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 Both Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress cataloging schemes are outdated and vague, catalog databases (from WorldCat to SUMMIT) have uninformative layouts and poorly optimized search result ordering, and I could go on, but I’m not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?

1 comment:

  1. I think this is a huge example of "easier said than done." Specifically, the Ghandi gambit. We are all librarians but we're also people. There are people in positions of power in libraries throughout the country whose jobs can be threatened by change. Also, the communities tha libraries exist in can be hostile to the existence of libraries due to percieved tax-payer expense and obsoletion.

    I find "radical librarianship" an empowering concept all things considered. Yes, the rhetoric has a tone of self-aggrandizement. But that may be necessary to subvert the perceptions that threaten libraries as well as to effect change within them to increase relevancy and efficacy.

    Libraries may need a gentle Ghandi-like push to change. But, perhaps a little radical interrogation of the norm can help also. I don't believe they are mutually exclusive in terms of getting results.