Presentations on innovative ways to gather data outside the library silo are happening all over ALA–generally hosted by committees and interest groups using speakers already planning to be at the conference. A great example of the kind of presentation I’m talking about was the Sunday presentation sponsored by the ALCTS CaMMS Cataloging & Classification Research Interest Group produced by the ProMusicaDB project, with founder Christy Crowl and metadata librarian Kimmy Szeto. They provided a veritable feast of slides and stories, all of them illustrating the new ways that we’ll all be operating in the very near future. Their slides should be available on the ALCTS Cataloging and Classification Research IG site sometime soon. [Full disclosure: I spoke at that session too–see previous blog post for more details.]

On the Saturday of Midwinter, I attended 2 parts of the CC:DA meeting (I had to leave to do a presentation to another group in the middle), but I dutifully returned for the last part. It was probably a mistake–my return occurred during the last gasp of a perfectly awful discussion. I had a brief chat with Peter Rolla (the current chair) after the meeting, and continued to think about why I was so appalled during the last part of the meeting. Later, when held hostage in a meeting by a conversation in which I had little interest, I wrote up some of my thoughts.

I would describe the discussion as one of the endless number of highly detailed conversations on improving the RDA rules that have been a “feature” of CC:DA meetings for the past few years. To be honest, I have a limited tolerance for such discussions, though I usually enjoy some of the ones at a less excruciating level of detail.

Somehow this discussion struck me as even more circular than most, and seemed to be aimed at “improving” the rules by limiting the choices allowed to catalogers–in a sense by mechanizing the descriptive process to an extreme degree. Now, I’m no foe of using automated means to create descriptive metadata, either as a sole technique or (preferably) for submission to catalogers or editors to complete. I think we ought to know a lot more about what can be done using technology rather than continue to flog any remaining potential for rule changes intended to push catalogers to supply a level of consistency that isn’t really achievable for humans. If you want consistency–particularly in transcription–use machines. Humans are far better utilized for reviewing the product and correcting errors and adding information to improve its usefulness.

But in cataloging circles, discussing the use of automated methods is generally considered off-topic. When the [technological] revolution comes, catalogers will be the first to go, or so it is too often believed. Copy cataloging and other less ‘professional’ means of cutting costs and increasing productivity is not a happy topic of conversation for this group.

But, looking ahead, I see no letup in this trajectory without some changes. Catalogers love rules, and rules are endlessly improvable, no? Maybe, maybe not, but just put a tech services administrator in the room for some of these discussions, and you’re likely to get a reaction pretty close to mine. But to my mind, the total focus on rules rather than a more practical approach to address the inevitability of change in the business of cataloging is doing more towards ensuring that the human role in the process will be limited in ways that make little sense, except monetarily.

What we need here is to change the conversation, and no group is more qualified to do that than CC:DA. To do that it’s absolutely necessary that its membership become more knowledgeable about what is now possible in automating metadata creation. Without that kind of awareness, it’s impossible to start thinking and discussing how to focus less of CC:DA’s efforts on that part of the cataloging process which should be done by machines, and more on what still needs humans to accomplish. There are several ways to do this. One is by dedicating some of CC:DA’s conference time to bringing in those folks who understand the technology issues to demonstrate, discuss, and collaborate.

Catalogers and their roles have been changing greatly over the past few years, and promises of more change must be taken seriously. Then the ultimate question might be asked: if resistance is futile (and it surely is), how can catalogers learn enough to help frame that change?

By Diane Hillmann, February 5, 2014, 4:23 pm (UTC-5)

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