Print

Print


Paul,

I was impressed with your postings on the LC series decisions. You showed a concern with both detailed and “macro” issues. I was particularly impressed by your willingness to get a little bit autobiographical in the “Dealing with conflict” message. Here’s one passage I wanted to respond to:

 

[O]ur profession is too meek. Disagreement is discouraged, particularly in public fora. Conflicts are avoided. Strong sentiments are often met with condescension. We often mutter to ourselves or complain to colleagues about some other person or organization, but often won’t constructively engage the other. Some members of our community value niceness over new ideas, risk-taking, or challenging each other. This has got to stop. This is not going to move us forward as a profession.”

 

I agree strongly with that statement, with one exception, and hope we will stop to consider it. I was considering sending a message this afternoon on the same matter. Here’s an excerpt:

 

“In my scant 5 years in librarianship (or maybe 7 if you count library school), I have seen two attitudes among librarians that are often confused. I think one is good and the other, not always. 

 

“1) Be helpful.

“2) Get along with others.

 

“Helpfulness is one of the real bases of librarianship and the reason we have a truly "noble profession." We are people who really care about others' needs and work to fill them if possible. We care about more than the "bottom line." We're satisfied to earn smaller salaries than people in some comparable professions because we love our work. But too often, I think librarians, in their desire to be helpful, think that ducking controversy is the best way to do it.” [end quote]

 

Where I may disagree with you is the part about “valuing niceness over new ideas, risk-taking . . .” On the contrary, in the time I’ve been in librarianship, I’ve heard “change is the only constant” repeated ad nauseam. To respond to your message below, when has anyone on this list ever refused to “give our process and metadata elements a good, hard look”? When I critiqued the Calhoun and California reports, I quoted from particular passages in them. I read those reports. I did the RedLightGreen searches that were described in the California report.  I never refused to examine the proposals presented there because I “resisted change and insisted on the importance of traditional values."  I don’t think I’m unique in that. I see no evidence that criticisms on this list have to do with “resistance to change,” unless change is seen as an end in itself.  Then it’s true, we are resisting change.   

On the contrary, I see librarians’ excessive “niceness” as manifested more in a readiness to give up important library values than in fear of “new ideas.”  I particularly recommend to anybody who hasn’t read it the article “The bookless future” by David Bell in the May 2, 2005 New Republic. I think I can escape suspicion of being biased in this recommendation, because Bell actually accepts the “optimistic” views of the power of digitization and keyword searches that Calhoun and the California reports espouse.  But unlike them, Bell’s article is remarkable for the degree to which it shows the downside of rushing to digitization, electronic publishing, and keyword searches.  His pro-digital stance is almost convincing, but I came away from the article all the more convinced that libraries and our whole society are threatened by excessive faith in it.  Here’s one really powerful excerpt:

“The very nature of the computer presents a different problem. If physical discomfort discourages the reading of texts sequentially, from start to finish, computers make it spectacularly easy to move through texts in other ways--in particular, by searching for particular pieces of information. Reading in this strategic, targeted manner can feel empowering. Instead of surrendering to the organizing logic of the book you are reading, you can approach it with your own questions and glean precisely what you want from it. You are the master, not some dead author. And this is precisely where the greatest dangers lie, because when reading, you should not be the master. Information is not knowledge; searching is not reading; and surrendering to the organizing logic of a book is, after all, the way one learns. [Italics mine]

“If my own experience is any guide, "search-driven" reading can make for depressingly sloppy scholarship. Recently, I decided to examine the way in which the radical eighteenth-century thinker d'Holbach discussed warfare. I could have read his book Universal Morality in the rare-book room of my university library, but I decided instead to download a copy (it took about two minutes). And then, faced with a text hundreds of pages long, instead of reading from start to finish, I searched for the words "war" and "peace." I found a great many juicy quotations, which I conveniently cut and pasted directly into my notes. But at the end, I had very little idea of why d'Holbach had written his book in the first place. If I had had to read the physical book, I could still have skimmed, cut, and pasted, but I would have been forced to confront the text as a whole at some basic level. The computer encouraged me to read in exactly the wrong way, leaving me with little but a series of disembodied passages.”

