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.


Merrilee said...

Jenn, great idea, but I'd suggest erring on the side of caution -- one persons "typo" is another person's vital metadata, especially in regard to finding varient editions or oddball publications. I've seen some pretty disasterous results of uninformed "corrections" and the havoc they can bring upon special collections cataloging in particular!

Dorothea said...

Yes, yes, yes! It's cheaper to prevent an error than fix one. Always.

Jenn Riley said...

Excellent point, Merrilee. More proof our systems can't be "one size fits all." They need to be flexible to handle all sorts of diverse situations. I hate to keep promoting Microsoft, but there are many advanced features of Word that does things like this that we could look to for inspiration. Word's correction capabilities work pretty darn well for me, although I agree cataloging records are not texts and have different needs for suggestion capabilities.

Matthew said...

Our OPAC search mechanisms in the future ought to be able to cope with these potential typos as well ("did you mean..." types of functions that we see in Google and Amazon), meaning that we can worry less about losing valuable data through typos.

Freudian Slip said...

It is totally cheaper to prevent an error then fix one, but try convincing the budgetmakers that. Who wants to spend more money for prevention?