Library & Information Anecdotes

I’ve decided on a personal moratorium on the use of LIS; i.e., Library & Information Science.

My personal beliefs are such that it isn’t really a science anyway, but don’t worry as I don’t really consider physics to be one either. Hasn’t been so for a long time now.

So what’s my current beef you might ask? Having watched a fair amount of the Library of Congress Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control’s 3rd meeting via live webcast yesterday, along with attending the 2nd one in Chicago, toss in a few other odd reports and such here and there, and one should quickly notice that we have pretty much nothing but anecdote. Not a damn shred of actual evidence for anything anywhere. Just a lot of talking heads talking about what they think is wanted by users or about what systems and data we need to supply that to them.

Hell, even the players (variables) aren’t fully explicated. As was pointed out yesterday, where are the publishers in these discussions? And give me a break with that ridiculous bipartite division of the “use environment” that was devised in the 1st meeting, “consumers” and “management.” These may be the “apparent” ones, but please tell me we will look beyond apparent.

OK. I’m shutting up because I will be looking for a job sometime in the next few months or less. [I will not silence myself for the sake of a job.] Just please don’t talk to me about no damn “science” in our field. I simply find this whole charade unbelievable. Librarians really are too nice for their own good and certainly for the good of the profession. More importantly, we are too nice to do the job needing doing for our (multi-faceted) users.

Please, can someone show me the science?

[This morning I wrote a nice postscript adding a little nuance to the above as in admitting that there is some science-like work being done in our field and that it just doesn't seem to be being used in this project. Alas, my host's spam filters trashed it all upon trying to save it. Besides not being able to comment on my own blog; now I cannot post to it. Blake has hopefully fixed it but it was/is very frustrating. It didn't just not save, but instead trashed a fairly complex and, I might add, eloquent paragraph. As it is, I shall extend this little rant.]

Regarding the lack of publisher presence in these discussions: It seems pretty evident that little effort went into thinking about which communities needed to be part of this process. The way I see it LC and the Working Group decided that whoever was interested (much less, whoever should be interested) would just show up because they decided to have some meetings. This move (or lack of a move) leaves them in the clear. If they had actually spent time considering this point and had issued calls for participation for all groups “we” think need to participate and then some group had turned up overlooked they would be responsible. But by avoiding this, when it becomes apparent that some community is missing the fault is definitely not their’s. They have been inclusive and certainly not exclusionary. They are immune from blame. Well, I cry foul and hold this group responsible for failing to try to ensure that representatives from all needed communities are present.

Publishers, it seems to me, have little apparent incentive to worry about what we as a discipline do to describe their materials after they are published. Perhaps they should. Perhaps we could convince them that they do. But that seems as if it will take an active effort on our part to convince them of such. And just because we may need their assistance (if possible) does not mean they need to be willing to provide it.

Dan Chudnov has become my personal hero. [The following is a loose paraphrase of something Dan said much more politely and eloquently. I suggest you watch the webcast of yesterday's meeting—towards the end of the day—to see/hear this in Dan's own words.]

It seems that earlier in the day a comment (or more) had been made about some of the issues with current institutional repository software design and that if only the software designers had involved catalogers and other library professionals earlier in the process…. Dan stated that as a librarian, coder, and institutional repository software designer he noticed what seemed to be an awful lot of talk about the capabilities of software/technology to solve a lot of our problems and that it was clear that not too many people knew what they were talking about. [Again, this is an extremely loose paraphrase. Perhaps it is what I wanted to hear.] He volunteered to serve as a liaison between the coding and library communities and asked/suggested that another series of meetings be scheduled at which the ILS vendors, open source folks, library coders and techies, etc. can sit down with the bibliographic structure/control folks and come to some common understanding of what is possible and to what degree.

Yay, Dan! Many of us owe Dan Chudnov our hearty thanks for calling trump on these folks. I treat the concept of hero very seriously, but in this situation I am calling Dan Chudnov my personal hero.

The software/coding community is another one pretty much completely missing from this process. Instead we get to listen to folks like Karen Calhoun tell us what software is capable of. While Karen Calhoun is a smart person, she really has little idea of what she speaks about when she makes these claims. As do few of the others who make them. It is all more/mere anecdotes and finding an article or two that supports what you want to claim. Although, in the Working Group process all the support (superficial, or not) seems to be missing.

