“We want to look for concepts, but we are forced to search for words”

This quote is from my old Online Retrieval textbook by Geraldine Walker and Joseph Janes. 

I’ve been rereading this textbook to reacquaint myself with the theory behind information classification and retrieval.  I’m really enjoying the discussions on the intangible nature of information, information organization and why technology cannot replace the service that information professionals provide.  I am also enjoying the emphasis on the importance of bibliographic databases, such as library catalogues, over the use of the internet.

The first chapter of this text, “The Search for Information in the Online Age” focuses on information retrieval in a society that is facing information overload.  Originally, cataloguers were charged with the tasks of collecting and preserving information. With high literacy rates and the spread of digital information, our focus has shifted to figuring out ways to retain and find information.  With the abundance of print and digital materials available, it is no longer expected that libraries will maintain all of the physical items in one place. We are expected to organize the information so that it can be retrieved, wherever it is or isn’t physically located (ie. digital information, downloadable programs and documents).

While it is true that technology has assisted us greatly in the storage and retrieval of information, it cannot replace what we do.  Despite the belief that the internet or copy cataloguing is a cheap and easy solution, there is a human side of information seeking that cannot be forgotten.  From my understanding of this text, in-house information specialists (cataloguers) add an intellectual and human element to information retrieval.  The first and most obvious need for “real” cataloguers involves reviewing information.  Are there spelling errors, words that have been misused, incorrect data, or inappropriate subject headings?  Is the material outdated?

As a cataloguer in Canada, I can give you several examples in our catalogue where the human element is also important.  We take almost all of our subject headings and authorities from LC.  However, we do not use the heading “African American” in our library system.  We use the subject heading “Blacks”.  As a result, when we copy catalogue, all of the records with African American have to be edited to use our local term.  Our headings for Indigenous/Aboriginal Peoples differ from LC as well.  Cataloguers in each library create local headings to help “customize” our catalogues and records to assist in fulfilling their specific community’s needs.  Cataloguing, and as an extension bib records, are not a one-size fits most” model.

While many people will flippantly say that most information can just be searched on the internet, my response is to point out that information on the internet is not evaluated, filtered or organized.  Many times, if you perform the same exact search twice, the results retrieved will differ.  The internet retrieves large amounts of information that must be evaluated before it is selected.  Our catalogues already do that for patrons.  Catalogues also provide controlled vocabulary and reliable resources.

The first chapter of this text goes on to explore the usefulness of different types of searching for information seekers.  They do not fit a “model” and they all have different needs.  We do not know what an information seeker will find relevant and what is relevant to one seeker may not be relevant to another.  Also, information seekers use information and seek information for different reasons.  I find this aspect of searching fascinating, especially when I’m cataloguing or thinking of future policies and procedures.  How we catalogue helps define people’s searches and the information they will retrieve.  Their training in our catalogue will shape their searches and our “labeling” of materials when using subject headings may impact whether or not an information seeker chooses a resource.

Reading again how information retrieval works from an information seeker’s perspective continues to be a form of professional development for me.  Bogged down by the politics and tasks of daily library life, it’s easy to forget the theories and ideals behind what we do.  For instance, it is nice to be reminded that our catalogue is not, even in its most basic form, a one-sided tool.   Information seeking and information retrieval is an interactive process that we play a vital role in.  How we structure our catalogues, format our bib summaries and catalogue items impact information seekers.  And, our information seekers impact how we catalogue and the appearance of our catalogue.  We are a group of interlinking entities that react, shift and move forward together.

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1 Comment

Filed under Our Profession, The Cataloguer, The Library Catalogue

One response to ““We want to look for concepts, but we are forced to search for words”

  1. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

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