Like most people who do blogging (whether regularly, or sporadically like I do), I keep a list of ideas for posts, which I often add to, but less often write up. I’ve been a very poor blogger recently, and it’s not because nothing is going on, LOTS is going on. Perhaps it’s more that I’m waiting for some point where I could nail something down, and that moment seems not to be arriving. But one of my notes caused me toI re-read a post I did over a year ago, and look at some of the other parts of that interview with the three luminaries at that ALISE program. I ran across a comment Janet Swan Hill made when asked about lessons learned from the last transition to AACR2 :

“So I … think … the loss of independence, the loss of autonomy is one of the largest themes that I have seen. Another huge theme that I have seen in that period of time is we are still undergoing a period of grieving, I think, for the fact that we are learning that we have to put up with good enough.”

I agree with Janet’s insight—I see that kind of grieving frequently (most often displayed as anger) coming up in the cataloging venues of our profession. I sympathize, actually, much more than I often articulate—I’m far more likely to display frustration instead. But I think the problem lies in our definition of quality—we’ve put ourselves in a box where according to our deeply held notions of what quality is, we can never again achieve anything we can be proud of, because the world won’t pay for that particular kind of quality control anymore. All of us as human beings want to be appreciated for what we do, to achieve mastery in the area of work we’ve chosen, and somehow, many think it’s not possible to do that anymore in the world we see coming.

This is not entirely an illusion. The reality is that the old world where we built and maintained by hand our catalogs for users who needed our work to find the resources they required is gone, never to return. In fact, studies suggest that many of the newer users don’t understand the catalog at all, and use it infrequently, if ever. Certainly, because most libraries still have catalogs and still create information for them, it may be possible to maintain the illusion that there will always be catalogs, and therefore, there must always be catalogers to maintain them. We do all this work on computers, isn’t that enough?

Well, no, unfortunately it’s not enough, because we’re still creating catalogs and catalog cards, despite the computer technology we use today to create catalog records. But though I can understand the dismay about that disruptive fact, it seems to me that there’s plenty to look forward to. Make no mistake, with that forward looking vision there are still humans—well-trained and competent humans—continuing to pay attention to quality in their data, although using different techniques and certainly fewer human resources. Far too often the changes we see coming are translated in our brains as the death of quality in our world, but I don’t think that’s the case. How we define, measure, and assure quality will change, no doubt about it, but first we need to think realistically about what it means.

If we’re lucky and we do a good job figuring all this out, it will be ‘good enough.’ I would contend that ‘good enough’ was always the best we had on offer—there was never perfection, not ever. I remember when I was still working at Cornell, having routines that were run after every data load, to catch the known typos and other problems (some of which we’d created ourselves). Given how our catalogs were structured, this was important work, and made a difference to our users.

I can remember, too, during the many moons I spent on MARBI, that there were many discussions about whether or not the definition or structure of a particular field or subfield could potentially be misinterpreted or misused. My colleague Paul Weiss was particularly likely to argue that we should prevent people from doing such things, and one year I got a baseball cap with ‘USMARC Police’ stitched across the front that I would throw across the table when he started up that argument yet again. My point was that there was no MARC Police, and we’d better give up any fantasy that anyone would be on the enforcement end of good practices. (Although I recently noted that there’s a musical group called ‘Marc Police’ out there). More globally, there are no data police, so instead of pretending and wearing our baseball caps to prove they exist, we need to figure out some useful strategies for this new world we’re venturing into.

Consider, if the changes we’re talking about come to pass (and I believe they will), we’ll have statements instead of records, much less text, more batch improvement strategies, and to go along with that, different ways to measure quality. I wrote some of this up with my colleague Tom Bruce a few years ago, and it’s available here. The big message is that we need to change the conversation about quality and talk about it in an entirely new way. Quality is not about eyeballs trained one-by-one on individual records, but about new methods, new tools, and new attitudes. We will certainly need to use both our computer resources and our human resources more intelligently and flexibly, to share what we learn (whether effective or not), and to work closely with other collaborators in our endeavor—particularly the developers and coders who know more about what computers can do (and how to do it), than we do.

But I do keep my ‘USMARC Police’ cap in my office, just in case I ever need to throw it again.

By Diane Hillmann, December 7, 2011, 9:44 am (UTC-5)

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  1. Comment by Diane Hillmann


    I think what we’re seeing is a validation of Svenonius’ comment, except that we’re replacing MARC records, not overhauling them. What remains is MARC as a lossy exchange format, with our attention and energy going in a more fruitful direction. I think many believed that this moment would never happen, and in my view the tipping point was reached because we began to perceive the consequences of NOT making this change to be more onerous than the consequences of change.

  2. Comment by Irvin Flack

    I agree with your analysis of cataloguers grieving over a lost world, Diane. We could probably even apply Kubler-Ross’s ‘Five Stages of Grief’ model (at a stretch). I’m re-reading Elaine Svenonius’ ‘Intellectual Foundation…’ book at he moment, and am struck by how much has changed, how many certainties have been questioned, even since that book was written (2000). Eg this sentence jumped out: ‘To completely overhaul the MARC record … is unthinkable for its economic, political and bibliographical consequences’.

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