Thoughts on Chad Abel-Kops’ paper

Now that most of you have had an opportunity to read Mr. Abel-Kops’ paper, I thought it was time to write my own reflections on what he has written.

Rather than taking the view that we have not improved our cataloguing services although we have been aware of shortcomings as early as the 1940s, I take the position that it is to our credit that cataloguers have always acknowledged that ours is not a static profession, but requires constant attention and improvement. Indeed, the current Library of Congress task forces, discussion of RDA, AACR2 revisions and FRBR prove that we understand the need for change and we are addressing them.

I don’t believe there is a librarian or cataloguer active in the profession that isn’t aware of the fact that we compete with the internet. However, as professionals, many of us are aware of the role of the internet versus the role of the library catalogue. If we are falling short in any area, it is in the professions’ inability to express this difference to our users.

“But carefully constructed catalogs result in valuable recall and logical precision, right? When used thoroughly, the catalog provides answers; the latest Internet search engine, in contrast, produces wide-ranging and irregular guesses, with little control of linguistic or cultural variations. Users are left in a sea of confusion and quickly walk away from any types of anonymous, automated solutions.”

This is a quote from Mr. Abel-Kops’ paper which outlines our usual rhetoric when promoting the catalogue over the internet. While he goes on to state that this may appear to be true, in reality, users believe in “the principle of least effort”, I don’t believe we should be laying down our tools and looking to Google for answers. Indeed, I don’t believe that this statement is without merit. The library catalogue has a specific purpose. Rather than take the position that cataloguing and the catalogue is flawed, we should be focussing on methods we use to communicate the information to users. Emphasis on the end-user interface and experience is essential and has, up until this point, been largely ignored. While it is easy to point to cataloguing as the reason that the library catalogue is failing, it is harder to blame the profession as a whole and administrators for not emphasizing the end-user experience. I don’t believe the structure and rules behind cataloguing are where our weaknesses lie. The internet’s success is not based on whether or not we use controlled vocabulary, but the users’ experience with the interface and perceived results. The internet has been successful because of what it has done on the user’s end, not behind-the-scenes on the organization of information end.

What is ignored throughout the paper is the emphasis on what cataloguers continually attempt to do. I reject the idea that cataloguers don’t “focus on the needs that catalog librarians meet, rather than the methods they use.” Many professionals that I speak with are constantly striving to meet the needs of the users with an emphasis on moving away from the traditional models of the library catalogue. We seek to add more “see also” references and advocate for interfaces that reflect social tagging and communities.

“Humans provide meaning behind the information found; meaning that librarians strive to keep anonymous and objective, but in reality can never be.”

This is a powerful statement. However, meaning can be influenced by many factors. It can be influenced by the professions’ acceptance that the internet is superior to our library catalogue, as well as how information is ranked, displayed or “tagged” in a social setting. Indeed, meaning behind information is determined out of age, life-experience and socioeconomic class. We cannot be all things to all people. As professionals, we must determine how best to use our expertise to provide access to information so that end-users can create their own search experiences and meaning. It can be concluded that it is not the terms we apply or the information we provide that is of value to the users, it is the experiences they have while seeking the information that determines whether or not the library catalogue is successful.

I don’t believe we have a crisis in cataloguing. Cataloguers understand the need for change and continually attempt to do so. Indeed, no other area of librarianship has been required to change as much as cataloguing. From card catalogues to automated systems, to social tagging and emphasis on end-user satisfaction, cataloguers are doing their best to develop professionally. We continue to do so.

The fact that our services are not successful at the end-user level is not a cataloguing problem. It is far more wide-reaching than that. It is a problem for the entire profession. Why do the users believe in “the principle of least effort” and why don’t students understand the structure and use of the library catalogue? These issues require a look into the entire profession, not just the area of cataloguing.

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2 Comments

Filed under future of cataloguing, In the Cataloguing Department, Our Profession, The Library Catalogue

2 responses to “Thoughts on Chad Abel-Kops’ paper

  1. Yvonne

    Glad to find this blog, I am currently working as a cataloguer in an academic library in HK. Nice to meet you.

  2. Laurel Tarulli

    Yvonne,
    Nice to meet you too! I hope this blog contributes to your professional practices and knowledge. Please feel free to contribute ideas and advice. I’m always interested in hearing what others have to say.

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