Monday, October 10, 2011

How Can We Help You?

A few weeks ago, I was in Bird library, and was trying to use a photocopier to scan a page from a book (a Visual Thesaurus for a class assignment) to a .pdf file. The scanning was free, but it required a copy card. I couldn’t get a copy card without putting a minimum of one dollar on it, which bothered me—it wasn’t the money, it was the principal—a free service should be free. I asked the student worker at the desk about this problem, and he was clearly confused (I imagine the question had never come up) as I tried explaining my problem again, a girl who had been copying pages of her own came up to me and offered the use of her copy card.

The student worker slinked away, and I started talking with my fellow copier, Katie. She noticed my Visual Thesaurus, and asked what is was for. When I told her, she mentioned that she was a library student as well, getting her PhD in LIS from Syracuse (it was all very exciting, hooray libraries!)

So, why am I telling this story? The same questions keep coming up in conversation, in class, and on this blog: what is a librarian? What does a librarian look like? What does a librarian do? Why are we all here? For whatever reason, the answers to these questions have been focusing on librarians as agents of change; as critics and innovators and radicals. And sure, when I asked about scanning without a copy card, I was asking because I saw something wrong, which I thought should be fixed. Maybe that makes me a librarian.

But, I think, Katie is the real librarian in this story. When she heard me asking a question, she didn’t know that I was an MSLIS student, and she wasn’t acting as an employee of Bird. She heard me ask a question which she had an answer to, so she answered it.

We are all here because we love libraries, and we love librarians. Remember going to your local library when you were little, remember the thrill of asking your favorite librarian about what to read next? Or how about visiting your library in college, asking a reference librarian for some direction for your research, then curling up in an armchair with a stack of books? I'm here because if I could be anything in the world, I would be a librarian. Librarians are curious, librarians are selfless, and librarians always want to help. As I’ve gotten to know my fellow library students, I’ve realized that we are all interested in different topics, have different outlooks on life, come from different backgrounds, but we all love to help. We help each other, we help strangers, we are addicted to helping—“here, use my copy card—here, read this book, you’ll love it—here, try this recipe, it’s amazing—here, buy this melon, it’s riper—here, use this software, I use it all the time—what’s bothering you? What do you need? OK, so how can I help?”

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Radicals and Fanaticals

If you take IST 616 (Information Resources: Organization and Access) with me, you know I recently got quite upset about the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) and their organization. I’m not here to rant (in general, I find ranting accomplishes little besides catharsis for the ranter—this is a public forum, where I believe solutions have more value than problems), but, in brief, the system is broken. Because of historical carryovers from the pre-digital age, subject headings are far too broad, relationships between subjects and their subdivisions are messy and confusing, and the syntax of the headings is not intuitive or consistent. While there is room for debate on some of these problems, some aspects of the LCSH are objectively inadequate (for example, early works of fiction have not been given subject headings—anyone who thinks that “Ulysses” is not, in a fundamental way, about Dublin isn’t thinking (wow, I could not have come off as any more pretentious—I’m keeping it, I gotsta be me)).

The LCSHs are not the only facet of librarianship with objective failures. Both Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress cataloging schemes are outdated and vague, catalog databases (from WorldCat to SUMMIT) have uninformative layouts and poorly optimized search result ordering, and I could go on, but I’m not ranting, remember? Enough—to make my point I only need to say that major problems exist.

So. Why?

It is hard to imagine an institution more resistant to change than a library. Change is driven by incentives (I have no formal background in economics, so I’m sure the factors I’m about to describe have technical names, but I’m going based off of common sense). Libraries are only very indirectly funded based on the quality of service—in general, they have no competitors, and they offer free services, so they are not pushed towards change. Additionally, the problems I’ve discussed (e.g. LCSH) are common to all libraries—a single exceptional individual cannot solve these problems, they are too large and too broad (geographically, socially, etc.). I don’t see there being a Steve Jobs of librarianship, but there could be a Mohandas Gandhi—a leader effecting massive and fundamental change from within, rather than stepping forward and hoping people follow.

My Gandhi comparison might be misleading, so let me clarify. I am not saying that there exists any tyrant or tyranny which needs to be toppled, and I am not saying that change will be accomplished by protest (or, less high-mindedly, by b**ching). I am saying that change can and should be accomplished by consensus and by an appeal to what is common in all of us. Recently, I was chatting with an LIS friend, and we agreed that what some people are calling “radical librarianship” bothers us. It can come across as self-aggrandizing and confrontational (I’m reminded of a favorite lyric by The Flaming Lips: “You think you’re radical/ but you’re not/ so radical/ in fact you’re fanatical”). Fundamentally, we like what libraries are, and we want them to stick around. That being said, there are problems which we can work to address.

So, how can we fix these problems? In some cases, there is a huge amount of work to be done, too much for any one group—the Library of Congress does not have the time or resources to fix their own Subject Headings. However, there are thousands of people in the world who use the Subject Headings on a regular basis, and are intimately familiar with some subset of the LCSH. Some of the greatest modern projects (especially those dealing with huge amounts of data) have been need-driven and addressed through massive collaboration: from working to unravel the human genome, to searching for a cure to alzheimer’s, to ending the most terrible war in human history. This century—as communication and collaboration are becoming easier and easier—global, cross organizational, cross discipline efforts are becoming more and more feasible.

So how does this sound as a solution to the LCSH’s problems: a central organization, such as the LoC or OCLC, spearheads an overhaul of the Subject Headings. Cross organizational subject specialists—from academics to subject librarians to catalogers—are assigned a small subset of the LCSH to overhaul, and are assigned the upkeep of their subject headings, as their disciplines continue to change. The central organization pools the updates together and creates a new set of subject headings, which they then distribute to new (or the same) specialist groups who recatalog existing collections within their field, and make the new cataloging records available for international copy-cataloging. This project could involve dozens of countries, hundreds of institutions, and thousands of people, and the participants could be grouped by common interest (or even common passion) and ability, as opposed to common geography. It could really work. Really.

We exist in a field that has problems, but some of those problems have easily addressable answers. Librarians, as a group, want to help people. We want to make information more easily accessible and understandable, and we want people to love learning as much as we do. So what are we waiting for?