Thursday, August 31, 2006

By Courage Born

“A time for us, some day there'll be,
When chains are torn, by courage born,
Of a love that's free.”
("A Time for Us" (love theme from Franco Zeffirelli’s film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet) words by Larry Kusik and Eddie Snyder and music by Nino Rota)

In early August at the wonderful Folger Shakespeare Library I had the pleasure and privilege of attending my first RLG Member’s Forum, More, Better, Faster, Cheaper: The Economics of Descriptive Practice. I confess I have been longing to attend more than a few of RLG’s forums over these many years – and this one by no means the least – but alas till now, RLG member forums were always tantalizingly just beyond my reach.

The presenters and topics over the 1.5 days of the Forum delivered a richly-colored, conversational book of tales drawn from real world pursuit of the often mysterious backoffice activities of processing and description in libraries, archives and museums. It was a unique and marvelous experience that got my cataloger senses all a-tingling.

My RLG Programs colleagues, Merrilee Proffitt & Günter Waibel have provided the event an eloquent recounting (see posts 1, 2, 3, 4 on, a longtime favorite blog that IAG congratulates on its first anniversary – keep up the good work, Anne, Günter, Jim and Merrilee!) and the presentations and audio files are now available on the Forum page

With far more qualified commentary appearing elsewhere I’m tempted to avoid comment of my own, but I simply cannot resist the desire to add my own observations. So with due apologies to the speakers and my RLG Programs colleagues who truly know these topics, I offer these, my own poor observations and ruminations:

An almost common set of problems: The perennial issue shared by libraries, archives and museums is the tendency for the collecting impulse to overwhelm available processing bandwidth (in particular the capacity to create suitable metadata). Beyond this commonality though, nuances give each domain its own special requirements. Libraries have traditionally focused on provisioning open access to mass-produced content and burdened the user with the lion’s-share of the effort to discover connection, context, and meaning. Archives and museums, by contrast, have traditionally focused on stewarding unique (or unique-by-provenance) objects which are delivered via controlled access with value-added assertions (by evidence and/or expert) of connection, context, and meaning. To wit, an assembled exhibit is not the book stacks, and a finding aid is not just a fancy search results list.

A not so-common set of deliverables: Building a bibliographic record (libraries), finding aid (archives), or object catalog record (museums) are all resource intensive, but each endeavors to accomplish objectives as much dissimilar as similar and are engineered to assumptions specific to the domain, agency, and primary audience. For example, publication details mean little for unpublished materials, and the chain of ownership for a painting will be carefully noted by a museum while libraries rarely capture or retain this information for items in their general collection.

Shared metadata isn’t a universal idea, yet: Libraries have sought and gained significant economies by collectively building, sharing, and managing metadata. But this is mostly unexploited territory for archives and museums, agencies that have long tended to focus on meeting the perceived needs of a specific, known, local (as in face-to-face) audience through agency-specific practices and local files. While there might initially seem little opportunity for libraries-like collective economies, archive and museum collections frequently hold in common references to people, places, and things (e.g., biological specimens are instances of species) and versions and/or reproductions of objects held elsewhere (e.g., works-of-art – see BTW an interesting discussion about a w-o-a microformat). And as with everything else long held sacred, the Web is ever an agent of change and is shifting archives’ and museums’ perceptions of exactly who and where the significant audience for their collections are. And this reshapes how they think about building and disseminating metadata. As presented by Kenneth Hamma and Erin Coburn, the Getty has been working on a noteworthy, Web 2.0-friendly approach to exposing authoritative information about its collections (see RLG TopShelf item for more information), and, if widely adopted, such an approach offers the promise of collectively exposing museum metadata for reuse.  

Sustainable solutions match processing bandwidth to acquisitions volume: The presenters provided a variety of case studies. Operational strategies frequently emphasized altered practices: streamlined archival processing, focusing on core or collection-level metadata, re-prioritizing to do more detailed metadata for some resources (high use/visibility) at the expense of other resources (lower use/visibility), and embracing the idea of a “living” record (enrichment over time). For some cases, options included short-term, added staffing for specific projects. A few worked the collecting side by pushing for greater selectivity, and working upfront with donors to reduce downstream processing burdens.  

Share the burden with the donor and the user: This was an interesting thread that surfaced several times unheralded. Can we shift more of the load to the donor or the user? For example, for archives and manuscripts, a willing donor can be especially effective in doing some processing activities with their donated materials such as locating and segregating materials subject to access restriction. Folksonomies (e.g., The Art Museum Community Cataloging Project, PennTags) can provide a means for interested users to enrich access points, and tagging offers a vector for expanding the user base and contact with the users of the collections.

Surface the collections and content imperfectly now rather than better later: Jim LeBlanc of Cornell described Cornell’s systematic, successful effort to eliminate a 100K backlog of uncataloged library materials. The faculty has expressed great satisfaction with the library’s policy of no backlogs – users would much rather hunt and browse in the stacks than wait on perfect cataloging. Likewise, with some presenters reporting low-priority archival collections facing conventional processing queues spanning years – even a dozen years or more – a basic, created-on-receipt finding aid could go far in the world of the Web to surface collections

There is no magic bullet: One thing that stood out time and again in the presentations was that success was rarely complete and no single tactic satisfies every requirement. Mass digitization, for example, might deliver significant and rapid indexing and access, but without metadata/finding aids to assist in providing context, is the digital version of the original delivering its full/true informational value? Emerging also from the presentations was a clear sense that workable solutions arise from trial and error and repeated modification, a focus on user needs, and are, of course, by courage born (change is hard – another shared attribute of libraries, archives and museum).

So, gentle readers, what jewels lie hidden in your backlog, and how do you plan to uncover them?


Günter said...

Eric, you are far too modest. While Merrilee and I merely recounted the day's events on hangintogether (since they were still right up against our noses), you did a really great job of teasing out some of the bigger themes. Our closer Diane Zorich would be proud of you - or fearing your competitionn :-)!

Eric said...

Günter, you do me a great compliment. Thanks. I think Diane Zorich need fear little from me -- it took me weeks to accomplish what she did far better in the course of the event! ;)