Thursday, May 26, 2016

The secret to a happy ending is knowing when to roll the credits

I mentioned in my last blog post that I'm writing a book chapter. I'd had "Naming and reframing: a taxonomy of attacks on knowledge organization" by Tina Gross on my to-read list for a while. And this chapter I'm writing provided me a great opportunity to read it.

To say that I have some Capital-F feelings about this article would be a pretty significant understatement.

In the article, Gross identifies 10 types of attacks of knowledge organization and then goes on to define and give examples for each of these attacks. Gross doesn't offer any solutions to the problem of attacks on knowledge organization and states pretty plainly that the point of the article is not to solve the problem, but to establish language through which we can describe it.

There are two attacks that I think have a symbiotic relationship: disregarding quality and distorting user behavior.

When describing disregarding quality, Gross writes:
There is such a thing as metadata being good enough without being comprehensive, and there's also such a thing as declaring hopeless garbage to be good enough without considering the implications for users. Doing the latter is self-defeating--when metadata fails to facilitate the level of searching needed by users, they have a less satisfactory experience. Usage is likely to go down resulting in even less justification to support and pay for the creation or acquisition of quality metadata. (p. 266)


This particular attack leads to the library infrastructure version of chasing one's tail. For whatever reason, the metadata creation standards at a library decline. Because the metadata is incomplete, incorrect, or both, users can't find what they're looking for and usage of key resources that are powered off of the shoddy metadata goes down. Administrators look at the decline of usage of the key resources and decide that the because the usage is going down that the resources devoted to creating metadata that powers those key resources can be reallocated.

While a metadata creator might be able to draw an immediate connection between the change in metadata quality and usage of key resources, an administrator might not necessarily be able to do the same if they don't have an understanding of how metadata informs search results and all they have to go on is the usage data of key resources.

While we're on the subject of what users do or don't use, let's look at distorting user behavior. Gross describes it as "asserting that users don't use certain types of metadata, even though major search functions are powered by them" (p. 267)

This attack has as much to do with the narrative constructed by outside forces as it does with what libraries know to be true of their users based on actual evidence. There are a not-insignificant number of studies which suggest that users don't start their research in the library catalog, so administrators decide that resources used to create metadata can be reallocated to other library services. There are two things that strike me about this:

1. What seems to be missing from these studies, though, is how many library users interact with the catalog at some point during the research process. Just because a user doesn't start their search in the catalog doesn't mean they don't go there at some point in the process.

2. Our users are not a monolith. What is true about the research process of one user group may not be true of all user groups.

So which comes first--disregarding quality or user behavior? And, perhaps more importantly, where do metadata creators go from here?

I don't have the answer, but I have a couple of ideas.

First, metadata creators should be gathering as much information as we can about user behavior and using that information to guide the decisions we make. We should know what our users find most useful in catalog records and be focusing our attention on that. This differs from library to library and user group to user group. So while you can probably use those reports that construct a narrative as a starting point, you're going to have to interact with actual users to understand the context at our own library.

Second, our public services colleagues have to help us gather data about when users can't find what they're looking for because of poorly-formed metadata. This data can help metadata creators make the case for the re-reallocation of resources back to metadata creation. Nothing says 'hey, we need more resources in the cataloging department' like evidence of where users have walked away empty handed. To the extent that it's practical (and legal), I would advocate share reference interview transcripts or notes as well as catalog search logs.

Finally, I want to say that I picked on administrators a lot in this post, but I do so affectionately and with the understanding that our administrators have a lot to think about and decide on any given day. And, ultimately, they work with the information we give them to make the best decisions they can to allocate resources to library services. It's our job to give them the information and tools to make the best decision possible.

Stay positive,

No comments: