Thomas Mann: The Changing Nature of the Catalog and Its Integration with Other Discovery Tools. A Critical Review

Mann, T. (2006, April 3). The Changing Nature of the Catalog and Its Integration with Other Discovery Tools. Final Report. March 17, 2006. Prepared for the
Library of Congress by Karen Calhoun. A Critical Review
by Thomas Mann. Library of Congress Professional Guild, AFSCME, Local 2910.

Calhoun is primarily concerned with research libraries, but I believe her conclusions are more broadly applicable to all libraries, and my comments in the previous post reflect that.  Mann, though, is specifically concerned with research libraries, academia, and scholarship, so I will share his focus and mostly constrain my comments to the field of research libraries.

In the real world … the goal of any business is to make a profit–which is not the same thing as the goal of increasing market share.  … the very funding that enables research libraries to continue in operation is not dependent on market place forces to begin with. (pp.3-4).

This is a direct shot at Calhoun’s report, and at first glance it appears to strike home.  The goal of libraries obviously isn’t to make profits.  But then again, some would argue that market share is a fair measure of library performance–libraries want their base to choose them over alternative sources of information.  Businesses and libraries can have different motivations and still compete with each other.  Mann clearly disagrees though–he believes that research libraries should primarily aim to serve the small population of serious researchers.  I think Mann has a valid point of view–I don’t completely agree with his conclusions but I believe they are deserving of serious consideration.  But he is mistaken to think that libraries, research or otherwise, are free from market forces; taken to the logical extreme, a library with no users has no value.  Well before that point, a dwindling pool of users would quickly lead to reduced funding.  A death-spiral of reduced use and budget cuts could easily result.

“Fortunately,” she says, “there are ways to use the knowledge that today’s catalog has reached the end of its life cycle” (p. 10). Excuse me? When did wishful thinking and rhetorical distortion of metaphors become objective “knowledge”? A dubious biological metaphor with a concealed proposition of finitude has now suddenly transformed itself into a conclusion that the “life” of today’s catalog “has reached”–not, apparently, a couple decades in the future, but already–its “end” (p.5).

Quite the overwrought statement from Mann.  In attacking Calhoun for “rhetorical distortion of metaphors,” he displays a startling ignorance of the fact that “life cycle” as applied to business is a common and widely understood term.  Wikipedia lists eleven possibilities for the life cycle disambiguation page, nine of which lead to business or software articles; one of the remaining two is for the LIFECYCLE charity, the other refers to the biological meaning.

Mann’s larger point, that Calhoun’s claims about the waning value of the catalog are unsubstantiated, is more valid.  He overstates the point, though.  I’ll make my own generalized, unsubstantiated claim–it’s obvious that the importance of catalogs is at least in steady decline.  How could it not be, with more information of great value than ever before available outside library holdings, in online public journals and databases, in other websites, in multimedia.  Is there any reason to assume that trend will reverse? It might not be dead, but, barring the significant upgrades Calhoun puts forth, the catalog is certainly ailing.

The belief that “digitization projects” somehow kill the need for catalogs, or at least 6 hasten the end of their “life cycle,” is yet another unargued and undemonstrated proposition. The implication is that just throwing more keywords into the hopper eliminates the need for controlling search terms through standardization and authority work. And the further unargued implication, on top of that, is that if there are enough words available, then anyone can find something on any topic–and “something” is all that anyone needs (p.6).

First of all, the characterization of Mann’s true target here, Google, as merely “throwing more keywords into the hopper” is a profound underestimation of the complexity that lies beneath Google’s simple interface.  There’s no shortage of evidence on this point; a recent Wired article is just one example.  Mann’s next point reveals another divide between Calhoun and him: where Mann believes he knows what users need, Calhoun is concerned with what users want, as evidenced by their behavior.  I’m suspicious of Mann’s view, as history is full of misguided souls convinced they know best, but I’ll grant that he convincingly discredits the slim evidence Calhoun presents in support of her Report, while supplying more extensive support for his own claims.

Is even the business world, let alone the academic, in fact moving in the direction asserted by Calhoun? Have people truly overcome their reluctance to buy or read e-books? Barnes & Noble stopped selling them in September of 2003 because there was no “demand” for them in the “market” whose verdict Calhoun elsewhere regards so highly (p.6).

