In Defense of Cataloging

Thomas Mann, author of The Oxford Guide to Library Research, has recently written a good article called “The Peloponnesian War and the Future of Reference, Cataloging, and Scholarship in Research Libraries” (PDF).

Colleague Clare Mauro brought this article to my attention after a discussion we had regarding my naive conclusion after reading Everything is Miscellaneous that the “magical search engine” just around the corner will solve all of our information needs and reduce or eliminate the need for “second order” control over information through controlled vocabularies.

Mann’s article reminds us of the power of “second order” precoordinated controlled vocabularies such as Library of Congress Headings (LCSH), especially for serious or scholarly research. In the article, he recounts the results of a patron who asked for help on “the system of tribute payments among the Greek city-states during the Peloponnesian War.” The patron got nowhere with keyword searches on Google using “tribute” and “peloponnesian”. With the help of Mann as reference librarian, and the discovery of “Finance, public – Greece – Athens” as the official LCSH and other reference and finding tools, the patron was led to books actually held in the library that covered the research topic. This conclusion is not too surprising for those of us trained in library science. However, Mann does a good job of providing examples and arguments on how keyword searching could not have produced as effective result (one of several examples is that the LCSH “Motion pictures for women” is quite a different topic than a keyword search on “motion pictures AND women”).

However even Mann is not suggesting that LCSH’s should be applied to everything (but are best limited to collections of books) and that other techniques (keyword searching, folksonomies, etc.) have their role to play. He also assumes – likely correctly – that not everything is miscellaneous to the extent that not all information is available in searchable full-text (due to copyright laws, for example).

[Note: my comments above do not do justice to properly summarizing or explaining the arguments in the article and readers are encouraged to read the article themselves.]

For law firms with large (full-text searchable) document repositories the question or tension remains: to what extent do you use human experience (and the time needed) to manually profile documents to allow better and easier retrieval versus waiting for smarter (and cheaper) search engines that can result in relatively accurate and relevant search results. As these document repositories increase in size, and as search technologies improve and reduce in cost, I believe in technological solutions (however, give me LCSH’s any day for searching library catalogs . . . .).

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