Tuesday, November 07, 2006

What's going on at the Library of Congress?

LISnews pointed to two pieces about recent developments at the Library of Congress. I would assume that most of us don't keep close tabs on the Library of Congress (LC), yet what it does impacts the rest of us. We often do what the LC has done because we assume that they made a good decision.

The first piece was written by Thomas Mann for AFSCME 2910, the Library of Congress Professional Guild, which represents more than 1,500 professional employees. This 22-page document examines five decisions (my text is extracted from the report):
  1. The commissioning of “The Calhoun Report” to provide an ostensibly objective cover to justify abandoning the system of Library of Congress Subject Headings.
  2. The unilateral decision to stop creating Series Authority Records, in violation of the standards the Library previously agreed to in the national Program for Cooperative Cataloging.
  3. The decision to accept digital formats for preservation purposes in place of paper copies or microfiche for traditional materials that are not “born digital.”
  4. The decision by the Library’s Copyright Office to dumb down the cataloging of copyright receipts by recording only the information on the registrant’s application form, without any inspection of the actual deposited items.
  5. Perhaps most disturbing of all, the continual starvation and dilution of the Library’s book-cataloging operations over a period of several years, with the claim that “inelastic funds” necessitate a massive retrenchment in this area, when in fact it is the administration’s change in “vision” that now ranks the digitization of copyright-free special collections as a higher priority for the Library’s funding than maintenance of traditional book cataloging operations.
The report then goes through why these are bad decisions and how the decisions were based on skewed information. The report ends with the words:
If scholars in this country, in all subject areas, want to maintain efficient, deep, extensive, and systematic access to book collections in research libraries, they had better speak up now.
Steven Chabot in his commentary selects only two items on which to comment: the move to abandon the LC system of headings and the move digital copies of those things not born digital. Yes, these are moving us away from what is considered traditional methods of research, but they are also moving us into the digital age (or acknowledging that we're already in the digital age). Could these moves inhibit "book discovery" and"serendipitous browsing"? Chabot argues that they don't have to. As he says:
Let us have Google-like searches, Amazon-like ratings and Del.icio.us-like tagging alongside subject classification. We can gain much from folksonomies, and we don’t have to do so at the loss of traditional hierarchical ontologies. The digital catalogue is flexible enough for both.
Mann points to a "sky" that might be falling (like in the Chicken Little story). Chabot, though, sees possibilities of making this a positive and not a negative. We can make changes, improve services, and move into the digital age.

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