Why is it that librarians think they know so much about other areas of knowledge? I certainly am not claiming scientific status or even that this is a theory, or that this is universally generalizable (it is not), but I have a hypothesis.

Many librarians have multiple degrees, often advanced degrees, and we are trained to be experts in search, sometimes in research, and we have a good grasp of the structure of knowledge “universally.” Or so we think, anyway. I think this leads many to think that they can just look up something that they don’t know in some book, article, or even a so-called reputable reference source. We can do a little digging and discern the structure of an unknown field.

So. Need to know the capabilities of concept x, or software technique y, or anything else? Just look it up. Read a couple review articles. We’re librarians, we can just do a little research and we’ll be competent.

What a complete and utter joke! Clearly, there are times where this cursory depth and breadth suffices for some need. But, if one even remotely believes in the process of higher education and specialization, whether instantiated in our current system of higher education or some other manner in which to address the vast panoply of the universe of knowledge, then it follows that a little study is frequently not enough to address the needs we have. I stand awestruck from the hubris involved in such thinking.

I am not trying to be derogatory toward each and every member of the Working Group individually. But there truly is (often) an almost complete numbness of mind that comes over committees. I truly must believe that on occasion some individual member or another wakes up and asks a real-world complex question and reminds the others that they need real data, perhaps even new research to back up any answer. And then for various “institutional” reasons—artificial deadlines, efficiency, cost, committee narcosis—that all gets waived aside.

Clearly, there are a lot of bright people working on this. But seeing as this is one of the most important revolutions of our time—as in all revolutions some things should stay, some should change, and some should go—why, oh why, is it being so utterly fucked up?

I sincerely apologize if I have offended anyone with any of this. I truly do. But this could be one of the most important things to happen in the fundamental ways in which we in the field of librarianship structure our world so that we may meet the needs (current and future) of our users, in and for a long time. And the process as instantiated is a complete and utter joke!

I am frustrated. I am pissed off. I am dumbfounded. I am confused. And based on personal conversations so are others. It is only right for me to allow them to speak for themselves if they so choose, though.

Me. I said my piece. And, yes, I am mad.

14 thoughts on “Library & Information Anecdotes

  1. Mark,

    I enjoy your blog very much. I am glad that you have had your say here – and I especially agree with a lot of your thoughts about the hubris in our profession – though I wonder if you are perhaps being a little bit too hard on people. Who is it, exactly, that you are mad at? The working group folks? Whatever the reasons for the working group not quite being what it could have been or should have been, I doubt that there are any folks in that group who are deliberately trying to impede the kind of progress you so passionately speak of. Is there any chance that this meeting could be seen in a more positive light, as a stepping stone to something better? In other words, perhaps folks like Dan have made it clear that much more concentrated effort is needed – and others will likely be joining you and he in seeing this.

    But maybe I’m extremely naive.

  2. Mark, this has reminded me of a moment when we were riding back from the second Working Group. I was driving and you were in the far back of the van, talking with another colleague, and I heard you ask, “Have you read the library literature on blah, blah, blah?” I didn’t know the context of your question, or what you were even talking about, but I turned to our boss sitting next to me and said, “Yes, I’ve read the library literature, and that’s why I don’t read it anymore.” Seriously. There’s just not a lot out there today that stimulates, or moves, or informs. At least there isn’t in regards to library “science.” There’s tons of literature out there that offers valid solutions to these problems, but they aren’t considered articles that actually address “library issues.”

    This is why I devote my time and energies on those infamous “non-library issues.” That’s where the new ideas are to be found. These “how can we keep up with Google; how can we make things easier for the users; how can we cut costs/employees and still make the trains run on time” questions and discussions are merely band-aids for far, far more vital and immediate problems facing education and the public good. Those who are holding meetings to discuss relevant search issues for our “customers,” those who attempt to apply their MBAs to library “management” are–in my opinion–offering easy answers to difficult questions (and feeling very good about themselves). You won’t find science there. You won’t find evidence there.

