Library student Joshua Kitlas interviewed LoC reference librarian Thomas Mann for one of his classes at Syracuse. I am a Mann Fan, so it was fun to get to read this.
“The profession is radically getting dumbed down. There is so much more to search than Google or OCLC. You need to see relationships between subjects and their headings. Tags by users are simply no substitute. Theyâ€™re okay as supplements to controlled vocabularies–but not substitutes. Thereâ€™s a need to go beyond the internet and look at the systems librarians and publishers have developed that are not accessible by Google or the other engines.”
David Weinberger has a concise summary of Thomas Mann’s long article about the concept of reference and scholarship and how it fits into modern day librarianship, especially research libraries. This is the sort of thing Michael Gorman talks about in grouchy pundit ways, but Mann really digs deeper and seems to understand both sides of the equation. Weinberger’s posts sums up some of the high points with some strong pullquotes, but I’d really also suggest reading Mann’s entire essay. Here are some quotes that I liked, but don’t think that gets you off the hook from reading it. You hve to get to about page 35 before you hit the “what sholdl we do about this?” part.
I cannot claim to have a system that flattens all the lumps, but I am concerned that many of the more important problems facing scholars are being ignored because a â€œdigital libraryâ€ paradigm puts blinders on our very ability to notice the problems in the first place.
On different types of searching:
Note that as a reference librarian I could bring to bear on this question a whole variety of different search techniques, of which most researchers are only dimly aware of (or not aware at all): I used not just keyword searching, but subject category searching (via LC=s subject headings), shelf-browsing (via LC’s classification system), related record searching, and citation searching. (I also did some rather sophisticated Boolean combination searching, with truncation symbols and parentheses, discussed below.) Further, as a librarian I thought in terms of types of literatureâ€“specialized encyclopedia articles, literature review articles, subject bibliographiesâ€“whose existence never even occurs to most non-librarians, who routinely think only in terms of subject searches rather than format searches. And, further, one of the reasons I sought out the Web database to begin with was that I knew it would also provide people contact informationâ€“i.e., the mail and e-mail addresses of scholars who have worked on the same topic. The point here needs emphasis: a research library can provide not only a vast amount of content that is not on the open Internet; it can also provide multiple different search techniques that are usually much more efficient than â€œrelevance rankedâ€ and â€œmore like thisâ€ Web searching. And most of these search techniques themselves are not available to offsite users who confine their searches to the open Internet.
While folksonomies have severe limitations and cannot replace conventional cataloging, they also offer real advantages that can supplement cataloging. Perhaps financial arrangements with LibraryThing (or other such operations) might be worked out in such a way that LC/OCLC catalog records for books would provide clickable links to LibraryThing records for the same works. In this way researchers could take advantage of that supplemental network of connections without losing the primary network created by professional librarians.
There’s a lot of talk going on lately about whether cataloging as it has been done really matters in the age of Google and keyword searching. I’ve been reading about it a lot, both online and in the print materials sent to me by the Sanford Berman postal express, including his back and forth letters to the head cataloger at LC. Sometimes it seems that everyone starts with the same data point, but still arrives at different conclusions. So, the OCLC team [who has a dog in this fight] tell us that “Ordinary people do not search subject headings, Berman or LCSH. They search key words. ” which I think many people agree with. Then we read Thomas Mann [another dog-holder] who has a longish article in Library Journal about scholarly research and the ancillary functions of subject headings as more than just entry points to the information held in a catalog.
Keyword search algorithms, no matter how sophisticated their “relevance ranking” capabilities, cannot turn exactly specified words into conceptual categories. They cannot provide the linkages and webs of relationships to other terms (in a variety of languages, too), nor map out in any systematic manner the range of unanticipated aspects of a subject. Keyword searches cannot segregate the desired terms in relevant contexts distinct from the same terms used in irrelevant contexts.
In contrast, LC cataloging and classificationâ€”done by professional librarians rather than computer programsâ€”accomplish exactly these functions that are so critical to scholarship. The search mechanisms created by librarians enable systematic searching, not merely desultory information seeking.
We all know Google is useful and is changing the way the average person searches for information. However, when we start to discuss whether Google is changing the way the average researcher does scholarship, then I think we have to be a lot more careful about understanding its [proprietary] mechanisms and thinking about what Google’s goals for Google are as well.