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EDUCAT  March 2008

EDUCAT March 2008

Subject:

Re: Ethics in Cataloging

From:

Cheryl Boettcher Tarsala <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Discussion List for issues related to cataloging & metadata education & training <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Thu, 13 Mar 2008 09:17:46 -0700

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text/plain

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Hi Bryan,

     I've been piddling with a draft answer to your question while 
lurking over the past week, so maybe I should just send this now and 
hope that it's coherent enough.

    Ever since I stumbled across Sheila Bair's Ethics in Cataloging 
article, I've included it in my advanced class syllabus. This 
semester I went deeper into her text and read some things from her 
bibliography to bring into our discussion.

    When my students were discussing Bair's article, their comments 
centered around "all that's great, if only there were money and 
staff." The question of dumped TOCs that you're asking about and most 
other ethical issues she mentions in her 10-point list come down to 
ideals in the face of budget constraints. I'm not sure that you can 
go much beyond that with a set of directives like Bair's.

      What was more interesting for us in discussion were some of the 
points made in articles that Bair cites, particularly Hope Olson's 
article from Signs  (sorry, I'm relying on your eventually posting a 
bibliography that includes full citations to these):

>p. 640: "Our systems seem transparent in Henri Lefebvre's use of the 
>term --they appear unbiased and universally applicable -- but they 
>actually hide their exclusions under the guise of neutrality."
>p. 643: "[In Cutter] The cataloger's task is to deconstruct this 
>binary opposition of public/private, interweaving her private work 
>with the public."
>p. 659: "Rather than create a new standard for managing information, 
>I prefer to follow Cornell's injunction to develop an ethical 
>relationship with the other through techniques for making the limits 
>of our existing information systems permeable. ... Instead of 
>possessing the power exclusively, we who are on the inside of the 
>information structures must create holes in our structures through 
>which the power can leak out."
>p. 659: 3 ways
>1. to apply technology in innovative and subversive ways
>2. to stretch standards such as LCSH and DDC
>3. to adopt an active stance by creating spaces in our boundaries 
>for the voices of those who have been excluded.

      This ethical approach could help prioritize where to spend 
limited money. Maybe. It's worth discussing.

      To me,  Heidi Hoerman's pithy quote from CCQ (Why everyone hates 
catalogers) is also core to a discussion about ethics:

>    "I share your cataloging records."

She refers to the practice that's easy to slip into--that of using 
the cataloging commons without giving back to it.  In an age where LC 
subsidy of cataloging is drying up and local resources remain 
limited, what is an ethical stance that catalogers can take with 
regard to cooperative cataloging?

         It has been interesting to see that both Olson's and 
Hoerman's observations reinforced by people who have posted in this 
thread (Faye Leibowitz and Janet Swan Hill, particularly).

        In my opinion, it all comes back to Ranganathan's Laws and 
Berman's Principles, which fit on a post-it that you can stick up 
next to your computer monitor to remind you of why catalogers should 
insist that ethically aware human beings insert themselves into the 
industrial data-processing complex. Perhaps all cataloging students 
should be issued a tiny principles poster that's "suitable for 
framing."

        Your question and this discussion have made me rethink my 
approach of  mentioning ethics and moving on to the next item. That's 
not a way to bring ethics into the curriculum. It's really necessary 
to look at the post-it every single day in planning instruction, and 
to bring the principles back in to every unit about every type of 
material.  I don't know exactly how to do that, so my comments below 
are just sketches of ideas.

        It seems like certain "cultural bias" issues recur regularly 
and are classroom staples (for example, the fierce debate about 
including gender in authority records that was occurring on RDA-L, or 
classic Berman examples of embarrassing LCSH terms).  I would say 
that this self-awareness of the power of language and our historical 
position in the non-profit sector gives us the ability to point out 
when the commercial metadata emperor has no clothes. We can pretty 
well transmit awareness of the "invisible" exclusions like this to 
our students, though its very nature is to sneak up on you and hit 
you from behind just when you think you are all inclusionist and 
objective!

      Yet the broader ethical challenges we're facing come from the 
big debates swirling around the future of the catalog. You could say 
that we need to discuss initiatives like LibraryThing and Google 
Books, and discussions on JESSE that are focusing on the reality that 
1% of Wikipedia editors do most of the writing and that they 
perpetuate a "deletionist" culture.  Or calls from NGC4LIB and from 
within the catalog-futures community to cut cataloger-produced 
metadata and content standards--even surrogate representations of 
books--out of the future vision of digital libraries.  As 
professionals, we know that lack of full catalog records in Google 
Books does not "save the time of the reader" because you can't 
collocate editions of works, or find everything by an author. And I 
question whether outsourcing tagging and metadata creation to 
volunteers (a la Wikipedia) is ethical. I think people with talent 
and passion for creating metadata should be paid a living wage for 
their labor, and have accountability to the cultural institutions 
that rely on their work, and to deepen their understanding of their 
work through education. When I read a laundry list of "kewl" things 
that the next generation catalog will be able to support, I wonder 
"who has time to use this stuff?" and "why does everyone have to be 
their own cataloger" and "what vision of knowledge and its role in 
culture is this supporting"?  Are the people implementing these new 
DL/NGC technologies sufficiently aware of Lefebvre's transparency 
problem, or are they the innovative and subversive hole-punchers that 
Olson calls for?  Are we asking the right ethical questions about 
what any of our future systems should do?  Some of this could be 
addressed by bringing together ideas from Community Informatics 
researchers and activists with traditional cataloging curricula, 
perhaps.

      Again, just stray thoughts from spending too much time reading 
discussion lists. Including that in an overstuffed cataloging 
course--beats me how to do it!  But I need to get back to addressing 
that problem in my courses right now and not just blathering about it.

-- 
Cheryl Boettcher Tarsala, Ph.D.

"I teach cataloging."  ... and I want well-paid, ethical 
professionals to catalog things well to save my time!

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