Sunday, October 29, 2006

Thinking bigger than fixing typos

The Typo of the Day blog, which presents a typographical error likely to be found in library catalogs every day, and encourages catalogers to search their own catalogs for this error, has generated much discussion and linking in the library world. I’m all for ensuring our catalog data is as accurate as possible; however, I would like to think beyond the needle-in-a-haystack approach presented here. I want our emphasis to be on systems that make it difficult to make a mistake in the first place, rather than focusing on review systems that emphasize what’s wrong over what’s right and give a select few a false sense of intellectual superiority over those who do good work and make the occasional inevitable simple mistake.

There are many ways our cataloging systems could better promote quality records and make it more difficult to commit simple errors. I’ll mention just two here: spell checking and heading control. We hear frequent complaints about the lack of spell checking in our patron search interfaces, but few talk about this feature of being useful to catalogers. And I’m not talking about a button that looks over a record before saving it—I’m talking about real interactive visual feedback that helps a cataloger fix a typo right when it happens. Think Word with its little red squiggly lines—they show up instantly so all you have to do it hit backspace a few times while you’re thinking about this particular field and not miss a beat. If it’s not really an error, the feedback is easy to ignore. Word also has a feature whereby it can automatically correct a misspelling as you type based on a preset (and customizable) list of common typos. Features like this require a bit more attention to make sure the change isn’t an undesired one, but for most people in most cases it saves a great deal more time than it takes, and the feature can be tuned to an individual’s preferences. Checking the entire record after the fact requires a higher cognitive load—turning back to a title page, remembering what you were thinking when you formulated the value for that field, checking an authority file a second time, etc., and is less helpful than real-time feedback.

Heading control is the second area in which our systems could make it easy to do the right thing. Easier movement between a bibliographic record and an authority file, widgets that fill in headings based on a single click or keystroke, and automatic checks that ensure a controlled value matches an authority reference before leaving the field can all help the cataloger avoid simple typographical errors in the first place and make the sort of treasure hunt common typo lists provide less necessary.

Consider also the enormous duplication of effort we’re expending by hundreds of individuals at hundreds of institutions all looking up the same typos in our catalogs and all editing our own copies of the same records. This local editing makes an already tough version control problem worse by increasing the differences between hundreds of copies of a record for the same thing. We have way more cataloging work to do than we can possibly afford, and duplication of effort like this is an embarrassingly poor use of our limited resources. The single most effective step we can take to improve record quality is to stop this insanity we call “cooperative cataloging” today and adopt a streamlined model whereby all benefit instantaneously and automatically from one person fixing a simple typo.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Grant proposals

Writing competitive grant proposals for putting analog collections online is difficult, and is becoming more so as more institutions are in a position to submit high-quality proposals and digitization for its own sake is no longer a priority for funding agencies. Collections themselves are no longer enough. There are many more collections that deserve a wider audience, that will significantly contribute to the work of scholars, and that will bring new knowledge to light, than can possibly be funded by even a hundred times the amount of grant funding available. The key is to offer something new. A new search feature. Expert contextual materials. User tagging capabilities. Something to make your project stand out as special and test some new ideas.

The trick is that in order to write that convincing proposal, you have to do a significant amount of the project, even before you write the proposal and before you get any money. Most of the important decisions, such as what metadata standards you will use, must be made before you write the proposal, both to convince a funding agency you know what you are doing and to develop reasonable cost figures. To make these decisions, an in-depth understanding of the materials, your users, the sorts of discovery and delivery functionalities you will provide, and the systems you will use are all necessary. Coming to those understandings is no small task, and is one of the most important parts of project planning. Don’t think of grant money as “free”—think of it as a way to do something you were going to do anyways, just a bit faster and sooner.