Bear with me as I pass on one more gem from Bell’s article. Bell is a historian, and another fascinating thing he points out is that if you think of our current developments as a "digital revolution," something that will change how people read books, this isn't just a new step from the printing revolution of 5-6 centuries ago, but really involves replacing the way we've been reading for about 1,600 years. The "codex" or book with pages on separate sheets and bound together was invented about the 4th century. The printing revolution only changed how you create codices, not the reading format. Do we really expect that little digital book readers are going to replace that any time soon?

Bell says we should “bite the bullet” and accept digitization as the future and spend a lot of our resources on making the technology of reading online more comfortable.  But as one politician put the matter (rather crudely) once, “if you make 9 women pregnant, you’re not going to get a baby in 1 month.”  Things take time. Why should we think that an information format that has worked for over 1,600 years is going to be replaced within the next few years? 

I know that’s pretty far afield from where this message started, but I do think all of these matters are connected.

            --Ted Gemberling, UAB Lister Hill Library, Birmingham, Ala.


 

From: Program for Cooperative Cataloging [mailto:[log in to unmask]] On Behalf Of Paul J. Weiss
Sent: Thursday, May 25, 2006 1:14 PM
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: [PCCLIST] "Culture wars" in cataloging

 

I agree with David that we in the cataloging/metadata communities are at a point at which many of our philosophies and practices are undergoing upheaval; we do need to change our community culture. But, as with recent US presidential elections, I think it is an oversimplification to view the cataloging community as being split into two camps. The reality is much more complex than that. There are many in the community who welcome the idea of giving our process and metadata elements a good, hard look. Most of the catalogers I talk to actually are excited by the possibilities before us. I think what you are sensing is that there is a desire for more rationality in decision-making.

I agree that front-line staff want to and should participate in our rethinking of cataloging. Dialog works both ways; if LC is not entering into true dialog, of course catalogers feel shut out.

Yes, there are indeed some for whom "moving away from the old practices is being met with fierce resistance". But I think David and others misread the community as a whole. It is not so much old _practices_ that are being safeguarded, but core values and philosophies

Statements in David's message below such as:
     "The discussions would need focus lest they turn into rambling gripe sessions about the end of the world."
     "It is more appealing [for some] to
serve to further exacerbate the polarization that is being deplored in other parts of the message.

Paul

At 2006/05/24 09:15 a, you wrote:

All:  I sent a slightly different version of this message to the PCC Policy Committee earlier today.  I've been asked to share it beyond that group.  Here it is.

The flurry of messages on the various lists concerning LC's series treatment decision has been an interesting look at the current (mental) state of the profession.  LC's announcement, coming on the heels of a number of other significant developments --the reports from Karen Calhoun, the University of California, and Indiana University, as well as the merger of RLG and OCLC, have certainly brought a lot of heat, if not always a great deal of light, to the ongoing discussion of the future of cataloging and library catalogs. 

That two camps with widely divergent views exist is quite obvious. The sharp reactions on both sides indicate to me that we are in the thick of a major transition.  We might think of this as a "culture war" within cataloging, with each side trying to (re)claim the purpose and nature of cataloging and catalogs for both present and future.  The more conservative forces, which seem to include many front-line staff, are vigorously (sometimes stridently) defending the status quo, or even the status quo ante; others, primarily managers and administrators, are trying to move away from the old models toward something very different.  The challenge for folks in the latter group is that they don't --indeed, can't--know exactly where all of this will lead.  A gulf of uncertainty created by the inherently unknowable nature of this future has become patently evident these last few weeks.  That the uncertainty threatens many whose professional identities and notions of worth hinge on the indefinite continuation of the status quo accounts for much of the emotion surrounding the debates here and elsewhere.

To use an imperfect but illustrative analogy, cataloging today resembles the welfare states of Europe. Like contemporary Germany or France, it is marked by high labor costs and a high degree of regulation; is heavily bureaucratized in the form of a vast array of professional groups and institutional committees; and it has a rapidly aging population.  Its prospects for long-term growth in a very dynamic global information economy are dim unless significant structural changes are made.  Like many political and business leaders in Europe, most library leaders have identified the problems and know what needs to be done, at least generally.  But they also realize that for the most part, the staff do not want change.  Like life in the European welfare states, the professional environment for catalogers has been comfortable and secure.  The rules of the trade may be elaborate and the bureaucracy can be stifling, but mastery of both brings to many practitioners a strong sense of satisfaction and the comfort of community.  Indeed, the community been especially valuable as a support for its members as the pressure to become more efficient  (and thus to re-evaluate the need for traditional practices) has increased.   To exchange that existence for one filled with risk and uncertainty, even if the status quo seems unsustainable, is not something the majority are prepared to do.  It is more appealing to resist the change and insist on the importance of traditional values than to engage thoughtfully in a discussion about the future. 

My unsolicited advice for the PoCo is not to fall into the trap of arguing with the people most threatened by change.  The debate is surrounded by far too much emotion to be productive.  Instead, I think that the PCC leadership should think carefully about what kinds of roles catalogers will have in the future.  They need to gather feedback, listen closely, and allow for open discussions to take place.  A genuine dialogue must occur; if the opinions are solicited only to be ignored, the process will be nothing more than a cynical facade, and it will most certainly backfire.   If front-line folks feel they are part of the planning process, they may be much less likely to resist and much more likely to become engaged.  We must also remember that in looking to the future, the past must be honored and respect.  Traditional cataloging has served many library users well for decades.  The principles underlying those practices remain valid today.  We must be careful not to disparage those principles even as we seek to move away from the old practices that hinder our ability to respond to rapidly changing user expectations, that have higher opportunity costs than value, or both.  But we must also look forward.  Honoring the past does not mean living in it, nor does it mean squandering opportunities for the future to placate the disgruntled staff of the present. 

The statements from the ALA Executive Board about the LC series decision, Thomas Mann's rebuttal of Karen Calhoun's report, the many, many messages on AUTOCAT and other lists about both topics, and even Michael Gorman's most recent column in American Libraries, bemoaning the state of library education (he believes it's not traditional enough) strongly suggest that moving away from the old practices is being met with fierce resistance.  It's obvious that library leaders who seek meaningful changes in the way we work have their work cut out for them.  What is not so easy to see is how to bridge the gap between those who wish to move to a different way of looking at cataloging and catalogs and those who feel too threatened by change to consider reforms anything but heresy or betrayal.  If the PCC wishes to diffuse some of the heat surrounding these issues--and I am hopeful it does--then PoCo needs to be thinking very carefully about how it can help to bridge this gap.  I believe Joan Swanekamp has pointed out that the strategic plan calls for PCC to assist catalogers in this time of transition.  I think there can be no issue of greater importance.   

But how to do it?  Obviously (pace Hamlet) that is the question, and unfortunately, no one has the definitive answer to it.  But perhaps there are few things that could be done now.  Holding open forums at the PCC membership meetings to gather the kind of feedback I mention above are simple to do and would help community members air their views.  The discussions would need focus lest they turn into rambling gripe sessions about the end of the world.  The community has people who could lead such discussions skillfully and productively.  PCC should also consider taking a more active role in gathering real evidence to inform decisions about cataloging through thorough and ongoing user studies.   Anecdotal evidence alone is not sufficient to justify continuing a given practice, but the debate is filled with assertions that "our users rely on X to do their work."  A partnership with appropriate groups across specialty lines would seem the most logical way to handle this.  Having examples of projects in member institutions where catalogers' skills are being put to use outside of the traditional MARC/AARC2-based universe may also help illustrate that there is indeed life after the card catalog, ISBD punctuation, and series tracings, at least for those who want it. 

I realize these are only a few suggestions, but I think if PCC is to demonstrate a true leadership role, it will have to move beyond reaction to change or mitigating the "damage" caused by changes in practice.  Thanks for your attention. 

   
David



David Banush
Head, Cataloging Services
Subject Specialist, Bibliography, Information and Library Science
Library Technical Services
Cornell University Library
110D Olin Library
Ithaca, NY 14853

Voice: (607) 254-8031
Fax: (607) 255-6110
[log in to unmask]
http://www.library.cornell.edu/tsweb/



_______________________________________
Paul J. Weiss
Catalog Librarian and NACO Coordinator
Metadata Services Department
UCSD Libraries
858-534-3537
_______________________________________