    Yes, we have multiple degrees. But, as you well know, possessing a degree does not equal possessing an education.

    They want easy answers. They want cheap answers. Ultimately, approaching a difficult question with this mindset will only fuck things up even worse than they already are.

    Now see? You don’t have to worry about offending people! You’ve got me for that!

  3. Hi, Nathan. You ask very good questions and I do not know if I have any good answers.

    I probably am being too hard on people, although it is *not* intentional. If those involved disagree with my analysis then I hope they’d say so. If it stings a bit too much for some then perhaps it should.

    Who exactly am I mad at? That is a great question and one for which I have an even worse answer. I would say the whole profession, but that is a serious overgeneralization. This kind of work is (seemingly) a far remove from the daily work of many librarians, although the consequences ought to be foremost in their minds.

    So, still very general, but here’s a few groups of folks that I’m unhappy with (keeping in mind that these are still generalizations):


    The Working Group

    Large swaths of the 2.0 crowd who think social apps & tagging, etc. are going to “save the world” but have not been present in these WG meetings to even advance that thesis. The level of disdain for the mere idea of tagging in these meetings bothers even me.

    Where is the KO research community? One of the few groups who can actually provide any of the evidence (historical and current) that I say is missing is simply not present.

    Me. For having a life so unbalanced in so many ways that I am unable to address this issue in the manner in which I’d like, or even close.

    I could go on.

    I do not think that any of these folks are consciously & deliberately trying to impede progress. But that is certainly not the only way to stifle change. I ask again, who are and where are the communities that we think need to be engaged in this? Maybe this process will rouse the Working Group members and instead of a Final Recommendation in Nov. they will recommend further meetings with the publishers, the software community, the ….

    Why did it take until the 3rd meeting for live webcast? Why had the process not originally included public meetings in the 1st place but only as an afterthought?

    Where is the public bibliography of user studies, indexing comparisons, reports on efficiency & quality of metadata mappings, etc. that have to be taken into account (one would hope) before even seriously beginning these discussions?

    I have no doubt that things can be seen and stated in a more positive light. But that voice is not mine, at least not at the moment. I would love nothing more than to be proven completely wrong about all of this! If I am, I promise I will make a full recant of my comments here and publicly apologize to the Working Group and anyone else that can be shown to have possibly influenced this process in the direction(s) it needs to go.

    Perhaps much of the stuff I am saying needs to be said is coming in via submitted testimony outside of the meetings. But reports through the middle meeting said little comments were being submitted. (Of course, a bad email address for submissions did not help I imagine.)

    This Working Group is supposed to present a Final Report to LC in November, and Deanna Marcum has repeatedly told us that this is only 1 of 38 (38!) Working Groups looking at the future. How much influence can they really have?

    I seriously hope that I am completely off the mark (to use the negative sense of my blog title) and that you are not naive, Nathan. My assumption is that it will end up somewhere in the middle, with my hope more towards your end.

    I do not think you are naive, but that you are an optimist and hopeful. After leaving the Army, I managed to get my idealism back, but I fear my optimism (generally) is gone forever. I, too, am hopeful. Unfortunately, it is a very pessimistic form of hope.

  4. Pingback:   A reaction to notes from the third Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control - Family Man Librarian

  5. Hi, Tracy. I will leave aside the issue of library management for now.

    You wrote:
    “Seriously. There’s just not a lot out there today that stimulates, or moves, or informs. At least there isn’t in regards to library “science.” There’s tons of literature out there that offers valid solutions to these problems, but they aren’t considered articles that actually address “library issues.””

    First off, I’m not exactly sure what you are claiming here, specifically, which issues aren’t library issues but are solutions to our problems?

    As for the “stimulates, or moves, or informs” comment … well, not generally. Lib lit (nor probably any other professional literature) is *not* quality literature ala Steinbeck, Zola, or … pick one.

    But to be honest, and not to pick on you because I had had scores of students, librarians, and a few faculty members make the same claim, but I am sick and tired of this claim.

