Monday, May 11, 2015

Catalogers and Coders

Mandy Brown has a blog post highlighting The Real World of Technology by Ursula Franklin. As Brown states it, Franklin describes
holistic technologies and prescriptive technologies. In the former, a practitioner has control over an entire process, and frequently employs several skills along the way...By contrast, a prescriptive technology breaks a process down into steps, each of which can be undertaken by a different person, often with different expertise.
It's the artisan vs. Henry Ford's dis-empowered worker. As we know, there has been some recognition, especially in the Japanese factory models, that dis-empowered workers produce poorer quality goods with less efficiency. Brown has a certain riff on this, but what came immediately to my mind was the library catalog.

The library catalog is not a classic case of the assembly line, but it has the element of different workers being tasked with different aspects of an outcome, but no one responsible for the whole. We have (illogically, I say) separated the creation of the catalog data from the creation of the catalog.

In the era of card catalogs (and the book catalogs that preceded them), catalogers created the catalog. What they produced was what people used, directly. Catalogers decided the headings that would be the entry points to the catalog, and thus determined how access would take place. Catalogers wrote the actual display that the catalog user would see. Whether or not people would find things in the catalog was directly in the hands of the catalogs, and they could decide what would bring related entries within card-flipping distance of each other, and whether cross-references were needed.

The technology of the card catalog was the card. The technologist was the cataloger.

This is no longer the case. The technology of the catalog is now a selection of computer systems. Not only are catalogers not designing these systems, in most cases no one in libraries is doing so. This has created a strange and uncomfortable situation in the library profession. Cataloging is still based on rules created by a small number of professional bodies, mostly IFLA and some national libraries. IFLA is asking for comments on its latest edition of the International Cataloging Principles but those principles are not directly related to catalog technology. Some Western libraries are making use of or moving toward the rules created by the Joint Steering Committee for Resource Description and Access (RDA), which boasts of being "technology neutral." These two new-ish standards have nothing to say about the catalog itself, as if cataloging existed in some technological limbo.

Meanwhile, work goes on in bibliographic data arena with the development of the BIBFRAMEs, variations on a new data carrier for cataloging data. This latter work has nothing to say about how resources should be cataloged, and also has nothing to say about what services catalogs should perform, nor how they should make the data useful. It's philosophy is "whatever in, whatever out."

Meanwhile #2, library vendors create the systems that will use the machine-readable data that is created following cataloging rules that very carefully avoid any mention of functionality or technology. Are catalog users to be expected to perform left-anchored searches on headings? Keyword searches on whole records? Will the system provide facets that can be secondary limits on search results? What will be displayed to the user? What navigation will be possible? Who decides?

The code4lib community talks about getting catalogers and coders together, and wonders if catalogers should be taught to code. The problem, however, is not between coders and catalogers but is systemic in our profession. We have kept cataloging and computer technology separate, as if they aren't both absolutely necessary. One is the chassis, the other the engine, but nothing useful can come off the assembly line unless both are present in the design and the creation of the product.

It seems silly to have to say this, but you simply cannot design data and the systems that will use the data each in their own separate silo. This situation is so patently absurd that I am embarrassed to have to bring it up. Getting catalogers and coders together is not going to make a difference as long as they are trying to fit one group's round peg into the others' square hole. (Don't think about that metaphor too much.) We have to have a unified design, that's all there is to it.

What are the odds? *sigh*

1 comment:

Jaye said...

I think you have touched on (perhaps said more without actually saying it) the problem in libraries, which is that we librarians don't want to talk to other people. Not wholesale, of course, I love walking around and talking to people, though I do have my introvert moments. I think that many people go into librarianship because they are introverts and find that they can hide behind a computer. Email makes that much easier. I think that the issue you describe is not only interesting, but also could be easily solved if catalogers and coders were locked into a room until they began working together. Locking in is harsh, but I don't think they would talk to each other otherwise.

I really liked your description of a card catalog - the card is the technology. You are absolutely right and I have never thought of it that way. Perhaps the issue is that 'coders' or technologists have never had a deep understanding of the functionality of the card. Each piece evolved into something that was useful. Were the pieces described in detail during the first iteration of an online catalog.

Thanks for writing!