Wednesday, August 31, 2016

User tasks, Step one

Brian C. Vickery, one of the greats of classification theory and a key person in the work of the Classification Research Group (active from 1952 to 1968), gave this list of the stages of "the process of acquiring documentary information" in his 1959 book Classification and Indexing in Science[1]:

  1. Identifying the subject of the search. 
  2. Locating this subject in a guide which refers the searcher to one or more documents. 
  3. Locating the documents. 
  4. Locating the required information in the documents. 

These overlap somewhat with FRBR's user tasks (find, identify, select, obtain) but the first step in Vickery's group is my focus here: Identifying the subject of the search. It is a step that I do not perceive as implied in the FRBR "find", and is all too often missing from library/use interactions today.

A person walks into a library... 

Presumably, libraries are an organized knowledge space. If they weren't the books would just be thrown onto the nearest shelf, and subject cataloging would not exist. However, if this organization isn't both visible and comprehended by users, we are, firstly, not getting the return on our cataloging investment and secondly, users are not getting the full benefit of the library.

In Part V of my series on Catalogs and Context, I had two salient quotes. One by Bill Katz: "Be skeptical of the of information the patron presents"[2]; the other by Pauline Cochrane: "Why should a user ever enter a search term that does not provide a link to the syndetic apparatus and a suggestion about how to proceed?"[3]. Both of these address the obvious, yet often overlooked, primary point of failure for library users, which is the disconnect between how the user expresses his information need vis-a-vis the terms assigned by the library to the items that may satisfy that need.

Vickery's Three Issues for Stage 1 

Issue 1: Formulating the topic 

Vickery talks about three issues that must be addressed in his first stage, identifying the subject on which to search in a library catalog or indexing database. The first one is "...the inability even of specialist enquirers always to state their requirements exactly..." [1 p.1] That's the "reference interview" problem that Katz writes about: the user comes to the library with an ill-formed expression of what they need. We generally consider this to be outside the boundaries of the catalog, which means that it only exists for users who have an interaction with reference staff. Given that most users of the library today are not in the physical library, and that online services (from Google to Amazon to automated courseware) have trained users that successful finding does not require human interaction, these encounters with reference staff are a minority of the user-library sessions.

In online catalogs, we take what the user types into the search box as an appropriate entry point for a search, even though another branch of our profession is based on the premise that users do not enter the library with a perfectly formulated question, and need an intelligent intervention to have a successful interaction with the library. Formulating a precise question may not be easy, even for experienced researchers. For example, in a search about serving persons who have been infected with HIV, you may need to decide whether the research requires you to consider whether the person who is HIV positive has moved along the spectrum to be medically diagnosed as having AIDS. This decision is directly related to the search that will need to be done:

HIV-positive persons--Counseling of
AIDS (Disease)--Patients--Counseling of

Issue 2: from topic to query 

The second of Vickery's caveats is that "[The researcher] may have chosen the correct concepts to express the subject, but may not have used the standard words of the index."[1 p.4] This is the "entry vocabulary" issue. What user would guess that the question "Where all did Dickens live?" would be answered with a search using "Dickens, Charles -- Homes and haunts"? And that all of the terms listed as "use for" below would translate to the term "HIV (Viruses)" in the catalog? (h/t Netanel Ganin):

As Pauline Cochrane points out[4], beginning in the latter part of the 20th century, libraries found themselves unable to include the necessary cross-reference information in their card catalogs, due to the cost of producing the cards. Instead, they asked users to look up terms in the subject heading reference books used by catalog librarians to create the headings. These books are not available to users of online catalogs, and although some current online catalogs include authorized alternate entry points in their searches, many do not.* This means that we have multiple generations of users who have not encountered "term switching" in their library catalog usage, and who probably do not understand its utility.

