Tuesday, March 1, 2016

This ain't no acrobatics

So, lately I've been writing about catalog records and the contextual needs of users. It's been fun to play with ideas about how we could change the ways in which we catalog our collections in order to meet the needs of users. The part about writing this blog that's enjoyable is that I can put ideas into the world without also having to assign dollar values or staff time to these ideas. Essentially, I can put the in an incubator and see how they grow over time.

But over where ideas meet reality, libraries often don't have the money or the staff to treat resources description in the way that we might want them to. And, in the absence of those resources, they are forced to make choices about how items in their collections are described. But how do we decide--how should we decide?

In 2007, David Banush and Jim LeBlanc wrote an article titled "Utility, library priorities, and cataloging policy" that applied utilitarian principles to cataloging backlogs--specifically liberal utilitarianism. The authors worked at an institution where shifting institutional priorities meant that fewer resources were available for the cataloging of library resources. And in that environment of changing priorities and fewer resources, the Cataloging Department was tasked with reducing their significant backlog.The article discusses the ways in which their institution decided how they could process their backlog to do the greatest amount of good for the largest number of patrons. The institution changed the extent to which humans would intervene in the cases of both original and copy cataloging. The result was accepting more records as-is and creating less detailed records in cases where records didn't exist while also utilizing an automated process to search the bibliographic utility on an ongoing basis for fuller-level records to replace those less detailed records. And while they acknowledge that the long-term effects of the decision's they've made on user access won't be immediately discernible, they were able to share some statistics for 2005/2006 that made it seem like, in the short term, the decisions they made weren't disastrous for user access.

The article makes a good point about how resources in an organization are finite and that when we make one thing a priority over another thing, we decide how to allocate the resources. Banush and LeBlanc write:
If library administrations agree with Mann and others that more resources should be devoted to cataloging as it has been traditionally conceived and practiced, the additional funding and staffing will almost certainly come at the expense of other initiatives (107).
I think that libraries have to provide users with the collections and services they the need to be successful researchers. I also think that Banush and LeBlanc are probably correct when they assert that allocating resources to the emerging collections and services that users need to be successful researchers means that other areas will lose resources in the form of funding or staff positions. And in a world where many information seekers bypass the library's catalog to find information resources, metadata creation and remediation may seem like an easy target for reductions in both funds and staffing.

But I would argue that there is room in this 'do more with less' world for libraries to consider their priorities and how metadata creation and remediation might be embedded in those priorities. Users want access to more digitized and electronic collections? How will you represent those in your catalog and/or on your website? Users tell you on your satisfaction surveys that they can't find what they're looking for in the catalog? How can catalog records be improved to help users succeed in finding what they need?

It's likely that not every item that comes through a library's cataloging department needs hands-on intervention. But whether it's unique collections or specialized areas of collection interest, I suspect that are items that come through the library's cataloging department that need hands-on treatment that don't get it because of financial constraints. And, in that case, library users suffer.

While it's nice to have an incubator space for ideas to grow, I don't think we can write all of them off as wishful thinking or as too expensive. I feel strongly about how well-formed metadata can improve the experience of our users--especially in the realm of subject access. But I also acknowledge that we have to find the places where we're willing to give something to get something. So how do we choose?

Stay positive,

Works cited:
Banush, David and Jim LeBlanc. "Utility, library priorities, and cataloging policies." Library Collections, Acquisitions & Technical Services 31 (2007) 96-109.

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