Thomas Mann: “On the record” but off the track

Mann, T. (2008). “On the record” but off the track: a review of the report of the library of congress working group on the future of bibliographic control, with a further examination of library of congress cataloging tendencies.

Mann understates capabilities (and potential) of tags and keywords, but his conclusion that they should supplement, not replace, LCSH is well argued and probably right.  (Even if I can’t help but hear an old man complaining about that newfangled “Rock & Roll” in my head when I read him.)

These particular NT terms (Afshar dialect, Bashgali language, etc.) could not be positioned to begin with under –Languages and –Literatures if those terms were not subdivisions themselves, formally linked-by-precoordination to Afghanistan. Without precoordination, such NT cross-references cannot be intelligibly located in the overall scheme—i.e., if the name of every individual language, worldwide, were simply cross-referenced alphabetically under the individual facet-term Languages in general (lacking precoordination to a specific country or group), no one would be able to see the language-names in limited clusters that effectively point out their geographical and cultural affinities, unencumbered by hundreds of irrelevant and indiscriminate juxtapositions to all other languages worldwide. The precise linkages brought about by the browse-menus and cross-references convey information that is very important to scholarship—relational information that is not conveyed by the individual terms themselves. This is precisely what would be lost, entirely, if the naïve recommendations of the Working Group were These particular NT terms (Afshar dialect, Bashgali language, etc.) could not be positioned to begin with under –Languages and –Literatures if those terms were not subdivisions themselves, formally linked-by-precoordination to Afghanistan. Without precoordination, such NT cross-references cannot be intelligibly located in the overall scheme—i.e., if the name of every individual language, worldwide, were simply cross-referenced alphabetically under the individual facet-term Languages in general (lacking precoordination to a specific country or group), no one would be able to see the language-names in limited clusters that effectively point out their geographical and cultural affinities, unencumbered by hundreds of irrelevant and indiscriminate juxtapositions to all other languages worldwide. The precise linkages brought about by the browse-menus and cross-references convey information that is very important to scholarship—relational information that is not conveyed by the individual terms themselves. This is precisely what would be lost, entirely, if the naïve recommendations of the Working Group were These particular NT terms (Afshar dialect, Bashgali language, etc.) could not be positioned to begin with under –Languages and –Literatures if those terms were not subdivisions themselves, formally linked-by-precoordination to Afghanistan. Without precoordination, such NT cross-references cannot be intelligibly located in the overall scheme—i.e., if the name of every individual language, worldwide, were simply cross-referenced alphabetically under the individual facet-term Languages in general (lacking precoordination to a specific country or group), no one would be able to see the language-names in limited clusters that effectively point out their geographical and cultural affinities, unencumbered by hundreds of irrelevant and indiscriminate juxtapositions to all other languages worldwide. The precise linkages brought about by the browse-menus and cross-references convey information that is very important to scholarship—relational information that is not conveyed by the individual terms themselves. This is precisely what would be lost, entirely, if the naïve recommendations of the Working Group were followed, in opening up LCSH to “non-library stakeholders,” and in destroying precoordination in favor of using only individual terms or facets rather than conceptually-defined strings (16-17).

Mann either doesn’t understand or ignores the capability of linking keywords to expose facets.  If anything, it would be far easier to simply look for items tagged both “Afghanistan” and “Language” or “Languages.”  Mann is at his best when describing the intrisic power of subject headings and at his worst when dismissing the capabilities of new technologies.

(By the way, it is nonsense to assert that users can achieve through post-coordinate Boolean combinations the same results that they can achieve through recognition of precoordinate strings, especially those having multiple subdivisions. It takes some actual experience with real readers, outside academic ivory towers, to know why this is so: the reality is that it will never occur to users to think of anything even close to the range of 470+ terms to put into any Boolean combinations with Afghanistan. For example, will the historian who combines Afghanistan AND History post-coordinately realize that she is missing scores of other elements such as Antiquities (with numerous cross-references of its own), Bibliography, Biography, Chronology, Commerce, Civilization, Description and Travel, Encyclopedias, Ethnic relations, Foreign relations, Military relations, etc., etc., etc.—all of which may well be of interest to someone studying the history of the country? Will the same historian who is indeed interested in such particular (although unexpected) aspects of the subject also be able to think of them in all of their contextual relationships with each other, as in Afghanistan—Foreign relations—India—Sources—Bibliography—Catalogs? The answer again is “No”— even if there is no statistical study to verify the obvious fact (20).

Mann unfairly handicaps post-coordination of tags.  He assumes that a record which is tagged will have no more tags than those which exactly correlate to discrete subelements of LCSH strings (e.g., that a record cataloged Afghanistan—Foreign relations—India—Sources—Bibliography—Catalogs will map directly to one tagged with those six–and only those six—phrases.  In fact, studies show that users apply far greater number of tags to records than catalogers do subject headings.  There’s no reason to assume that records tagged Afghanistan and Antiquities, Afghanistan and Bibliography, etc., won’t also be tagged History.  Tagging excels at drawing out every aspect of a title.


Mann conclusion is that LC should accept tags…but such additions should be in separate silos from LC’s bibliographic records and catalog.  He would have LC expose its records to these linked sites but maintain the integrity of it’s core.

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