Tuesday, February 23, 2016

We were perfect when we started, I've been wondering where we've gone

I finally finished Hope Olson's The Power to Name last week. And while I was sad to see it end, I really appreciated the forward-thinking ways in which Olson proposed potential solutions to the problems she identified in the preceding chapters. Though the book was published in 2002, Olson's solutions to the subject analysis problem still seem...controversial.

And can we talk about how much I love them? Because I do--love them.

Olson's solutions are based on the idea that catalogers can apply controlled vocabularies and classification schemes radically in order to center the Other who is most often marginalized in a conventional application of these systems. Her solutions are also based on the idea that while change is possible at a macro-level, change is most effectively achieved on a micro-level. Olson writes "Ameliorative change needs to come from both LC and individual libraries because universal solutions are not viable options" (234). Olson later writes "Our techniques must have the local context as the primary motivator. The far-reaching principles and the standards that have grown from them must be at the service of local, contemporary needs" (239).

I appreciate that while Olson criticizes controlled vocabulary and classification systems as broad concepts, she does not let individual libraries (and the catalogers they employ) off the hook. She notes that individual catalogers have as much responsibility for the subject analysis of the items in their collection as the de facto U.S. National Library.

Although, maybe instead of responsibility we should say agency.

I think that catalogers don't often have "the local context" as their primary motivator. This isn't always our fault, as sometimes resources aren't on our side. Libraries have begun purchasing more metadata from vendors in an effort to move material more quickly to the shelves or to make online resources more accessible on a scale not possible with item-by-item cataloging. But it's worth considering what we lose in terms of local user needs when we gain efficiency.

One of the solutions that Olson proposes is for people within individual libraries to decide what matters most to their users and set subject analysis priorities based on that. Olson writes "Local libraries could privilege different differences: gathering by race or ethnic origin is likely to be of more use in some libraries than by age" (235). Olson's argument is that while controlled vocabulary and classification systems are often inflexible, local applications don't have to be. Libraries can decide in which way they want to pull together books on a particular topic or about a particular group of people.

I think we might dismiss Olson's idea out of hand because it seems time consuming and we can't imagine devoting that much of our time to changing our cataloging workflows. Olson's proposition isn't a cheap or easy solution to the problem of subject analysis, but it does put a library's user community squarely in the middle of the discussion about how priorities for analysis are set. Imagine what it would be like if a subject specialist and a cataloger sat down and talked about what was most important when it comes to describing items in a particular subject specialty. What is most important to users in that discipline--what should I (the cataloger) look out for? Are there particular terms that are triggering to the people you work with with--what language should I avoid?

We often give our rare and unique collections this kind of treatment, but we rarely extend it to materials that are widely held in libraries. And maybe that's okay. Maybe part of considering the "local context" is deciding that not every item is worth the kind of attention to detail Olson's proposed technique would require. Maybe part of considering the "local context" is deciding that what really matters is focusing our attention on the material that only our libraries hold and hoping that the copy we find in our bibliographic utility of choice is good enough to help users get what they need.

The point, I think, is that a cataloger doesn't have to lavish significant attention on every item their library requires. But that cataloger shouldn't shy away from lavishing attention on the items that require it either. We shouldn't shy away from editing a catalog record from our bibliographic utility of choice because it's good enough. We should decide, instead, that that record does not require editing because it suits the needs of our users.

Stay positive,

Works cited:
Olson, Hope. The power to name: locating the limits of subject representation in libraries. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002. Print.

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