Essay about librarians and metadata and stuff

After my readings for this week’s topic, Organizing Digital Collections, I was equal parts overwhelmed, blown away, and excited. First, there was just so much material, I was completely overwhelmed and also very conscious that I’m woefully ill-equipped to understand everything the articles were talking about. I plowed through Metadata: An Introduction by Jan Smits even though for each piece of understandable information I encountered twice as many pieces of information that were gibberish to me. So, I decided to go ahead and read Seeks and Ye Shall Find (Maybe) by Steinberg and the Comments on Steinberg’s article about Web indexing by Mulvaney. After mucking about in all these articles (including the readings from Hunter and Libicki), I did come to a few conclusions. First, it’s important for me to recognize that no one has come up with all the “right” answers yet as far as information organization goes. If fact, as long as this person is organizing information and that person is trying to retrieve information, there will be conflict. Just as someone says “I can’t straighten my desk because then I wouldn’t be able to find anything,” we’ve inherited a variety of classification schemes that are messy but we’re used to them. The internet, however, has really thrown librarians for a loop. You can’t classify a webpage using the Dewey Decimal System. Well, maybe you can. But would it be a helpful classification? Perhaps my favorite article, although dated, was Steven Steinberg’s piece in Wired magazine. It brought back memories of the internet experience “way back when” but also echoed a lot of problems that librarians are still faced with. What IS the difference between an index and a concordance? What thesauri provide the most value? As someone embroiled in public librarianship, I even found myself asking “who cares?” I mean, I’ve only recently begun using the LoC thesaurus, and that’s only because I’ve been through a cataloging class and want my records to be more accurate. How many other public library employees, however, don’t have a clue? They copy catalog or “wing it” without any concept of the power that MARC record really has.

As I read and read and read some more, the thing that struck me most was how great the divide is between pure information science and public librarianship. I think we, as a profession, have dropped the ball, allowing academic librarians and information scientists to really hold the keys to the kingdom. It’s too bad because, like it or not, public librarians are the face of the profession. Maybe that’s why librarians get so little respect because the ones that are front and center are also the ones that are least connected with the nuts and bolts of information retrieval, the role of the internet as a valuable tool as much as any encyclopedia, and the ones that are the least educated. Ask a public librarian about classification and you’ll probably hear a lot about Melvill Dewey. I sincerely doubt that you’ll hear much about Aristotle or John Wilkins. If we really want people to value public libraries, using the resources it provides fully, we have to be involved with, not only library science, but information science. Even if we’re scared to death of creating metadata, we need to realize that we do that every time we create a new MARC record and integrate it into our catalog. We need to stop being so stodgy about our formats and stop being so bookish. It’s one thing to love reading. Hey, I love it too. When we are so tied into our print collections that we can’t see the library for the books, we really need to rethink our mission. Is it “to provide our patrons with information that has been bound and can be stored on physical shelves” or is it “to provide our patrons with the information they’re looking for?” I know what we librarians tend to SAY and what we tend to DO. It seems like we should be saying and doing the same thing. Maybe then we’d actually get a little respect.

I should also point out that it was a very hopeful thing to find that there are jobs out there not necessarily in what we’d think of as libraries that utilize a lot of the skills that we are learning in “library school.”

Hunter, Eric (2009). Classification Made Simple.

Libicki, M. et al. (2000). Knowledge organization and digital libraries. Appendix C in Scaffolding the new Web: Standards and standards policy for the digital economy (p. 75-90). Rand.

Smits, Jan (1999). Metadata: An introduction. Cataloguing and Classification Quarterly 27 (3/4), 303-319.

Steinberg, Steven G. (1996). Seek and ye shall find (maybe). Wired (May 1996), 108-114.

Mulvaney, N. (1996). Comments on Steinberg’s article about Web indexing.


One thought on “Essay about librarians and metadata and stuff

  1. Josh says:

    I think you make some important points about the state of the profession. There is a lot of blend going on and a lot of opportunity for impacting and understanding information and knowledge needs.

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