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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Subject Headings for Individuals?

Restating other opinions already posted, Who Counts? is an eye-opener to another government agency/function completely at the whim of partisanship, at the cost of continuity and progress. I was most interested in one complication of census-taking that is present in the library world, which is how to classify race and ethnicity. If librarians devise a successful schema, I would think it could be applicable to census categories...but librarians are not making progress in this area, and recent writings state that cataloging and classification is at a stalemate, if not in regression. Currently, guidelines for cataloging ethnic and foreign language materials are minimal. At best, an individual or material can be assigned a geographical correlation, but evident in census taking and cataloging, groups of peoples are defined by more than place. With current trends bringing in more and more ethnically/language identifiable materials, cataloging practices need to keep pace, or the materials become invisible. Like the constant undercount and invisible population, if a category does not exist to describe something or there are no pathfinders and/or connections pointing to the object-- essentially, the thing does not exist.

What keeps library cataloging and classification from simply being data entry? The thoughtfullness involved. What about the census, is it high-level data entry or should it be a weightier tool and concept? Attached to the ALA Resolution we looked at yesterday was a citation for an article that I found interesting, Knowledge for Sale: Are America's public libraries losing their way? http://www.utne.com/magazine/newsstand/utne130_knowledge-for-sale.pdf Yes, Utne is an undisputed liberal source. However, the author's blurb caught my attention as it stated that the article was influenced by the work of Sandy Berman, an activist librarian who is known for his alternative cataloging practices implemented at the Hennepin County Library. Berman is a vocal (loud) force in the library world and wrote widely about his methods for eliminating jargon from library catalogs, creating what he called the "most accessible catalog ever." Berman focused on representing ethnic/language materials in a manner that people could locate them in the catalog. He asked members of said populations what they would look for and how they would seach, and implemented their advice--putting atypical, non-Sears or LC headings in the catalog. Berman touted his success and several other Hennepin catalogers, "Sandynistas," adopted his methods. Alas, the guard has changed at the Hennepin County Library and new officials quietly removed the nonstandard subject and genre headings, "to make thier catalog comparable with other institutions." Score, convention 1, innovation 0. I believe that I see the same forward-backward (utimately backward) nonprogress with Census processes. Who is the population being served? To what end? Who is calling what the "end" is? And to pick up on some of the big ideas (libraries=democracy) of yesterday's discussion, in reverse, the author states that "the failures of public libraries mirror the failures of capitalism and perhaps democracy itself." Hmm.

Other interesting librariana from the article: Ralph Naber is becoming a public voice for libraries, in the face of many CA library closings. A reporter in Denver found that branch libraries in 7 low-income communities were open 30% fewer hours than suburban libraries. Language used at a library targeting the homeless: "Personal belongings must not be too large to fit under a single library chair."


At 9:39 AM, Blogger Jeff Gibbens said...

I'm not sure that members of the Social Responsibilities Round Table would agree in their hearts that progress in redesigning LCSH to reflect the self-descriptions of ethnic groups is utterly stalled, though I'm sure that is being written. My criticism of some activist librarians is that they are only as militant as their gig is safe, and that if you try to get them to sign on the dotted line on an internal library matter, they fall back on the same tired libertarian consensus as everybody else. I'm not disagreeing with Natalie at all, but the identity/sensitivity/cultural smarts issues Berman has been concerned with were a luxury of the '70s and early '80s.

The way technology is being embraced by library administrators allows them to cut positions and settle scores--I'm sure that this is what happened to Berman. They could use the rationale that an insistence on in-house subject headings was costing them $ because the bibliographic utilities are based on standardization.

More disturbing is the tendency of libraries to revert to the social gatekeeper (cleansing) approach; for example, Natalie's story about limits on the amount of luggage that can be brought in to a library in order to exclude the homeless.

A ray of light in the technology-driven world of Cataloging practice is that at the end of the tunnel is FRBR--functional requirements for bibliographic records. If fully implemented, the FRBR descriptions will cause major expansions of the descriptions of many high-use materials, and would allow for a lot more flexibility in subject headings.

There is also a deep-seated wish to discard the subject headings completely--then you have the problem of what device you use to collocate.

Which leaves the paradox that the more the profession dreams of discarding Cataloging to get the materials to patrons in the most direct fashion, the more it is dependent on Cataloging to organize the materials.


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