Failure to communicate

In my humble opinion, what we have here is a failure to communicate.

shrineLibraries, especially larger libraries, are increasingly made up of many different departments, including but not limited to departments such as: cataloging, public services, collections, preservation, archives, and now-a-days departments of computer staff. From my point of view, these various departments fail to see the similarities between themselves, and instead focus on their differences. This focus on the differences is amplified by the use of dissimilar vocabularies and subdiscipline-specific jargon. This use of dissimilar vocabularies causes a communications gap and left unresolved ultimately creates animosity between groups. I believe this is especially true between the more traditional library departments and the computer staff. This communications gap is an impediment to when it comes to achieving the goals of librarianship, and any library — whether it be big or small — needs to address these issues lest it wastes both its time and money.

Here are a few examples outlining failures to communicate:

  • MARC – MARC is a data structure. The first 24 characters are called the leader. The second section is called the directory, and the third section is intended to contain bibliographic data. The whole thing is sprinkled with ASCII characters 29, 30, and 31 denoting the ends of fields, subfields, and the record itself. MARC does not denote the kinds of data it contains. Yet, many catalogers say they know MARC. Instead, what they really know are sets of rules defining what goes into the first and third sections of the data structure. These rules are known as AACR2/RDA. Computer staff see MARC (and MARCXML) as a data structure. Librarians see MARC as the description of an item akin to a catalog card.
  • Databases & indexes – Databases & indexes are two sides of the same information retrieval coin. “True” databases are usually relational in nature and normalized accordingly. “False” databases are flat files — simple tables akin to Excel spreadsheets. Librarians excel (no puns intended) at organizing information, and this usually manifests itself through the creation of various lists. Lists of books. Lists of journals. Lists of articles. Lists of authoritative names. Lists of websites. Etc. In today’s world, the most scalable way to maintain lists is through the use of a database, yet most librarians wouldn’t be able to draw an entity relationship diagram — the literal illustration of a database’s structure — to save their lives. With advances in computer technology, the problem of find is no longer solved through the searching of databases but instead through the creation of an index. In reality, modern indexes are nothing more than enhancements of traditional back-of-the-book indexes — lists of words and associated pointers to where those words can be found in a corpus. Computer staff see databases as MySQL and indexes as Solr. Librarians see databases as a matrix of rows & columns, and the searching of databases in a light of licensed content such as JSTOR, Academic Search Primer, or New York Times.
  • Collections – Collections, from the point of view of a librarian, are sets of curated items with a common theme. Taken as a whole, these collections embody a set of knowledge or a historical record intended for use by students & researchers for the purposes of learning & scholarship. The physical arrangment of the collection — especially in archives — as well as the intellectual arrangment of the collection is significant because they bring together like items or represent the development of an idea. This is why libraries have classification schemes and archives physically arrange their materials in the way they do. Unfortunately, computer staff usually do not understand the concept of “curation” and usually see the arrangements of books — classification numbers — as rather arbitrary.
  • Services – Many librarians see the library profession as being all about service. These services range from literacy programs to story hours. They range from the answering of reference questions to the circulation of books. They include social justice causes, stress relievers during exam times, and free access to computers with Internet connections. Services are important because the provide the means for an informed public, teaching & learning, and the improvement society in general. Many of these concepts are not in the forefront of the minds of computer staff. Instead, their idea of service is making sure the email system works, people can log into their computers, computer hardware & software are maintained, and making sure the connections to the Internet are continual.

room with a viewAs a whole, what the profession does not understand is that everybody working in a library has more things in common than differences. Everybody is (suppose to be) working towards the same set of goals. Everybody plays a part in achieving those goals, and it behooves everybody to learn & respect the roles of everybody else. A goal is to curate collections. This is done through physical, intellectual, and virtual arrangment, but it also requires the use of computer technology. Collection managers need to understand more of the computer technology, and the technologist needs to understand more about curation. The application of AACR2/RDA is an attempt to manifest inventory and the dissemination of knowledge. The use of databases & indexes also manifest inventory and dissemination of knowledge. Catalogers and database administrators ought to communicate on the similar levels. Similarly, there is much more to preservation of materials than putting bits on tape. “Yikes!”

What is the solution to these problems? In my opinion, there are many possibilities, but the solution ultimately rests with individuals willing to take the time to learn from their co-workers. It rests in the ability to respect — not merely tolerate — another point of view. It requires time, listening, discussion, reflection, and repetition. It requires getting to know other people on a personal level. It requires learning what others like and dislike. It requires comparing & contrasting points of view. It demands “walking a mile in the other person’s shoes”, and can be accomplished by things such as the physical intermingling of departments, cross-training, and simply by going to coffee on a regular basis.

Again, all of us working in libraries have more similarities than differences. Learn to appreciate the similarities, and the differences will become insignificant. The consequence will be a more holistic set of library collections and services.

Published by

Eric Lease Morgan

Artist- and Librarian-At-Large