A couple of days later, I am still trying to wrap my head around the first public meeting of the Library of Congress Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control. My thoughts are still somewhat random, maybe too random for serious consideration but just right for a Sunday night blog post. I summarize without the promise of poignancy for which my colleague Paul Miller hopes. I mean no disrespect in my frank comments that follow.
If it’s a play-by of the day’s event you want, then I would refer you to Karen Coyle’s blog [apologies to Karen, none of my links to her site would validate in my post, so I had to remove them: http://kcoyle.blogspot.com. ] She dedicatedly summarized the talks of each speaker and some of the discussion that followed. In fact, her summary of my own presentation (PowerPoint) was up before I even took my seat. There was a video made of the presentations that I am assuming will make its way onto the internet at some point.
After the meeting, I was with a group of people, including two of the Working Group’s “at-large” members. Lorcan Dempsey was asking us if we had perceived any “surprises” in what we had heard. (I add this with a touch of irony, since one of the things talked about that evening is the fact that no one can say anything anymore without it being blogged.)
I thought hard about surprises and was hard-pressed to come up with any. “Someone from Netflix was there,” I said. That surprised me a little. One of the things that surprised me–a thread that runs through the minutes of the WG’s first meeting as well–was what I would call a little too much “traditionalism.” I noticed in the introductions portion of the minutes that everyone was trying very hard to show their cataloger chops. There was a little confusion, I think, about which users and uses we were supposed to be talking about (librarians or patrons), but the lines between the two were well navigated.
I was really hoping to learn a little bit more about Google’s and Microsoft’s role in this Working Group. Full-text is the elephant in the room of bibliographic control, and while some of us danced around the elephant and poked it with small sticks, the elephant was not provoked to trample the quaint discussions of MARC’s inadequacies and our mission to protect democracy.
I can’t help but think that the Library of Congress might be a little disappointed. One of the goals of this Working Group is, after all, to discover ways in which we can decrease the expenses of traditional description and/or shift resources to improve its breadth and depth into describing other digital resources in ways that support a good return on the investment.
I can’t help but say something about the meeting location. I am sincere in meaning no disrespect to our generous hosts, but I would be remiss if I did not comment.
I am an admitted “Google skeptic.” That is to say, I consider myself a realist about Google’s motives (profit), which many people interpret as skepticism. That said, I can also admit to some fascination at getting to attend this meeting at Google HQ. What do you think was cooler to my 8-year old Emma and 5-year old Eli–that I was invited to give a talk by the Library of Congress or that I was going to Google? Good guess.
Our meeting was in a wide-open space in one of the buildings of a sprawling complex. If the building had a name, I did not catch it. The room was a thoroughfare, with other meeting rooms, restrooms, and even an elevator around its perimeter.
Google employees came and went, their chatter unsubdued by our presence. Phones rang. Meetings started with doors open, staff (I don’t think I saw a single person over the age of 30 the entire day) came and went to the nearby kitchen to grind coffee and make espresso.
I’m sure it’s purely something about the culture of Google, but I could not help thinking that Google was disrupting our space. It felt like Google didn’t care about library stuff and stuffy librarians. It felt like a metaphor playing out right in front of me.
Lorcan Dempsey gave an outstanding summary of the day. He has promised a more detailed write-up in the coming days. While there might not have been anything earth-shattering in the day’s events, I remain optimistic about the nimbleness and purpose of the group. An interesting recent body of work precedes the LC report that is scheduled to be delivered this year–Karen Calhoun’s report, the UC Bibliographic Task force Report (pdf), and a lot of fresh discussion about next-generation systems. Karen Coyle’s futurelib wiki is a good place to jump in feet first.
I am also sure that the Working Group will hone the focus and organization of the upcoming meetings. No one can complain about insufficient notice about the upcoming discussions in May, July, and November. I remain, as ever, optimistic–nevertheless this discussion requires library attention and participation.
I remain hopeful that the groundwork is being laid for some change. As a community we cannot continue to complain about our plight while simultaneously either accepting it or refusing to entertain change that might appear radical at first glance. I hope that someone will poke those elephants with bigger sticks.
[This post originally appeared as part of American Libraries’ Hectic Pace Blog and is archived here.]
“some of us danced around the elephant and poked it with small sticks”
I am SO going to steal that line !
I’m glad that someone from Netflix was there. In many aspects the Netflix catalog/site is better than a lot of library OPACS. The customers can easily find the DVDs they are interested. The process of reviewing and managing your request list is better than any library OPAC version that I have ever tried to use.
It is a sign of some hope that Netflix, A&I services, and other vendors are still interested in these discussions. It means that they have not given up on libraries and catalogers creating metadata that is usable in non-library applications.
I was also disappointed with this meeting, primarily because I was expecting someone to lay out the main issues that the group was grappling with, then facilitate a discussion of those issues. Instead, it turned out to be a one-day conference with presenters talking in orthogonal ways around the same general topic.
I agree that the Google space felt more insulting than generous. And although they did such things as provide videotaping, the person with the equipment was late and probably missed most of the first speaker. Somehow that seems appropriately disrespectful, but I will not make the mistake of assuming malice for what can be explained by mere incompetence (or sleeping late).
In the end, I didn’t feel like I had a better grasp on bibliographic control than when I had entered the room (although the first speaker gave us a lot to think about in terms of faculty requirements for locating materials). Even more unfortunately, I don’t think the Library of Congress Working Group did either.
By the way, the man from NetFlix confided in me that he will be using the eXtensible Text Framework (XTF) software to redo their site search. Interestingly enough, that was developed by the California Digital Library. So we may be down, but we’re not out. Not by a long shot.
NetFlix’s recommendation system, at least, is built on an astonishingly minimal amount of use data. If you go through the process of downloading their representative dataset by registering for the NetFlix contest, you will see that the service is more a testimony to the latest thinking in recommender math than any kind of predetermined descriptive data. It’s also not surprising that NetFlix is looking at XTF, they didn’t build their recommendation system themselves, and seem to seek the best combination of tools and technologies to deliver a service. Libraries try to do the same, but I think a huge issue for the library community is the kind of support it takes to be on top of what is available, as well as finding ways to leverage data that is not bibliographic description as we think of it. This is especially true in regard to the increasing availability of the contents of the objects that we describe and the use data associated with the objects that we collect.