Amazing how quickly technology can make one look foolish, isn’t it?  Seriously, Publisher’s Weekly reports, “e-book sales from the 13 publishers that report figures to the Association of American Publishers soared 176.6% in 2009, to $169.5 million, the AAP reported Friday. The jump in e-book sales coupled with a slight decline in sales of print trade books increased e-book’s share of trade sales from 1.2% in 2008 to 3.3% in 2009.”  3% is still a tiny figure, but take a look at another example of another new form of media displacing its predecessor [edit 2011-05-10: broken link; site defunct]:


So swap printed books for vinyl/cassettes, ebooks for cds, and imagine it’s around 1986–would you want to be planning the future of your institution around the old medium or the new one?  Also bear in mind that Apple released the iPad–in many respects, an iPod for books–just days ago.  Considering how the iPod fueled the market for digital music, it’s fair to predict a similar growth in eBooks (and audiobooks, and graphic novels, and interactive narratives…)

Consider also the lesson’s of Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail: the rise of digital media opened the path for users to explore a greater range of niche products than brick-and-mortar retailers ever could.  The Long Tail for text will include rare books, unpublished works, out-of-print books, orphan works, and the like.  Imagine what having all the world’s graduate theses indexed and accessible will mean to scholarship!  This will have obvious importance for research libraries.

But the “niche”option is quite sensible. [Calhoun] misrepresents the niche option … [as] segmented by subject areas … .  The actual niche audience to be served by research libraries, however, is that of scholars–in all subject areas and disciplines–as distinct from quick information seekers. The crucial distinction that Calhoun misses is between levels of research rather than subjects of research. There is of course overlap between the scholars and “information seekers”–and, indeed, the very same people can have scholarly goals in mind for one project whereas they might need only quick information on another. But research libraries have a particular responsibility to serve the needs of scholars–especially because the alternatives of Google, Amazon, AltaVista, while being excellent sources for “something” on a subject provided “quickly,” nonetheless fail to support scholarship in several specific (and very important) ways (p.7).

One might use a cooking analogy. Many people are probably quite happy with whatever cooking they can do, quickly and easily, on a George Foreman Grill. But others will need the additional capacities of stove-top burners and ovens for more complicated meals. Should all cooking be reduced to George Foreman grilling because it provides “something” in a way that is faster than an oven can produce? The point for libraries, and library catalogs, is that dumbing down the very capacities of the retrieval system for one segment of the population–“information seekers”–also dumbs it down for everyone else, including the scholars who need the browse displays such as that exemplified above, not just “relevance-ranked” records for English language books (p.13)

Mann’s strongest points.  I can’t argue with him here.

A quick-information seeker would never be able to specify in advance the range of words, from either titles or tables of contents, that would retrieve this set of records. Vocabulary control is necessary to create the conceptual category (Personal narratives) of these records–mere “relevance ranking” of their keywords would scatter these related titles to the winds.

Second, the browse display of left-anchored LCSH terms brings aspects of the subject to the attention of researchers that they would not think, beforehand, even to exist. How many people would think of options like Prisoners and prisons or Drama or Poetry in connection with “Bay of Pigs”? Who would think of typing those terms into a blank search box? The virtue of the LCSH system, and the browse displays of left-anchored subject strings that it creates in OPACs, is that it very easily enables researchers to recognize not just relevant individual titles that could not be specified in advance, but whole conceptual categories that are equally unanticipated, but nonetheless relevant to anyone trying to get an overview of an unfamiliar topic (p.14).

Mann isn’t wrong, but he overlooks that tags are another way to solve this problem.  Using his set of examples, and assuming a well-tagged collection of records, a researcher could start by searching for everything tagged Cuba, then narrow their results to items that are also tagged Bay of Pigs.  At that point, every other tag applied to that set of results could be browsed.  The assumption of a well-tagged collection is a large jump, admittedly, and some form of vocabulary control is still needed, but I’d wager that such a system could provide greater recall without sacrificing precision.

Why does this commissioned report lean so heavily towards the limitations of OCLC’s and Google’s capabilities to the detriment of their competitors in the market place, whose software makes much more efficient use of LCSH? What will happen to the “market position” of those competitors if LC suddenly undercuts them by failing to provide the linked strings of LCSH terms on which they depend? Should a federal agency such as LC be using its enormous influence to “tilt” the market toward OCLC and Google (p.17)?

It’s easy to flip that around–would it be more appropriate for LC to be beholden to existing legacy catalog vendors?  Mann’s accusation of bias on the part of his opponent reveals his own bias.

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