    Sure, much of what gets published is crap. But there is some absolutely amazing stuff out there! At least in my areas of interest. Do I read some mediocre stuff? Sure. But I try to avoid crap. Do I sometimes mercilessly pick on an author in my little write-ups? Sure. But they certainly moved me, whether or not I think they’re full of it.

    But to the topic at hand (LC Wkg Gp), the subject matter is narrower than the literature as a whole, although still quite broad. And there is quite a lot out there–a good 50-60 years worth in some cases.

    User studies exist, indexing studies of various kinds, efficiency & efficacy (quality) of metadata crosswalking, mapping of vocabularies, and on and on regarding many of the statements of “user ecology,” comments and “solutions” that got thrown around during the meetings.

    Many of these have flaws, methodological issues, etc. Some of this needs to be redone, some needs to be done for the 1st time.

    Yes, OCLC Terminology Services has done a fair amount of mapping of indexing languages and classification schemes. But for Calhoun to just say that perhaps OCLC can do more and then we can use this stuff automatically to do assignment of subject headings or classification numbers is insane (without real, large-scale studies that show how effective and that the community can agree is acceptable).

    But we use these tools every day and we know how frail they truly are. Sure, they do a decent job of pointing us in the right direction, but we still need to use real human judgement to ensure those are the correct class #s and/or subject headings for the item in hand.

    Despite my widespread misgivings just 2-3 years ago even, I do feel that much can and needs to be automated. Some can be fully automated, and more can be semi-automated. But we need empirical evidence for what works–how well, how frequently, exception cases, at what cost, ….

    There is a lot of literature out there on some of these things. There is even enough of it that there are overview and lit review articles available in places like ARIST.

    I have read, at a minimum, 40 articles on mapping vocabularies. Some are purely theoretical, some have actually done the hard work on some scale. Almost no one makes the claim that it is easy OR cheap. In fact, most & particularly those who have done the actual mapping, claim that it is excruciatingly hard, tedious and quite costly. There is some work showing that it can be partially automated, but that it still needs human judgement. Automation helps but does not “fix” the hard problems.

    I could go on and on about all these areas.

    Back to Nathan’s question about just who it is I’m mad at. Lots of folks, but perhaps I’m mostly mad at myself. If I only knew more. If I only had some real experience at some of these things. (As you know, I have some experience at a lot of them, but very minimal.) If only I believed in myself more. If only I could be as hubristic as some of these folks. Then I’d be in their faces reminding them that they aren’t quite as knowledgeable as they seem to think about some of these things.

    But I’m young in this profession. I’ve read an immense amount and done a very little. In my own personal estimation I do not have the qualifications to do so. I would laugh myself out of the room.

    Anyway, back to your main point as I take it. Yes, a lot of our literature is crap. I maintain that many professions is, too. Much of it is of little relevance to me (for now). Nonetheless, I do maintain that there is a lot of amazing stuff in our lit. And I do go outside our field for a lot of what I read. But I don’t really care so much for disciplinary borders. Nor do I necessarily think that this stuff is not LIS.

    As you know, I reading LOTS of Roy Harris, thanks to David Bade. It’s linguistics and philosophy and history, basically. And it is LIS. Language(s) and the use of language(s) are our foundation. Without language we have no recorded knowledge. How is it NOT LIS?

    Lots of the more current indexing & retrieval and related stuff is in computer science. So? It is LIS.

    Disciplinary walls are political entities that need to be learnt so that one may bypass, subvert, ignore or respect them based on one’s purpose of the moment. My purposes are myriad, but they are rarely to maintain the political status quo of any discipline. That’s not a game I play.

  6. “First off, I’m not exactly sure what you are claiming here, specifically, which issues aren’t library issues but are solutions to our problems?”

    Well, hon, as usual, you’ve started a conversation, and I’ve jumped off on a tangent of my own. I don’t want to hijack your topic, so I’ll just quickly say that I was alluding to what some ALA round tables and task forces occupy their time and resources with. SRRT, HHPTF, GLBT-RT, and the like. They fight for social justice, 1st Amendment freedoms, running libraries like the educational facilities they should be (and began as) rather than the entertainment facilities they’re turning into. But these entities are constantly accused of occupying their time with “non-library issues.” I heard it in Library school; I read it on blogs. But in my opinion, these issues are at the heart of what is going wrong in librarianship today. We must first repair these problems, and if/when we do, many of the others will go away.

