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.

No comments: