Monday, July 30, 2007

Cutting through the rhetoric about subject headings

I’ve returned from a vacation to see discussion on AUTOCAT of the utility of precoordinated vs. postcoordinated subject strings. I’m not all the way through my email list messages yet, but this discussion has prompted me to finally put into words something I’ve been stewing on for a while.

It seems to me that a great many of our disagreements in the library realm have at their root people talking past each other, each side meaning something different by a given term or two, but not cognizant of that fact. I see LCSH as a prime example of this phenomenon. A great deal of debate occurs over whether precoordinated subject strings or postcoordinated subject strings are more useful. But I see a fundamental difference in the way various participants in these discussions define “postcoordinated.”

One definition is that postcoordinated headings have no subdivisions at all; in LCSH-speak, have no --. The other definition is that postcoordinated headings are “faceted” (to introduce another term that complicates the issue); that each heading reflects only one characteristic of the work, such as “topic,” “place,” or “date.” The difference here is the difference between “subdivisions” and “facets.” These two concepts are not identical. A common criticism of postcoordinated headings is that they would not represent the essential distinction between concepts like “History--Philosophy” and “Philosophy--History.” While (ignoring the syntax; whether or not the double dashes are used is a style issue) this would be true according to the first definition, it’s not necessarily true according to the second—a “topical” facet may very well represent a complex concept. I’ve never seen a discussion on this issue in which this distinction is made clear to both sides. It’s unclear to me whether the “traditional” definition of postcoordinate allows the faceted interpretation or requires the subdivision interpretation, but I think what’s needed here is clarification of current definitions rather than historical ones.

I don’t have all the answers in this debate, nor does anyone else at this point. My inclination is toward the postcoordinate side, although I do very much want to keep an open mind on the issue. I’d like to see a well-reasoned argument for a postcoordinate system presented according to the facet definition (something I’ve long been wanting to write but find this is one of the many issues that have trouble finding their way from my brain to a shareable form). I personally read arguments for precoordinate indexing and think to myself, “We can do all of this with postcoordinate headings if we had systems that operated reasonably.” (Big IF there, considering our current state of affairs!) We need to have more room to experiment with these options to see if my interpretation is a good one. The Endeca use of precoordinated strings shows powerful promise; we need more large-scale implementations of systems working off of postcoordinated data to allow us to compare both user functionality and cataloging time (a much-forgotten but essential factor) of the two approaches. I want data, darn it! We can only go so far with the philosophical argument; to get beyond our current roadblock we need to see what will happen if we follow the various paths available to us.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Everything I know about librarianship I learned from Star Wars

Forgive the hyperbole—of course it’s not everything. But hear me out.

In celebration of meeting a major deadline and milestone in my career, I took some time for myself this weekend and watched the original Star Wars trilogy. (Yes, the good one.) This is something of a ritual for me, albeit one I’ve only performed only one other time in recent memory. It stretches back to junior high days when my brother and I, when we had a day off of school, would frequently watch all three movies right in a row off of a somewhat wobbly VHS tape made from early HBO airings. (If you’ve ever done this, you know just how very boring Jedi gets in the middle, but I digress.) Nowadays, three movies in three days is about all I have patience for (and Jedi still got boring), but it was comforting nonetheless.

While watching, I found myself saying lines out loud before they were said on screen, an annoying habit of mine. A few of these lines struck me as interesting, however. While Star Wars isn’t exactly the pinnacle of Western philosophy, my brain made some funny connections between the storylines and dialogue I know so well and librarianship. Here are a few examples:

“Use the force, Luke.” (Disembodied Obi-Wan voice to Luke, in the first movie.) We need to trust ourselves as skilled professionals. We know what we’re doing. Most of us in the library profession are in it because we love the work and believe we really can make a difference. This heavy personal investment in our work gives us the luxury to rely on our instincts in many cases, pushing forward with initiatives that are simply the right thing to do. Now we need to back up that instinct with reasonable plans, budget justifications, and all that administrative stuff, but I really do believe the best ideas come out of pure inspiration and vision, facilitated by the connections between us.

“R-2, you know better than to trust a strange computer.” (C3PO, Empire.) Now, the computer turned out to be right in this case, but we as librarians consider it part of our job to promote the effective evaluation of information. Many of the discussions today around this issue take an adversarial tone, as if the goal is to spot the misinformation and quash it. But we simply can’t just look at it as ferreting out the bad. We must not be judgmental. Instead, this evaluation can and should be just a routine part of our information flow. We simply need to evaluate everything. The source is only one factor among many that should be considered.

“What I told you is true, from a certain point of view.” (Blue-energy Obi-Wan dude, Jedi.) The role of perspective in truth or falsehood could provide more commentary on the evaluation of information theme, but I’ll take it in a slightly different direction – the role of metadata records in libraries. I find myself talking about this topic, inspired by Carl Lagoze, a great deal (and I believe on this blog before). A metadata record is necessarily a surrogate for a resource, and thus inherently takes a certain perspective on that resource in what it includes, what it leaves out, and the vocabularies it uses. We need to dispel ourselves of the myth that our records can or should be all things to all people, and instead focus on defining the views our metadata records need to support.

And of course the overall theme of the movies that a relatively small, smart, dedicated movement can effect sorely needed, large-scale change gives me good feelings for the future of libraries as well. So there you go. Little did Mr. Lucas know he was providing the library profession with a model to help guide our work. :-)

Oh, and I learned that my dog is strangely fascinated by Ewoks. Go figure.