    But like I said, I’ve hijacked your topic. I’m sorry about that.

    As far as library literature goes, I wasn’t complaining because it doesn’t read like Dickens. I was saying that too much of what’s being published today doesn’t–in my opinion–remotely address what’s really going wrong with libraries (and librarians).

    The ones that do are being published by presses like Library Juice, See Sharp, and AK. These works aren’t showing up in library school.

    I’ll offer some of my favorites who are though: Berman, Buschman, Gorman, Shera, Asheim. Too often however (and I’m not including our favorite teacher here), these men are treated as old fogies. ;-)

  7. No need to be sorry, my friend! Those are all important issues and I don’t normally try and restrict conversation here. I’m just not up to dealing with much right now, for many reasons.

    Thus, it’s probably more accurate to say I’m incapable of addressing those issues at the moment than that I don’t want to.

    As it is, I seem to be physically ill again this morning. Connection, you think? I do. At the moment, the only answer I can come up with to stop this cycle is to leave. I just don’t know what else there is to do.

    Just please don’t apologize to me for what you care about!!!

  8. “Just please don’t apologize to me for what you care about!!!”

    You never make me feel that way, Mark. I just didn’t want to disrespect your excellent and thoughtful and completely correct post by taking it off-topic.

    The library world needs more people like you.

    Ok, Peace Out!

  9. My mother taught me that the plural of anecdote is not data.

    Growing older has taught me that there are more and more things out there about which I know less and less. After spending a few weeks trying to mess around with Greenstone, I can tell you that I know almost nothing about database structures, linguistics, computer science, etc., etc.

    And yeah, I wish more people would admit that they don’t know much, either–and I wish we learned more in library school.


    (I know, I know–I should just take the learning upon myself–but realistically speaking, that’s not going t happen any time soon.)

  10. I like it when you get mad — that’s when it gets interesting :) I just wish it didn’t make you sick!
    Anyway — as for expertise, there’s an interesting article* proposing ‘interactional expertise’. It’s talking really about science sociologists who do lengthly ethnographic investigations in which they spend years in the lab, but I like it for us. In a nutshell, librarians pick up the jargon, and some know-what knowledge from interactions or immersion, but do not have the know-how. We have some common ground and shared experience, but cannot then go to the lab and do an experiment.
    Have you see the Evidence-Based Librarianship journal? I think it’s a noble effort to connect research and practice.

    *Collins, H. (2004). Interactional expertise as a third kind of knowledge. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 3, 125-143.
    P.S. – could you make the comment box bigger? and/or let us preview? TIA

  11. Bless your Mom, Laura! :)

    I don’t like making Socrates self-references because it seems kind of pretentious, to say the least, but I’m really down with his idea of not knowing anything. And the older I get the more I “get it.”

    Of course, he had an oracular reputation to live up (or down). Me, not so much. ;)

    The struggle to keep learning is tough. Especially with so much to learn anymore. I know it’s getting me down quite a bit lately but I’ll manage to pull through; especially as I (very slowly) grow more comfortable with the knowledge that there is no way I can even learn the things I’m interested in.

  12. Hi Christina, happy to make things interesting for you. ;)

    I’m going to have to get back to you on your real content. Soon I hope. I’m really pretty wore out from today. Even though I feel bad I went to Metadata Roundtable. Probably should’ve just stayed home.

    I’ve also been struggling with my CV, which is a whole ‘nuther ball of sickness for me.

    I”ll look into the comment box preview and size issues. I agree that both would be nice. I’ll take a look at Jessamyn and see what she’s got and maybe a few others and ask what they’re using. I don’t think WP has anything much I can do by default, but I’ll look there 1st.

  13. OK, Christina. I got a comment preview installed thanks to Jessamyn’s great blog mods page.

    The text is tiny, though, so I’ll have to play with it. I’ll also try and make the comment box larger, but they both have to wait. My brain is not up to it. In fact, it is starting to really hurt so I’m going to step away from this machine that I’ve been enslaved to most of the day.

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