Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Next-generation catalogs

Bravo! I'll add my voice to the hubub surrounding the announcement that NCSU has launched a new library catalog, representing a new model for user interaction. I'm a huge fan of the "narrow by" menus on the left-hand side. (I should be--we did this in a digital library system a few years ago: here's an example and a paper describing the project.) I believe some of the options presented here are more useful than others, but different options would be useful in different situations and picking the right default is tricky.

I also love the idea of browsing the collection in the OPAC. Long have librarians extolled the virtues of the serendipity of shelf browsing. Our catalogs can and should try to replicate this experience online, and allow other sorts of browsing our shelves don't provide.

Despite the increased functionality of the NCSU catalog, the results within any given set, regardless of the sort option chosen, are the same sort of jumble we see in more traditional OPACs. I'm thrilled to see that FRBR-like grouping is on the list for the next release.

It's too bad that NCSU had to go to a third party (and presumably shell out some big bucks) in order to provide this innovative service. I hope this demonstration will push more of us to relentlessly push our OPAC vendors for similar improvements, and put our money where our mouths are.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

User-contributed metadata failure?

In November's D-Lib Magazine, there is an extensive article describing the development of the Digital Library for Earth System Education (DLESE). I was interested to learn more about this project, and delighted to see they had put in a method for end-users to provide descriptive information into their system. Unfortunately, the DLESE staff felt user contributions weren't the right way to go:

One approach that did not work well for DLESE was "community cataloging." The idea behind community cataloging was that educators would contribute to the library by cataloging a few of their favorite on-line educational resources through an easy-to-use web interface. In spite of considerable effort spent on developing the web-interface, guidelines and best practices documents, this approach yielded few resources and the community-cataloged metadata often turned out to be incomplete or incorrect. The community cataloging functionality has been replaced by a simple "Suggest a Resource" web form.
I'm disappointed to see an example of this approach actually put into practice and then rescinded. I haven't seen the "community cataloging" interface they used, so I don't know what sorts of tools existed to assist the user in providing accurate and complete data. But I do wonder how closely the community cataloging tool resembled a professional cataloger's tool. Today's library catalog systems are designed for use by experts. They don't assist in data entry in any meaningful way, and they rely on catalogers to make use of a vast amount of outside resources in order to create quality records. If a system for user-contributed metadata followed the same model (some empty boxes and a dense set of instructions on what to put in each of them), I'd predict that system would fail.

I believe in order to make good use of our users' expertise, we need to build interfaces on new models. These interfaces need to make it easy to do the right thing. Users don't have to create entire records, for example. Interfaces for user-contributed metadata could allow those who believe they have supplemental or corrected information to a resource to target their efforts to the bit of information they possess, rather than asking them to provide a complete descriptive record. Interfaces could limit the fields users are allowed to contribute or edit, or enforce strict datatyping for small bits of metadata in order to prevent simple data entry errors.

User-contributed metadata is not just about shifting the effort from catalogers to end-users. It's really about supplementing our current practices with new models, in order to start to get a handle on the vast information landscape we face today.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Britannica vs. Wikipedia and a parallel in cataloging?

An interesting new commentary in the Britannica vs. Wikipedia discussion following an article comparing the authenticity of the two in Nature was published yesterday in the NY Times, with a clever title: The Nitpicking of the Masses vs. the Authority of the Experts (free registration may be required, yadda yadda yadda...). The NYT article supports Wikipedia pretty strongly, but it wasn't the conclusion that struck me. Rather, it was this idea:

"The idea that perfection can be achieved solely through deliberate effort and centralized control has been given the lie in biology with the success of Darwin and in economics with the failure of Marx."

I'm not overly informed on either Darwin or Marx, so I'll refrain from analyzing the validity of this claim. But reading it, I'm strongly reminded of arguments being made for library cataloging in the Google age. The effort and control described here could also apply to the effort and control spent in expert cataloging. But I believe the key here is the word solely. Just because effort and control in and of themselves don't get us where we want to be, doesn't mean we should abandon them entirely. It just means we can supplement them with other means and potentially end up better off.

The idea of "perfection" in this quote interests me as well. Proponents of the status quo in library cataloging frequently speak as if library catalog records are perfect. As if they are the pinnacle of description, meeting every user need, exactly right if only the rules are followed. But of course that's not true. The good news is that library catalogs and cataloging rules are evolving, and that our systems are just starting to make use of other sources of information supplementing those human-generated-through-blood-sweat-and-tears catalog records. There are many experts on our materials out there - each of our users has something useful to tell us about our resources. I think it's time we listen to them.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Ways of thinking and ways of representing

I've been thinking lately about the interaction of ideas spreading and the labeling of those ideas. Every so often, a new technology trend spreads around, creating a buzz. But I'm getting to the point where the buzzwords no longer create much excitement for me, no longer represent to me a new way of thinking or approaching a problem. I suspect my changing attitude has two sources. First, I'm in touch with the field enough that I see the small bits of progress in ideas that precede the label and the hype. (Or at least once the trend gets a name I can identify signs of its development in hindsight!) Second, as I see more and more of these trends play out, I'm becoming more skeptical about the revolution each one promises. Often a single idea is represented as single-handedly altering the information landscape, but instead I for the most part see many factors converging to affect a change.

Rarely is the idea truly new and revolutionary once it gets a label. Consider "Web 2.0." One recent much-cited explanation from Tim O'Reilly appeared recently. It gets a label because it's emerging as a trend across many different implementers. In turn, the label inspires more implementers. But the O'Reilly article shows the label is intended to provide a convenient way of referring to an emerging paradigm, rather than as a means of causing a shift. But as this article indicates, labels can quickly descend in common usage to mean the catalyst rather than an assessment of an existing trend. True interactivity, meaningful end-user participation, and personalization aren't the result of "Web 2.0." Rather, "Web 2.0" gives us an easy way to refer to these and other similar trends that together represent an emerging shift in the norm of the Web.

I don't mean to say Web 2.0 is a "meaningless marketing buzzword," as the O'Reilly article warns against. I do, however, think we need to remember that the label is not the buzz. The work of countless people over a period of time finding ways to make their ideas a reality, which happen to coalesce around a theme, is what's really important.