Friday, June 25, 2004

OCLC Symposium: The Discussion

This section details some of the discussion that followed the break at the OCLC Symposium today. Well, actually it was yesterday, since I'm writing this after midnight. When I went to conference in years past, if I was up at this hour it was because I was drinking and partying with friends. Now I'm blogging, and I wonder if this is an improvement. It's not even cheaper, since I'm paying $13 a day for high speed internet access in my hotel room, and that would buy me at least half a bottle of decent (if not single malt) Scotch.

For ease of reading, I've put similar questions and discussion together to smooth out the flow.

Anyway, after the break, Cathy De Rosa kicked off the Q & A session with a question to Cindy Cunningham, asking her to amplify her comments about what could unify the library profession. Cindy said that the idea of opening up and sharing our resources in a broader way is one basis of unity, and she pointed to the relationship between OCLC and Google (and Yahoo, although there aren't any good links about this one yet) as an example. She also cited the Library of Congress's new web-based cataloging records. She also reiterated that the search engines are in a desperate race for content, and guess who has the content?

Cathy asked Dan Chudnov why we should think of reference as an infosphere rather than as a transaction. Dan said that the reference interview is a powerful concept and not to be discounted. But the way librarians understand how a user is satisfied is incomplete. (For those who are interested in this concept, the Ohio State University and OCLC are embarked on a study of this.)

Someone from the audience asked the $64,000 question: Will cataloging be needed in the future? Cindy said that she had instructed the catalogers at Amazon not to catalog an item for what it is right now but for how it might be used in the future. The important thing is to try to understand how people will want to use the information in the cataloging record. And much of that information is very important. For example, she noted that people want to know about the binding type, whether a book has photos or illustrations or an index, how many pages it contains. In other words, some sort of description of the item will continue to be needed.

But an audience member noted that we are dealing with a whole generation of people who have never seen a card catalog, but who are expected to use our local systems that are built around this concept. This is not the way people search any more.

Cindy noted that the structure of how a catalog record works is the secret of the library profession. She described how book sellers had attempted to come up with a simple way of identifying materials for ease of finding on the shelf. When online booksellers came in they ended up adding additional subject fields until the record ended up more complicated than a MARC record. She said cataloging is complex because the world is complex. Perhaps there are ways we can map this information in new ways to make it more meaningful to those who seek simplicity, or develop systems where we seek more information from the user to help narrow down the search. Dan asked Cindy how we can improve search without losing serendipity (the more targeted the results, the less chance there is to find something related but not directly requested). Cindy conceded this was a possibility, but that many of the search engines could also provide the side trips by making suggestions about related topics.

Dan noted that we have crossed a line in the last few years, as more and more current material is available online and users find less need for the paper materials. The key for the library future is figuring out what value we add to the organization and retrieval of what the individual needs, while creating an organizational structure for that information that is open and accessible to all information providers so they can offer their materials.

Another audience member noted a sentence from the Scan that says that digitization is for access and not for preservation. If this is so, how does the librarian know what is worth preserving? Dan referred again to the OAIS Reference Model as a beginning of understanding in this area. He said this process led to such standard tools as DSpace and Fedora. And Cindy noted that librarians and archivists have proven over the years that they actually are pretty good at knowing what to keep. Cindy also noted that we keep moving collections from format to format, and that maybe we need to apply our skills in collaboration to the question of distributing responsibility for which institution will preserve what. Cindy brought up the case of Brewster Kahle and the Internet Archive, which is attempting to preserve a record of the web. Cindy noted that this information is too important to lose but too expensive to save.

The final question was "What are we as a profession willing to give up in order to be relevant in the new infosphere?"

There was a long pause. Dan finally said, "No one has trusted me with this one yet." Despite his techie credentials, he noted that "Print's a great technology. We've grown up with it, we understand it." He remembered a time when he worked at an institution, which, he noted ruefully, "was still learning how to keep a network operating consistently." He said that he had proposed actually printing out and saving everything that they were getting from JSTOR, simply because print is totally reliable. Cindy said that she wanted to challenge the profession to think about the unthinkable, to consider such forbidden topics as fees for service, or changing the mission from being an intellectual organization to being a social one. She said she was not endorsing these ideas, but they and many others need to be considered as we try to build the future.

Cathy wrapped up the program with thanks to the speakers and to the audience for making it so successful. She asked the attendees to continue the discussion in their own institutions and---gasp!---in this blog. Yes, she gave the URL right out in public! So start adding comments and we will be delighted to keep this discussion going!

3 comments:

Alice said...

Quick! Someone tell me George's favorite single-malt. Now if we only had Peapod around to deliver it...

I want to explore the concept of serendipitous searching. When is something tangential, when is it serendipitous, and when is it annoying and unnecessary?

Veteran searchers, what does your experience tell you?

ruhan said...

Veteran searchers, what does your experience tell you?


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