs and look up the information than it is to turn my computer on and wait. That set of encyclopedias is also a known source that I can reasonably trust� not just naively trust, like I sometimes do with Internet sources. So is paying for Internet access so ‘smart’ for the person with occasional information needs?

I understand there is a new movement toward living more simply. (I spotted a new Library of Congress subject heading, recently.) Without even realizing it, I’m part of that movement. It includes having less ‘stuff’, so instead of buying a DVD, I’ll borrow it from the library. It seems this is an opportunity for libraries to provide lots of resources, including the internet, books and video to a new group of people that would have previously purchased these things. Of course there are other people that bank online, shop online, send digital pictures to family and friends and they will have high speed internet service in their homes� at least until the power goes off. Perhaps in the future we will all be like this last group, but for now we have a very diverse group of users.

The second part of the Frame reads:

Similarly, the concept of "legacy materials” needs to be treated with caution. Whatever the values conferred by digitization of “non-born-digital” resources, we realize that those are added values, beyond those inherent in the resources as originally created. In other words, resources which are not universally available are not inherently of lesser value. We do not assume that non-digital resources are simply waiting to be digitized.

I only want to make a couple of comments about this part. First while lots of things are being digitized, many of us think lots of things will never be and even if they are, there are scholars who will need to ‘see’ and feel the originals. Second, no one is happier than I am to have so many former microforms now available on my computer with a ‘click’ (when it works). Microformated materials may be good for preservation but they are not ‘user friendly’.

On the other hand, I wonder how many times proxy problems, problems with the ‘link’, problems with a slow download, etc. result in an equally negative experience for our users of digital materials. Is this the 21st century equivalent of the librarian saying ‘hush” and running people away from the library? Do patrons ask when they have trouble using our digital resources? Do patrons report problems or are they intimidated? The OCLC reports states that users like to self serve. We should be careful about discarding our paper resources and only providing ‘digital’ for many, many reasons� including that it is a ‘self-serve’ option for when digital doesn’t work or won’t work for someone with various challenges be they physical or technological.

Mary Charles Lasater, Authorities Coordinator, Vanderbilt University and Vice Chair/Chair elect, ALCTS, CCS