Even with such a terminology-switching mechanism, finding the proper entry in the catalog is not at all simple. The article by Thomas Mann (of Library of Congress, not the German author) on “The Peloponnesian War and the Future of Reference, Cataloging, and Scholarship in Research Libraries” [5] shows not only how complex that process might be, but it also indicates that the translation can only be accomplished by a library-trained expert. This presents us with a great difficulty because there are not enough such experts available to guide users, and not all users are willing to avail themselves of those services. How would a user discover that literature is French, but performing arts are in France?:

French literature
Performing arts -- France -- History

Or, using the example in Mann's piece, the searcher looking for in information on tribute payments in the Peloponnesian war needed to look under "Finance, public–Greece–Athens".  This type of search failure fuels the argument that full text search is a better solution, and a search of Google Books on "tribute payments Peloponnesian war" does yield some results. The other side of the argument is that full text searches fail to retrieve documents not in the search language, while library subject headings apply to all materials in all languages. Somehow, this latter argument, in my experience, doesn't convince.

Issue 3: term order 

The third point by Vickery is one that keyword indexing has solved, which is "...the searcher may use the correct words to express the subject, but may not choose the correct combination order."[1 p.4] In 1959, when Vickery was writing this particular piece, having the wrong order of terms resulted in a failed search. Mann, however, would say that with keyword searching the user does not encounter the context that the pre-coordinated headings provide; thus keyword searching is not a solution at all. I'm with him part way, because I think keyword searching as an entry to a vocabulary can be useful if the syndetic structure is visible with such a beginning. Keyword searching directly against bibliographic records, less so.

Comparison to FRBR "find" 

FRBR's "find" is described as "to find entities that correspond to the user’s stated search criteria". [6 p. 79] We could presume that in FRBR the "user's stated search criteria" has either been modified through a prior process (although I hardly know what that would be, other than a reference interview), or that the library system has the capability to interact with the user in such a way that the user's search is optimized to meet the terminology of the library's knowledge organization system. This latter would require some kind of artificial intelligence and seems unlikely. The former simply does not happen often today, with most users being at a computer rather than a reference desk. FRBR's find seems to carry the same assumption as has been made functional in online catalogs, which is that the appropriateness of the search string is not questioned.


There are two take-aways from this set of observations:

  1. We are failing to help users refine their query, which means that they may actually be basing their searches on concepts that will not fulfill their information need in the library catalog. 
  2. We are failing to help users translate their query into the language of the catalog(s). 

I would add that the language of the catalog should show users how the catalog is organized and how the knowledge universe is addressed by the library. This is implied in the second take-away, but I wanted to bring it out specifically, because it is a failure that particularly bothers me.


*I did a search in various catalogs on "cancer" and "carcinoma". Cancer is the form used in LCSH-cataloged bibliographic records, and carcinoma is a cross reference. I found a local public library whose Bibliocommons catalog did retrieve all of the records with "cancer" in them when the search was on "carcinoma"; and that the same search in the Harvard Hollis system did not (carcinoma: 1889 retrievals; cancer 21,311). These are just two catalogs, and not a representative sample, to say the least, but the fact seems to be shown.


[1] Vickery, B C. Classification and Indexing in Science. New York: Academic Press, 1959.
[2] Katz, Bill. Introduction to Reference Work: Reference Services and Reference Processes. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992. p. 82 Cited in: Brown, Stephanie Willen. The Reference Interview: Theories and Practice. Library Philosophy and Practice 2008. ISSN 1522-0222
[3] Modern Subject Access in the Online Age: Lesson 3 Author(s): Pauline A. Cochrane, Marcia J. Bates, Margaret Beckman, Hans H. Wellisch, Sanford Berman, Toni Petersen, Stephen E. Wiberley and Jr. Source: American Libraries, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Apr., 1984), pp. 250-252, 254-255 Stable URL:
[4] Modern Subject Access in the Online Age: Lesson 2 Pauline A. Cochrane American Libraries Vol. 15, No. 3 (Mar., 1984), pp. 145-148, 150 Stable URL:
[5] Thomas Mann, “The Peloponnesian War and the Future of Reference, Cataloging, and Scholarship in Research Libraries” (June 13, 2007). PDF, 41 pp.
[6] IFLA Study Group on the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records. Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records, 2009.

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