The Changing Nature of the Catalog : A Response to Calhoun, Mann, and Yee

The Changing Nature of the Catalog – A Response to Calhoun, Mann, and Yee (PDF)

The central premise of Calhoun’s report is that technology has “created an era of discontinuous change in research libraries—a time when the cumulated assets of the past do not guarantee future success” (2006, p. 5).  Calhoun’s perspective is that this notion applies directly to traditional library cataloging.  Yee argues that traditional cataloging is fundamental to the value of libraries (2007).  Mann makes the case that research libraries’ primary mission is to serve the specific needs of serious scholarship (2006).  Each is right in their own way.  Mann and Yee, though, fail to recognize the changes that the coming of the Information Age has wrought on the world outside libraries.  Far too much valuable information is outside the reach of traditional catalogs.  Libraries must embrace technology to extend the grasp of catalogs beyond local holdings.

Mann believes that research libraries should primarily aim to serve the small population of serious researchers.  I do not agree with Mann’s other conclusions but it is hard to find fault with this one.  He is mistaken, though, to think that research libraries or other institutions are free from market forces—taken to the logical extreme, a library with no users has no value.  Market share is a fair measure of library performance; libraries want their base to choose them over alternative sources of information.  “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” (“Corporate Information – Quick Profile,” n.d.)  Is that not also the mission of libraries?  Businesses and libraries can have different motivations yet still compete.

Maybe research libraries should be niche products, primarily oriented towards in-depth research, as Mann argues.  However, that path relies on an assumption as radical as Calhoun’s: that information of value to serious researchers is exclusively found in books, local archives, and other traditional library holdings, and that this state of affairs is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.  Simply put, I think this premise is wrong.

Both Mann and Yee display a striking ignorance of technology.  The nadir of Yee’s response comes with the paragraph that begins, “Computers are dumb machines” (2007).  Almost every word of this passage is either dated or just plain wrong.  There is nothing “allegedly sophisticated” about Google’s algorithms, which factor in more than 200 signals, one of which, PageRank, considers “more than 500 million variables” (“Corporate Information – Technology Overview,” n.d.).  By analyzing information like context and user behavior, Google addresses every area raised by Yee (Levy, 2010).  I agree, though, that ceding the field of organizing of information to Google is dangerous—the Internet and the market are too fickle for libraries to tie themselves to any one mast.  Nevertheless, spurning the lessons Google can offer defies logic and smacks of hubris.  Yee writes, “Google and Amazon.com limit human intervention for information organization as much as possible in order to maximize profits” (2007).  While correct, this misses the point—the two companies do so because it is the only way to scale to the enormity of the internet.  As Calhoun suggests, libraries have to accept some form of automated cataloging if they are to remain relevant in the Information Age.

Mann is unwilling to admit the value that the Internet offers for scholarship.  Yee makes the same mistake, mischaracterizing the Internet as no more than “ready reference.”  The Internet runs the full gamut, from ready reference to raw data, and from blogs to published research.  Mann has a valid point that Calhoun’s claims about the waning value of the catalog are unsubstantiated.  He overstates the point, though—unsubstantiated does not necessarily equate to wrong, just unproven.  My counter to Mann is that it is obvious that the importance of catalogs is at least in steady decline, with more valuable information than ever before available outside library holdings.  Is there any reason to assume that trend will reverse?  The catalog might not be dead, but, barring the significant upgrades Calhoun puts forth, it is certainly ailing.

One can question the basic premise of the Calhoun Report, as Mann and Yee strenuously do.  If, though, you accept discontinuous change as a starting point, the rational conclusion is that a radically changing environment must be met with an equally radical response.  It comes down how one gauges the chance that the Information Age presents an existential threat to catalogs and to libraries themselves.  Mann and Yee are conservative—they long to restore the status quo.  I think that libraries underreacted to the rise of the Internet in the early nineties and ever since have been falling further behind the technologically driven wave of change that continues to sweep over society.

Mann and Yee may not like it but libraries are reacting to this wave at last.  I fear, though, that they still have not caught up to the scale and pace of change in the Information Age.  Calhoun outlines a wide range of responses to this dilemma for library catalogs, from incremental improvements to revolutionary measures.  Greater change carries greater hazard, but these risks are necessary.  Failing to adapt is the riskiest course of all.

References

Calhoun, K. (2006). The Changing Nature of the Catalog and its Integration with Other Discovery Tools. Retrieved from http://www.loc.gov/catdir/calhoun-report-final.pdf

Corporate Information – Quick Profile. (n.d.). Google. Retrieved April 8, 2010, from http://www.google.com/corporate/facts.html

Corporate Information – Technology Overview. (n.d.). Google. Retrieved from http://www.google.com/corporate/tech.html

Mann, T. (2006). The Changing Nature of the Catalog and Its Integration with Other Discovery Tools. Final Report. March 17, 2006. Prepared for the\line Library of Congress by Karen Calhoun. A Critical Review. Retrieved from http://www.guild2910.org/AFSCMECalhounReviewREV.pdf

Yee, M. M. (2007, July 24). Will The Response Of The Library Profession To The Internet Be Self-Immolation? Message posted to http://listserv.syr.edu/archives/autocat.html, archived at http://catalis.uns.edu.ar/doku/doku.php/yee-autoinmolacion http://www.slc.bc.ca/response.htm

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