Thursday, March 31, 2016

They pale before the monolith that towers over me

Yesterday I wondered aloud on Twitter why cataloging and catalog records are always held up as signs of the Library of the Past.

I'd just read this Ithaka S+R Issue Brief and was left with mixed feelings about what the Digital Future means for the creation of well-formed metadata.

I actually agreed with much of what Ms. Marcum has to say in this brief. Libraries absolutely do need to understand the needs and desires of users when it comes to library use and then act accordingly. Marcum writes:
Our users, or customers, are in control. Instead of settling for what we have to offer, they can now readily determine who can meet their information needs. Some information resources are freely available through the Internet; some sources provide information for a fee. The user can decide what is important to him or her, and also decide how much that service is worth.
I agree with that 100%. We can't dictate to our users how they should use our resources or what services we provide should be valuable to them. But I would stop to say that I think we should be careful about describing users in monolithic ways. I've written before about how user needs are contextual. While all user groups have some habits in common, I think it's potentially damaging to think about users as a single type of person and change our workflows to match that single type of user.

In this world where users can access a wealth of information from a variety of sources, Marcum suggests that digital resources become even more important. She suggests that libraries need to shift their foci from acquiring and describing print resources to providing access in greater numbers to digital resources. Marcum writes:
In the print world, librarians have been concerned about cataloging books and journals so that faculty and students could discover the resources in the library. In the digital environment, our users are more likely to find digital resources through a Google search than they are through searching the library's catalog. Access to information resources is what users care about--not what the library owns.
Okay, so Ms. Marcum and I are more or less still on the same page here. I think it's fair to suggest that some users prefer instant access to information resources. And the needs of some users require us to think more broadly about how we describe our resources and where we make them available.

But here's where Ms. Marcum loses me:
In the digital era, instead of preparing detailed cataloging records to enter into our online catalogs, we are far more likely to invest in services that our users really want--specialized and individualized help when they can't find what they want in a Google search, access to more electronic journals and databases, on-line reference services, and access to new types of scholarly information--data sets, blog posts, and multimedia resources.
Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems like at least some of these things that Marcum suggests that users want hinge on well-formed metadata in local library catalogs. Where are the people providing specialized and individualized help directing people when Google searches fail? How do users gain access to more electronic journals and databases? Maybe not always the local library catalog, but sometimes.

Library administrators must survey their communities and adjust priorities to meet changing user needs. I get that. But I also think that as long as users need to find library resources--physical or digital--well formed metadata will be an integral part of that task. In fact, I think well-formed metadata is especially important for digital resources because in a digital world we lose the capacity to browse the shelves to find all of the things we missed in our catalog search.

About a year ago, I wrote a post about the importance of having an elevator pitch about the value of well-formed metadata ready for those times when people suggest that perhaps cataloging isn't as important as it once was. In some ways it's disheartening to see that we're at the same place we were a year ago.  And while advocacy is important, I think that if enough people are suggesting that cataloging has extended beyond its usefulness, maybe it's time to evaluate our practises to live in the digital age. I think this means learning more about how users actually acquire information and adjusting our local and national practises accordingly.

At least that way when people suggest that well-formed metadata isn't as useful as it once was, we can say we did our homework as we advocate for ourselves.

Stay positive,

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